NORTH SMITHFIELD, R.I. (AP) – As a boy, John Brown remembers traveling with his family to the wooded hills in northwest Rhode Island where his fellow Narragansett Indians gathered near stone piles they believe were left by their ancient ancestors.

That belief is now at the center of a struggle between the rural town of North Smithfield and a developer that wants to build a 122-lot subdivision on the land.

The town suspects the piles are burial mounds, and has filed a lawsuit asking a judge to declare the land a historic burial ground. But the developer contends the piles are left behind by farmers or loggers, and has been pushing since 2001 to build.

Little is known for certain about the hundreds of rock mounds near Nipsachuck Hill and swamp. The piles of granite, slate and quartz rocks on hilly, forested land here are generally two feet or taller. Similar mounds have been found along the Appalachian Mountains and into eastern Canada.

Historians say the land was a crossroads for several American Indian tribes in southern New England, including the Nipmuc, Narragansett and Wampanoag tribes. Two battles were fought here during the 17th-century King Philip’s War, a bloody conflict between New England’s colonists and the Wampanoag tribe and their allies.

Nineteenth century maps show that American Indian families continued to live and farm in the Nipsachuck area, said Donald Gagnon, chairman of the North Smithfield Conservation Commission.

“The land was in use by Native Americans and it contained these mounds,” said archaeologist Frederick Meli, who was paid by the town to survey the site. “Whether they’re burial or ceremonial, I think they go back at least a couple of thousands of years.”

Brown, the historic preservation officer for the Narragansett tribe, said the stone mounds appear manmade and probably mark a burial or ceremonial ground common to several tribes. Narragansett Indians continued to gather here for sunrise ceremonies and other commemorations into the 1960s or 1970s, when conflicts with property owners halted the meetings, he said.

“We would meet there and discuss that it was a meeting place of our ancestors, and that we come at this time to give acknowledgment of those people that have passed,” Brown said.

Although many in this rural town of 11,000 knew that the rock piles existed, they are spread throughout private land and out of public view.

The housing development, proposed by the Narragansett Improvement Co. and two other firms, was first rejected in 2001 by town authorities because the subdivision would have leveled the hilly landscape, among other reasons. (Narragansett Improvement is not related to the Narragansett Indian Tribe.) The developers filed a second proposal in 2005 but, after a lawsuit, it was rejected by the town in April.

Michael Kelly, an attorney for the developers, would not comment in detail about the dispute, but says the town’s most recent lawsuit is a ploy to block the development.

Town officials say they just want to enforce building laws and protect burial plots. Under state law, local governments must establish a 25-foot perimeter around historic cemeteries or even suspected burial sites. If enough burial sites are identified, it could make parts of the development site off-limits for building.

In addition to the stone mounds, old property deeds refer to family cemeteries within the proposed development, Gagnon said.

“I think we’ve got a pretty strong case,” he said.

Each side has hired archeologists to examine parts of the disputed land.

Kelly’s clients paid a private archaeologist nine years ago to excavate several areas on the property. Kelly would not say what was found, but he said the archaeologist determined the area was not a burial ground.

“They were probably just stones being piled as the result of timber or agricultural efforts,” Kelly said.

But last year, the town hired Meli, who owns an archaeological consulting firm in North Kingstown, to conduct several walking surveys of Nipsachuck Hill and swamp. He found multiple artifacts that be believes show the site was in use by humans thousands of years before the first Europeans arrived.

He identified a triangular boulder that he thinks is a Manitou stone, an American Indian marker used to identify areas of spiritual significance. He also recovered a stone ax in the debris of one partially toppled rock pile. Elsewhere, Meli found several rock projectile points, including one that he dated back to at least 2500 B.C.

Still, none of these clues prove the mounds are burial grounds. No one is certain exactly what lies beneath the ground, but Gagnon said he thinks the court might require more excavations. The lawsuit is pending, and a Superior Court judge has not yet set a date for arguments.

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