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Local Group, Native Americans Unite in Fight to Save Chappaqua Forest

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A portion of the Buttonhook Forest, and one of the stone piles, that is believed to have been home to local Native American tribes centuries ago.

Native Americans joined a group of New Castle residents who have vowed to preserve 20 forested acres that the Chappaqua School District owns, urging the Board of Education Wednesday evening to protect the land from development.

Friends of Buttonhook, a non-profit group to save the parcel, and members of Indigenous tribes, partnered late this summer to submit a bid for the property off Garey Road in Chappaqua after the district announced in the spring it would again try to sell the property. This week they pushed school officials to drop the district’s more than decade-long plan to subdivide the parcel and accept their bid, which members said was the only submission received by the Aug. 30 deadline.

Many of the more than 20 speakers and supporters who packed the academic commons at Horace Greeley High School pointed to recent evidence that the acreage had been used by natives dating back to pre-colonial times before being pushed out of the area. Undisturbed stone piles on the site and a portion of an adjacent property are consistent with natives who marked the land to identify water sources and burial sites.

Some of the speakers also argued against the further pursuit of a subdivision, linking the issue with climate change because it would require clearing hundreds of trees from the site and the construction of large homes.

“This is a sacred space, and that’s why you see all these people in this room,” said Friends of Buttonhook President Victoria Alzapiedi.

“We are prepared to pay a very high price for this land to preserve it and save it for environmental reasons, for cultural, spiritual Native American reasons,” she later added.

Among the speakers were those who identified themselves from various native tribes, many dressed in traditional clothing. Sachem HawkStorm, a member of the Schaghticoke People descended from Chief Katonah, called on the board and administration to work with those fighting to preserve the land and help future generations learn about Native American history.

“I think it’s an opportunity to bring us back to this central meeting place to have us be able to bring our knowledge and our people to get back together the way that we were and to teach our children about preservation, about why these stone piles are the way they are and what they’re telling us, what they’re talking about because they’re explaining to you how to live on this land that they’re detached from, that they’re standing on all the time,” HawkStorm said.

Tracy Basile, an adjunct professor at St. Thomas Aquinas College, said she never learned about the tribes that inhabited the area and that the land’s preservation is critical to protect climate and wildlife.

“Right here, tonight, in this room, is so much Indigenous knowledge from the people here, and that’s why I was so moved and want to show them all a great deal of respect for coming tonight,” Basile said.

The school district bought the property, alternately referred to as the Zauderer property and Buttonhook Forest, in 1973 for $125,000 in case it needed to build an additional school at the site. After Seven Bridges Middle School was built about 20 years ago, it was eventually determined that the district no longer needed the property. 

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Christine Ackerman said the subdivision process was launched in July 2010, pre-dating everyone on the current board and administration. Ackerman said she is awaiting New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) comments regarding the subdivision, which could come as soon as the board’s upcoming meeting on Wednesday. She did not specify what topics the comments are expected to address.

“It is my hope that next week I’ll have further information to share with you, but again that doesn’t mean the board will be acting on any proposal or anything,” Ackerman said. 

“We do hope to finalize information that was put into play before we inherited this project,” added Board of Education President Jane Shepardson. “But we need to make sure we are making the proper decision” regarding the property.

The district received preliminary subdivision approval in 2019 from the New Castle Planning Board before revelations earlier this year that the site could have been home to Native Americans centuries ago. A potential developer previously backed away from the deal.

Several speakers descended from Native American tribes came from upstate and the Midwest Wednesday night to address school officials, stressing the importance of the parcel’s preservation. Jessica Ryan, vice chair of the Brothertown Indian Nation in Wisconsin, read a letter from Tribal Council Chair Phyllis Tousey stating that there is a chance to prevent a historical and cultural treasure from being desecrated.

“Our bid protects the land with an opportunity on how to respond to a social justice issue in a real-world situation,” the letter stated.

Others argued that it would be wrong for the district to allow for the property’s development while it stresses racial equality and respect for all cultures. Horace Greeley High School graduate Rebecca Marano, now attending college, said when people learn she’s from Chappaqua, she has sometimes had to defend her hometown from negative perceptions.

She said current and future students would benefit from Buttonhook’s preservation and show that the community cares.

“I know that the students with me, of course, being one, would appreciate this true hands-on experience we have in front of us, to learn from this history, Marano said.

Millwood resident Michael Weinberg demanded the board take action in the near future on the property. He said he found it hypocritical that the school district fought against downtown development last year, which could have diversified the community’s housing stock, and is now considering whether to sell the land for the development of million-dollar homes.

“You’re making the point for us,” said Weinberg, a defeated Town Board candidate in last year’s election. “It’s why we have a perception problem. How can anyone not part of our district not perceive the racism that’s going on here?”

Alzapiedi said she was distressed because district officials failed to respond to many of the e-mails and other correspondences from the group’s Native American partners regarding the land.

However, board member Hilary Grasso said that she and fellow board member Warren Messner talked with an Indigenous representative and had a good conversation early this summer

Tracey Bilski, vice president of Friends of Buttonhook, said the group’s bid was higher than the $700,000 that the district has likely spent on the subdivision but less than $2 million.

Correction: In the original version of this article, it was incorrectly reported that Sachem HawkStorm is a Katonah resident. He lives upstate and is descended from Chief Katonah. The Examiner regrets the error.

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