2011-02-17 / Front Page

Town, tribe discuss sale of old town offices

By Phil Zahodiakin

Jamestown’s former town offices’ building at 44 Southwest Ave., which the town has been trying to sell for a few years, could become the centerpiece of a broad agreement with the Narragansett Indians. The idea emerged as an unexpected breakthrough during Tuesday’s workshop with representatives of the tribe.

The Feb. 15 workshop was held to explore the tribe’s request for a supervisory role in Jamestown excavations performed under the Safe Routes to Schools program, and other projects, as well. The Narragansetts want to ensure that burial artifacts are not displaced or destroyed during construction work on the island, which is rife with tribal burial sites.

In a June 16, 2008 letter to former Town Council President Julio DiGiando, the Narragansetts requested that, “For all future building permits in Jamestown that require ground disturbance, a [State Historical Preservation Office]-permitted archeological clearance survey shall be required” to protect any artifacts that may exist at construction sites.

Although there hasn’t been any progress towards a town policy on artifact protection, Jamestown will be unable to source $455,250 in state grants for safe routes work until there is. That’s because state officials have told Jamestown that the grant money will not be released until the town completes an oversight agreement with the tribe and the state Historic Preservation Commission.

The workshop was intended to find out if the tribe wants the town to implement the specific demands in the 2008 letter, or if the letter should be viewed as a starting point for negotiations. Town Administrator Bruce Keiser, council President Mike Schnack and councilors Bob Bowen and Mike White attended the workshop. Town Planner Lisa Bryer, Tribal Preservation Director John Brown, Tribal Preservationist Doug Harris and principal state archeologist Paul Robinson were also in attendance.

Keiser asked Brown if there was “an opportunity to establish an agreement for us to proceed under the guidance of the state Historic Preservation Commission, and recognizing that we would be very respectful of any artifacts” unearthed during the work.

Brown responded by pointing out that he has been interacting with Jamestown councils for over 20 years, and he expressed frustration that there hasn’t been any progress towards an agreement on burial artifacts when the entire island “is oc- cupied by Narragansett Indian burial grounds.”

Brown pointed out that the tribe has previously signed off on “at least five projects,” adding that those projects “have helped the town prosper. We are being asked one more time, but it is troubling that [a broad agreement] is seen as politically ambitious. It is troubling that there are Jamestown residents who are not more willing [to support an agreement].”

Brown also observed that Jamestowners wouldn’t be willing to dig up their historic cemeteries to accommodate a Narragansett Indian project, adding, “We are being asked to lend a hand to let that happen to our own burial sites. We have requested reciprocity for 20 years. We have allowed you to tread on grounds where there are hundreds of graves. When did the value of our graves become less than those of others?”

When Schnack asked if “every square inch of Jamestown is a burial site,” Brown replied, “Unequivocally.”

Robinson observed that “archeology and oral history are moving closer together, but there is still disagreement” over the extent of Narragansett burials on the island.

Brown said that it was not his desire or intention to “take property away from property owners,” or engage in “protracted legal battles” against property owners seeking building permits.

Pointing to one of the protocols requested in the 2008 letter, Bowen said, “This says, ‘All the [regulatory protocols] shall apply in known burial areas or where disturbance shall exceed six inches.’ This makes me nervous about planting tomatoes. A lot of people wouldn’t react well if we signed an agreement with this in it.”

Brown said that under state law property owners are already required to determine if their projects could disturb artifacts. In response, Bowen said, “So, are these demands where discussion begins?”

Brown replied, “Yes.”

However, Brown wants Jamestown to embark on an education campaign to ensure that all property owners are aware that they are stewards of a history and heritage that are centuries old.

When the former town offices at 44 Southwest Ave. was mentioned as a site where the likely presence of burial artifacts had frustrated town attempts to sell the building, Schnack brought forward the idea of turning the structure into a Narragansett Indian Museum. The idea, which has been discussed informally by Keiser and Bryer, gained instant traction.

“I am certain we could do this even if we had to rely [solely] on private grants,” Brown said.

It appears to be a win-win situation for both sides because the town, by establishing a non-profit entity that would acquire and run the museum – in partnership with the Narragansetts – would retain possession of the building. In order for the nonprofi t group to occupy the property, however, the town would have to be paid $400,000, which is the asking price for 44 Southwest Ave.

If established, the museum could serve as the springboard for an education campaign.

Referring to artifacts, which may be decorating Jamestown homes after their discovery in the ground, Harris said a museum would provide “an excellent opportunity to repatriate them.” Harris also said he would be pleased to help advance the project, adding, “I’ll do anything to reconcile the Jamestown issue.”

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