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Group Presses on to Preserve Native American Grounds in Chappaqua

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One of the stone piles that Native American experts say is proof that the land in a portion of Buttonhook Forest is sacred ceremonial grounds used by local tribes centuries ago.

A bid submitted last summer for property that was a Native American ceremonial ground may be in limbo due to litigation but that hasn’t stopped a grassroots group in its hope to preserve the property.

Friends of Buttonhook, a nonprofit organization formed by local residents and joined by Native Americans, including the Wisconsin-based Brothertown Indian Nation, held an event last Tuesday at the Chappaqua Performing Arts Center that served as both fundraiser and public education effort. The Friends was the only bidder to submit an offer and a $100,000 by the Aug. 30, 2022, deadline for the 20.3-acre parcel off Garey Drive to the Chappaqua School District, which has owned the property for the last 50 years.

About 200 people attended the Apr. 25 event that featured videos, Native American speakers and music to let residents know how critical it is to preserve the parcel and help them understand that the property was land that Native Americans once lived on, said Tracey Bilski, vice president of Friends of Buttonhook who lives on an adjacent parcel to the school district’s land.

“The real goal was to get people into the room to hear the story, and in terms of fundraising, the real fundraising takes place when there’s a contract when we have site control,” Bilski said of the organization’s efforts. “When you don’t have site control it’s tricky.”

But it may be a while before the Friends learns what will become of its bid. The school district has been in a multiyear process to subdivide the property to make it attractive to a developer.

The district entered into a contract in August 2021 to sell the land for $2 million to an entity called CG Homes Six LLC to build six luxury houses at the site. It first needed to obtain all required municipal approvals, according to the company’s lawsuit filed in state Supreme Court on Nov. 10, 2022.

But that was before the discovery early last year of Native American artifacts and the meticulously constructed stone piles mainly on the school district’s property, which has helped to galvanize residents, students and representatives of Native American tribes. Bilski has said that archeological and Native American experts have concluded the land was home to native tribes.

Grandmother Nancy Andrey, a Native American who attended last week’s program, said when she visited the forest on the adjacent property “I heard the voices of my ancestors.” She said Indigenous people had no concept of owning land.

“Our ancestors took only what they needed,” Andry said. “They shared and they gave back to the land. You can’t just keep taking from our mother, the Earth. Will there be no places left where the wild things can be? This is why this forest, this little piece of what the ancestors made perfect and beautiful needs to be protected.”

In its lawsuit, CG Homes Six LLC alleges that the district committed “breaches and wrongful conduct (that) include failing to pursue the Contract’s Required Approvals, diligently and in good faith, and then using its own failures and the lack of such approvals as a pretext to breach and try to escape its other contractual obligations, closing on the sale of the property.”

CG Homes Six is also seeking damages of $2,770,000 from the school district.

Jessica Ryan of the Brothertown Indian Nation Tribal Council.

In early April, the school district filed a motion to dismiss the complaint in court, and a judge’s decision is still pending, said David Shaw, an attorney representing the Chappaqua School District.

There is no indication when a ruling will come from the judge, but the district was within its rights to move on, he said.

“The time for the contract to be concluded had expired and the district, was therefore, not obligated to continue in the contractual relationship with the plaintiff, CG Homes Six,” Shaw said.

Last spring, the district announced that it would be accepting bids for the property from late June through late August. However, the district has been unable to receive approval for its sanitary and storm sewage discharge plans from the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), a key hurdle. The parcel is within the city’s watershed.

A DEP spokesman did not divulge what was deficient about the plan, referring the question to the school district, which has not spoken about the matter. Bilski said a report from the state Attorney General’s Inspector General Watershed Division regarding the parcel casts doubt on whether an approval on the sanitary and storm sewage discharge plan is achievable.

Friends of Buttonhook Forest President Victoria Alzapiedi said preserving the parcel would enable future generations to learn about the tribes who populated the area and to protect an environmentally sensitive habitat.

“If this property, this land, this 20.3-acre area, beautiful untouched woodlands in a watershed, I mean this is just precious land,” Alzapiedi said last week. “Mature trees fighting climate change, we’re in a desperate climate situation. The thought of tearing down more than 676 mature trees to build six luxury homes with swimming pools, it’s not only counterintuitive, it’s desperately wrong and misguided.”

Jessica Ryan, vice chair of the Brothertown Indian Nation Tribal Council, said the story as the United States was being populated, Native Americans were often relocated by the new settlers. But the fact that the Buttonhook property is still intact makes it a crucial find.

“Words cannot describe the emotion that was formed in no time flat when you have an opportunity of walking that ground where seven and eight and 10 and 15 generations ago is where your relatives were,” Ryan said.

Bilski said the Friends of Buttonhook will continue to hold periodic events to raise funds for various expenses toward a potential purchase of the property.

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