Tribe Takes A Stand On The Sound
By: Brian Kehrl
The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe has for years been on the fringes of the debate about Cape Wind’s proposal to install 130 large wind turbines in Nantucket Sound.
The tribal council and individual tribe members have been calling for the project to be halted or at least relocated or drastically changed, but only as a few voices among a loud and discordant chorus.
Over the past few months, though, the Mashpee Wampanoag and its sister tribe on Martha’s Vineyard have positioned themselves near the center of the project’s eight-year-old permitting process, helping drive historical reviews that have already delayed the final ruling.
Then, in something of a coup for the tribes, State Historic Preservation Officer Brona Simon announced last week that she supports the tribes’ claim that Nantucket Sound is an important cultural and historic property and should be considered for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The announcement is far from the end of the project—even if it is listed, it still may go forward, though only by passing through additional obstacles.
Ms. Simon, in a report released with her announcement last week, in many ways amplified the tribes’ voice, forcing a deeper consideration of the tribes’ claims to Nantucket Sound.
“The identify and culture of the indigenous Wampanoag are inextricably linked to Nantucket Sound,” Ms. Simon wrote. “The word Wampanoag is both temporally literal—they have always been/are/will be the first people to see the sunrise over the water—and symbolically referential: they are of the place, it is how they identify themselves and how others know them.”
Ms. Simon’s report makes clear, citing nearly 100 sources, some of the detailed historical basis for protecting the sound.
In a half dozen interviews this week, several tribe members echoed and expanded on Ms. Simon’s findings in their arguments against the project, while others took a more nuanced perspective of it.
Ms. Simon’s report identifies two basic issues that the project poses to the area as a cultural and historical landmark for the tribes: the possibility that archaeological resources may exist where the wind turbines are proposed to be built and that the tribe has strong cultural ties to the sound itself, based on generations of using the sea’s bounty for sustenance.
Tribe members also added a third issue, the possibility that the 440-foot tall turbines, located several miles from shore, would disturb their view of the sun rising over the horizon, a view that is crucial to the tribe’s customs and religion.
One key to Ms. Simon’s report is somewhat counterintuitive: Nantucket Sound was once dry land, populated by Native Americans. That theory is widely held and espoused in countless geological and natural history books about the Cape and Islands, but it was Cape Wind that helped prove it when the firm was required to check core samples of the sediment under Horseshoe Shoals. The samples found evidence of a pre-historic forest, dating to around 6,000 years ago and establishing that the shoals were once above ground.
The tribe’s ancestors likely lived in the area, fishing and shellfishing on the water, hunting in the woods, and establishing settlements both on the coast and inland, Ms. Simon wrote.
“The discovery of intact, submerged ancient landscape under the waters of Nantucket Sound is historically confirming to the tribes,” Ms. Simon wrote. “The entire area would have been as intensively used as terrestrial coastal places were used in later periods.”
The specific area where the turbines are proposed, known as Horseshoe Shoals, is among the shallowest parts of the sound and was likely the hills of a broad coastal plain, Ms. Simon wrote.
Artifacts can survive in submerged environments, she wrote, and scallop draggers in the past have discovered an assortment of artifacts. “Submerged sites have the potential to yield whole categories of ancient material culture that are usually absent from terrestrial sites,” she wrote.
From that history through today the tribes also have an intense cultural attachment to the shoreline, she wrote.
She includes tribe members recounting the importance of learning to fish and live from the water, lessons that have been passed down through generations.
“Through his recollections, [Earl Mills Sr. (Chief Flying Eagle)] conveys the importance of generational connections for raising children in traditional ways that instill an appreciation of Indian perspectives on the relationship between people and the natural world and the resources it provides to feed and sustain them,” Ms. Simon wrote.
Joan Tavares Avant, a tribe member and former director of the town Indian Education Program, ardently opposed the project on several grounds, but she highlighted the importance of the sound to the tribe’s myths of Maushop and Granny Squannit.
“From a spiritual indigenous religious belief, the Cape Wind project has no place in Nantucket Sound,” Ms. Tavares Avant wrote in a statement to the Enterprise. “The legends of Maushop and Granny Squannit tell us so. Life in the ocean tells us so, they feed us and you too. You covered our ancient ways with over-development. Now you want to erode our religious practices, blocking the rising sun with wind turbines.”
Chief Vernon Lopez (Silent Drum) agreed with Ms. Simon’s arguments about the tribe’s ties to the sound.
“I guess it is that we believe the Creator put us here on this eastern shore to inhabit the land and be a part of it and to be more or less caretakers of this area. That has always been our belief. There is no proof positive that we have the power to restrict anything or anybody from using it. We just always believe that being the first people here, that it is our duty to protect it and live with what Mother Nature has given us and worship everything she has given us,” Mr. Lopez said.
Amelia Bingham, a tribal elder, said the tribe’s ties to the sound and the water are illustrated by the practice of burying tribe members at sea, a ritual that is used even to this day. “The way I look at it is there are other options besides our Atlantic Ocean that we have looked at for generations,” she said.
She argued against the commercial nature of the Cape Wind project, saying that businesses should not be allowed to exploit the area for development.
Morgan James Peters I, a tribe member, said he is less moved by the arguments about artifacts and the tribe’s connections to the sound as reasons to call off Cape Wind—he argued pragmatically that finding artifacts under the sea floor would be a costly and difficult task and that the tribe has ties to the land just as it has ties to the water, so building something necessary on the water is like building a house on the land.
But the idea that the tribe’s sunrise ceremonies would be disturbed is entirely different, he said.
“I think the big issue would be to reconsider the placement of the windmills, in terms of the implications of messing with a several thousand-year-old tradition that is still active. That is a problem,” he said.
Building the turbines would be disregarding the tribe’s rights to religious freedom, he said.
He described the sunrise as like going to church. Weddings, funerals, and other ceremonies marking the seasons, the harvest, or natural changes are all held at sunrise.
“The sunrise and standing at the beach to watch the sunrise is one of the few things that we are able to hold on to. So it is sort of like taking that away,” he said.
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