Nipmuc Nation members harvesting Atlantic white cedar trees at Pickerel Pond in Natick on May 5 were taken aback and frustrated when Natick police officers, responding to a call from a resident, appeared on the scene. After all, Andre StrongBearHeart Gaines, Jr., had arranged with the town’s Conservation Commission for himself and other Nipmuc citizens to conduct the harvest.
Natick Planner and Conservation Agent Claire Rundelli recounted the episode during the May 18 Natick Conservation Commission meeting (see Pegasus recording, about 46 minutes in) and vowed to improve communications going forward. She had worked with the Department of Public Works to get gates unlocked, allowing vehicles to pass, but had not notified police.
“The police responded, and while there were no charges pressed or arrests made, it was definitely a tense interaction,” Rundelli said. “Reasonably so, the Nipmuc people have very strongly reacted that there needs to be an improvement on the town of Natick side in terms of education and training for our law enforcement about aboriginal sovereign rights.”
“This was a really unfortunate incident…” she acknowledged. “There’s been a lot of discussion on the town side. I see this as a hopeful sort of point of moving forward and growing and learning. [Natick Police Chief James] Hicks has acknowledged that there’s a lot of learning that is needed from the police force.”
Rundelli cited work that has been done between Nipmuc nation and the police on Cape Cod regarding Indigenous rights. (We reached out to the Natick Police Department for comment on Thursday.) While Nipmuc members acknowledge the police need to respond to calls, the goal is for law enforcement to take more of “an aware and neutral approach than a suspicious and defensive approach,” Rundelli said.
Rundelli has been coordinating with members of the Nipmuc community to organize a meeting with town administration, the police, the state’s Commission on Indian Affairs, and others. This would serve as an acknowledgement of the event, allow for an apology “for the distress that it caused,” and give the town a chance to offer a commitment to new training on these rights.
Among the more basic steps that could be taken by the town would be putting up signs to alert the public when such activity might take place, and adding a page on the town website about sovereign rights.
The May 5 interaction between the Nimpuc members and police was captured on a video shared by Gaines on social media. At one point during the discussion, an officer used the term “trespass,” which a Conservation Commission member described as a “loaded” term in that circumstance. Gaines took exception to a question about whether he owned the land, which he explained his people have been on for 12,000 years. We reached out to Gaines for further comment, but he is currently engaged in a time-sensitive project involving harvested materials.
The town last spring documented efforts to work with members of the Nipmuc community and the state’s Department of Conservation & Recreation on proposals for harvesting in the short- and long-terms. It was explained that the materials would be used in part to build domed huts called wetus. There was discussion at the time at the Conservation Commission about using the proposals as an opportunity for public engagement on the traditional harvesting practice, done by local Indigenous people by hand and boat.
The town has also discussed enlisting our Nipmuc neighbors to help Natick address its challenges with beaver dams.