Native American Burial Ground Stalls Savin Hill Park Renovations

Written by Karli Bendlin

Karli Bendlin
BU News Service

Renovations on Savin Hill Park have temporarily stalled because of the existence of a Native American burial ground underneath the park’s tennis courts.

The $215,000 renovation project, which was presented to residents last August, focuses on improvements to the park’s overgrown paths and amenities, including the replacement of a 50-year-old water fountain near the courts.

The project is on hold because of concerns about remains belonging to the Neponset tribe. The Neponset is a smaller division of the Massachuset tribe, who inhabited the state centuries before European settlers, from which the Commonwealth took its name.

The Massachusetts Unmarked Burial Law, under The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act or NAGPRA, protects Native American skeletal remains that are accidentally uncovered while resting in unmarked graves. According to the law, if human remains are found during construction, all activity must cease and a site evaluation must be made to determine if the remains are Native American.

Fencing and Tape Are Only Remaining Signs of Renovation.

Fencing and Tape Are Only Remaining Signs of Renovation.

Gill Solomon, sachem of the Massachuset-Ponkapoag Tribal Council, said that he has not been contacted about the project.

“Savin Hill was one of the locations that praying Indians were allowed to return to, after their forced removal to Long Island [in Boston Harbor],” Solomon said.

Soloman said that NAGPRA is responsible for controlling what happens near a Native American society.

“The appropriate method in dealing with Native remains is to consult and collaborate with the Native communities tied to these sites as soon as it is determined that there is the possibility of remains,” said Cedric Woods, Director of the Institute for New England Native American Studies at the University of Massachusetts.

Although the Massachuset-Ponkapoag tribe has not been contacted, Woods believes that the city is adequately protecting the burial site.

“As a result of this early collaboration,” said Woods, referring to NAGPRA, “any archaeologists in Massachusetts, like the city archaeologist, take their ethical responsibilities to engage and work with Native communities in these circumstances very seriously.”

Joseph Bagley, the city archaeologist, must be present during all renovations to ensure that no remains are accidentally dug up and discarded.

Bagley said he has been collaborating on this project with the Parks Department for over a year, specifically due to archaeological concerns, but was unable to comment on specifics without approval from the Mayor’s press office.

Ramona Peters, Director of the Wampanoag Repatriation Committee, which works on Native remains across the state, was surprised that she had not been contacted about the Savin Hill project. Her office works on hundreds of cases like the Savin Hill renovations each year to ensure that a federal law under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 is not violated. Section 106 states that if a project is receiving federal funds and may affect historic or sacred Native grounds, the tribe must be contacted first.

“It’s only illegal to not inform the tribe if the project involves federal money. If it did, the recognized tribe would need to get a call or the proper paperwork,” Peters said.

The Boston Parks and Recreation budget, according to Ryan Woods, Director of External Affairs, is completely funded by city tax dollars and receives no federal funding, therefore preventing the Savin Hill Park renovations from falling under the Section 106 jurisdiction.

Though it is legal to renovate the park without informing the Massachuset tribe, residents of Savin Hill feel like the renovations may not be completely ethical, especially since the burial ground is unmarked and its existence is often unknown.

Brianda Mendez, student at the nearby Cristo Rey High School, said her volleyball team is currently using the tennis courts as their practice location until they have a gym. She said she was unaware of the existence of the burial ground.

Mendez’s Volleyball Team Practicing on the Courts.

Brianda Mendez’s Volleyball Team Practicing on the Courts.

“I feel like it’s kind of disrespecting them, only because people do other things,” Mendez said. “Right now we’re doing something productive like volleyball but there’s other people that do other things around here at nighttime that disrespect them.”

Mendez believes that if the burial ground was better acknowledged or marked, residents may have had a different reaction to the park’s construction.

“I feel like if the history is out there then people will respect their neighborhood more,” she said.

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