Natick town officials, including the town administrator and police chief, met with citizens of Nipmuc Nation on Wednesday in an effort to improve the the understanding of and respect for aboriginal rights by town employees and the public at large. These rights are cited in the state’s Executive Order No. 126: Massachusetts Native Americans.
The meeting was sparked by an incident in May, as reported then exclusively by Natick Report, in which Nipmuc Nation members harvesting Atlantic white cedar trees at Pickerel Pond in Natick were confronted by Natick police officers, responding to a call from a resident. Nipmuc member Andre StrongBearHeart Gaines, Jr., had arranged with the town’s Conservation Commission for himself and others to conduct the harvest, but the police had not been aware of this, as was obvious from a video taken by Gaines’s party. The incident was classified as “suspicious activity” on that day’s Natick Police log.
While generally satisfied with the meeting this week, which also included Conservation Commission reps and Natick’s new director of equity, inclusion, and outreach, several members of the state-recognized tribe of Nipmuc people, including Gaines, held signs outside of Natick Town Hall afterward to call further attention to aboriginal rights. We spoke with Gaines and fellow Nipmuc member Pam Ellis, then caught up with Natick Planner/Conservation Agent Claire Rundelli inside Town Hall.
We reached out to the police on Wednesday by email for their take on the meeting, but have not heard back.
Ellis said the meeting with town officials, requested by the Nipmuc members, involved “talking about aboriginal rights and the importance of their acknowledgement and enforcement here in town. We talked about educating law enforcement about what those rights are and what they need to do to enforce and protect them as they would the rights of any citizen in the Commonwealth.”
Ellis added: “It was an opportunity to move forward.”
The town apologized for the situation in May, though Gaines said he was disappointed not to get an apology specifically from the police department.
During the meeting, those in attendance had their discussion after viewing a video of the May 5 interaction between the Nimpuc members and police that Gaines had shared on social media.
Ellis said she’d like to see the town address concerns along two paths: Legal and diversity/inclusion.
The legal concerns involve putting in place protocols to protect the lawful exercising of aboriginal rights that may include gathering cedar, medical plants, etc., as well as fishing, hunting, and other activities. Infringing upon those rights can expose communities to civil penalties, Ellis said.
Gaines and Ellis said Nipmuc members have found that state police, and especially environmental police, are much more aware of aboriginal rights than most community law enforcement organizations. “We offered to work with Natick to develop training… there’s not a lot out there,” Ellis said.
“Plenty of police officers can go through an entire 30-year career and never come upon an aboriginal rights issue,” Ellis said. “But just because the likelihood of coming across it is limited doesn’t mean you shouldn’t receive the training. If you’re going to protect and serve, you should protect and serve all of the citizens of the Commonwealth. We didn’t choose to become citizens of the Commonwealth, but we remain citizens.”
Diversity and inclusion issues cited by Ellis include understanding and appreciating certain aspects of Native American culture, such as how Nipmuc and other tribes see the land and their responsibilities to it. Ellis said she’d love sometime to see a wetu, like those built from the cedar harvested in Natick, displayed on the Common. “This would let people see the beauty and power of our culture,” she said.
What’s more, there’s a need to expose more of the public to the real and violent history of the Nipmuc people’s removal from this area, Ellis said.
“We didn’t disappear, we didn’t become extinct. We are here,” Ellis said, though added that there are relatively few members living right in this area (coincidentally, just then a Natick Public Works employee passing by identified himself to Gaines as being Nipmuc).
Gaines said the incident in Natick is the first aboriginal rights issue he’s aware of happening here, but Ellis added that situations happen across the state, and not just with the police. Natural resource officers, shellfish wardens, constables, and others have all had such run-ins.
Back in town hall, I asked Rundelli about how the meeting went, and she said it served as a starting off point for the town to acknowledge that the incident in May shouldn’t have occurred as it did. But it also started discussions of internal operations that the town will put into place to educate its employees and the public about aboriginal rights. This will include notification procedures to let people know, for example, about upcoming harvesting operations in the woods.
“We want to ensure that the Nipmuc feel as welcome as they can here in this community,” she said.
Such efforts could build upon other movement in Natick to confront its history with those native to the area, including the redoing of an outdated town seal and the pending removal of the South Natick Dam.
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