Law on books still bans American Indians from Boston


Last Updated: 19 years

John “Sam” Sapiel gets an uneasy feeling when he steps over Boston
city limits. There are no warrants out for his arrest and he hasn’t committed
any crime, but he still could be put behind bars — just because he’s an
American Indian.

Sapiel, a 74-year-old full-blooded Penobscot Indian who lives in Falmouth, is
technically a persona non grata in the city of Boston, where an archaic law
forbids American Indians from setting foot since 1675, when settlers were at
war with area tribes.

Of course, the bloody conflict known as King Philip’s War has been over for centuries, and the odds of Sapiel’s arrest under the statute are nonexistent. 

But the fact that it’s lingered for so long has been a festering source of anger for Indians, who feel that it should have been stricken from the books long ago. 

“I feel kind of put out on the whole thing, because we’re being singled out as Indian people,” Sapiel said. “I think about it quite a bit. It’s on my mind all the time.”

Now, some 330 years after passage of the act entitled “Indians Prohibited Being in Boston,” lawmakers are poised to finally delete it from the statutes.

Indians and activists have been working for about eight years to repeal the statute. Just before the Democratic National Convention last year, the Falmouth-based Muhheconnew National Confederacy, a coalition of American Indian tribes, called for the law’s repeal, and Boston Mayor Tom Menino filed a petition in the fall to dump it.

But it didn’t go anywhere — until this week, when a state legislative committee sent it to the full Legislature. The renewed effort comes as a national organization of minority journalists considers whether to hold its 2008 convention in Boston.

Unity: Journalists of Color Inc. said they might pass over Boston for the convention because of the law. The convention would mean 8,000 or so journalists converging on Boston for four days — spending an estimated $4.5 million on lodging, dining and souvenirs.

“It is a deal breaker, because we couldn’t in good heart come to a city that banned one of our members, or any group,” said Unity Executive Director Anna M. Lopez. The group will pick the host city in June.

State Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, who co-chairs the committee that recommended repealing it this week, said she acted as soon as she heard about the issue last week.

“I think the proponents for the repeal made the case that just having it on the books was offensive enough,” she said.

The statute was passed, along with a law creating an internment camp for Indians for Boston Harbor’s Deer Island, when tensions between colonists and Wampanoag leader Metacom — derisively dubbed Philip by the settlers – broke out into violence in 1675.

The war only lasted a year, ending when Metacom was killed in 1676. Though lawmakers repealed the law creating the Deer Island camp the year after the war ended, the imprisonment act remained.

Menino, who presides over a city that now has more minorities than whites, supports doing away with the law. A spokeswoman for Gov. Mitt Romney said he would sign the bill if it reached his desk, which could happen as soon as Thursday.

Allowing it to remain in place, Menino said in letter to lawmakers, “is a disservice to the people and history that makes our city wonderful.”

Chris “Quiet Bear” Montgomery, 79, a member of the Nipmuc tribe who lives in Revere, testified earlier this week at the legislative hearing, called it “a black mark against the state of Massachusetts. Not just Boston, but the whole state.”

Sapiel said he was relieved that the law’s demise appeared imminent.

“This should have happened a long time ago,” he said. “I’m glad it’s happening now.”