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Western Mass. forest partnership reserves board seat for Indigenous representative

 Researchers conduct a tree inventory study in the area of the Woodlands Partnership of Northwest Massachusetts.
Courtesy Tobias Carter
Researchers conduct a tree inventory study in the area of the Woodlands Partnership of Northwest Massachusetts.

A public-private conservation partnership in western Massachusetts is working to include Indigenous perspectives in its mission to protect forests and encourage sustainable development.

As one step toward that goal, the Woodlands Partnership of Northwest Massachusetts has reserved a permanent seat on its board for a representative from the Ohketeau Cultural Center, a multi-tribal nonprofit organization in Ashfield that works with Indigenous peoples.

The board recently elected Rhonda Anderson, founder and co-director of the Ohketeau Cultural Center, who will start having voting rights in November. Anderson is Iñupiaq, from Alaska, and grew up in northwest Massachusetts. She is also a member of the Massachusetts' Commission on Indian Affairs.

 Rhonda Anderson, founder and co-director of the Ohketeau Cultural Center, joins the board of the Woodlands Partnership of Northwest Massachusetts.
Courtesy Henry Art
Rhonda Anderson, founder and co-director of the Ohketeau Cultural Center, joins the board of the Woodlands Partnership of Northwest Massachusetts.

“I want to lift the visibility of Indigenous communities that were here and still are here. And have this told through an Indigenous lens,” she said.

Historically, the conservation movement in the U.S. has been criticized for its failure to include Indigenous perspectives.

The partnership is a “public body” created by state law, and includes representatives from 19 towns, as well as regional nonprofit organizations and representatives of state and federal agencies. The group administers grants to foster climate adaptation, education and scientific research of forestry and conservation practices.

The partnership area spans Franklin and northern Berkshire counties, which are historically the home of the Stockbridge Munsee Band of Mohican, Abenaki, Pocumtuck and Nipmuc peoples. As a new board member, one of Anderson’s goals is to raise awareness that some of these communities, the Abenaki and Nipmuc, are contemporary neighbors. And the Stockbridge Munsee Band of Mohican still have ties with their ancestral homeland in the region.

Anderson also says she wants to end stereotypical representations along the Route 2 corridor and update the region with historically accurate signs.

“In particular the Route 2 corridor, once it starts going up through Shelburne Falls, Charlemont Road, Monroe, Florida, it has a lot of stereotypical caricatures, incorrect information, tourist stops that are grossly inaccurate and misleading, and I really want to change that,” she said.

Last October, the partnership’s board members also voted to rename their organization, dropping the name “Mohawk Trail" after learning the appropriation of an Indigenous name caused discomfort to local Indigenous groups. They also learned that the name was inaccurate: the Mohawk people are traditionally from New York state. The change has yet to be officially approved by Massachusetts' legislators.

The scenic tourist road on Route 2 is still named Mohawk Trail; a local forest is also named Mohawk Trail State Forest.

Woodlands has already partnered with the Ohketeau Cultural Center for workshops on Indigenous perspectives on historical and contemporary effects of colonization and walks in the forest to share Indigenous environmental knowledge.

Anderson wants to increase Indigenous communities’ access to conservation land for activities like deer hunting, medicinal plant and traditional food harvesting, through the Department of Conservation and Recreation, towns and land trusts. That would help to strengthen the communities, which “have been disposed of their land, their traditional medicines, their traditional foods, their ceremonial places,” she said. 

This story is a production of the New England News Collaborative. It was originally published by WBUR.

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