Native Americans lose appeal for destruction of sacred relics along pipeline in Sandisfield

Tribe attorney: Supreme Court is last, longshot hope

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SANDISFIELD — A federal appeals court ruled last week that a Rhode Island tribe does not have standing regarding the destruction of stone ceremonial sites along a pipeline spur completed here in December 2017.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said on Feb. 7 that the Narragansett Indian Tribal Historic Preservation Office does not have jurisdiction to make claims via the National Historic Preservation Act against the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. By the time FERC had acted on the tribe's complaint, more than 20 ceremonial stone features already had been destroyed and the pipeline spur was complete, which factored into the court's decision.

Anne Marie Garti, the tribe's attorney, said she thinks the court's opinion is wrong in assuming there is no remedy to the tribe for the destruction, though she said she can't comment on what the remedy would be. Garti translated the court's opinion as laying a smooth path for future pipelines in the U.S.

"From a common sense point of view, the court is basically telling pipeline companies that, if they destroy ceremonial stones before you get to court, you can't do anything about it," she said. "That is the epitome of injustice."

The battle over the stone sites was just one of several hot issues during Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co.'s six-month Sandisfield buildout of a 4-mile natural gas spur. The tri-state, $93 million line was part of its 13-mile Connecticut Expansion Project on an existing corridor.

Protests continued throughout the construction period, during which the police arrested about 100 people. Roughly 2 miles of the spur cut through Otis State Forest, igniting more outcry and drawing Native American protesters and water protectors to the area.

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The Kinder Morgan subsidiary, in consult with tribal preservationists, did try to protect some of the 74 identified sites, or at least move them. But at the time, Narragansett tribal preservation officer Doug Harris told The Eagle that dismantling them in any way is "sacrilege."

In June 2017, FERC denied the tribe's request to stop the build, to reconsider having issued permission to build the pipeline without having fully studied the stone sites.

According to tribal preservationists, the stone groupings vary in size, shape and age. They are not only sacred, but hold cultural and religious significance to a handful of tribes outside the Berkshires, including the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians, who resettled from the Berkshires to Wisconsin. But the history other tribes, like the Narragansett, had intersected with that of the local Mohican tribe, and leaders Sachems Konkapot and Umpachene.

While Garti said she can't comment on what the tribe will do next, it can request a rehearing to both the appellate panel that made this decision, and to the entire bench.

"It's almost never granted," she said. "It's a step that's usually taken if you want to go to the Supreme Court."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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