FRAMINGHAM — Wrestling with the region’s bloody past, city officials are seeking opinions from the public about whether Framingham should change two street names that could be deemed offensive to Native Americans.
The City Council on Tuesday took the first steps to explore renaming Indian Head Road and Indian Head Heights, a pair of streets in a residential neighborhood on the Northside.
The move was sparked by McAuliffe Charter School student Elana Gelfand, who presented the council with the results of her research into the displacement of the area’s native inhabitants.
Describing a history of violence and injustice, Gelfand asked councilors to consider striking the term “Indian Head” from the street names and inserting “Algonquian” in its place.
Thousands in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut identify as descendants of the Algonquian people, Gelfand said, and yet Framingham has no roads that bear the word Algonquian — or Algonquin, another common spelling — in their names.
“If the rest of the country now realizes the pain Native Americans have gone through,” she asked, “why can’t Framingham?”
Gelfand said she first grew concerned the road names are insensitive nearly five years ago as an elementary school student. She recounted that towns once offered rewards for the scalps of natives, and said entire regions enforced collective punishment laws, leading to the destruction of as many as 150 native communities.
Locally, examples of the brutality also abound.
On Aug. 30, 1675, a few months into a bloody war, Massachusetts colonists ordered Native Americans to one of five plantations set up for indigenous people who had converted to Christianity, including what is now Natick.
Two months later, settlers ordered the people in the so-called praying towns — many from this area, starting in Natick — to be marched in chains to the coast and confined to Deer Island, now a national park, in Boston Harbor. There, with little food or shelter, hundreds died, and others were sold or kidnapped as slaves.
Looking beyond those historical facts, the term “Indian” is also offensive because it was coined by explorer Christopher Columbus, whose historical reputation is linked to the slaughter of native people, Gelfand said.
As part of her research into the subject, Gelfand said she interviewed Native Americans who said they personally find the term “Indian” derogatory. Continuing to display it publicly can be compared to displaying a swastika or Confederate flag, she said.
“It is not up to us to decide what is acceptable or racist for another culture,” she said.
Several councilors praised Gelfand Tuesday for her advocacy, but said they need more information before making any change — particularly about the potential ramifications for those who live on the two streets. The council voted unanimously to seek legal advice from the acting city solicitor about the process for renaming the streets.
Set on a hilltop just south of the Massachusetts Turnpike, the two roads are lined by some 50 homes, according to the city’s assessing records. The area also has a pair of municipal water tanks.
“I do think that it is a tremendous inconvenience for the residents to change names, certainly,” At-Large Councilor Cheryl Tully Stoll said. “I agree that a plaque (describing Native American history) is certainly warranted, anyway, probably in multiple places in this community ... but I’d like a little more information” before reaching a decision, Tully Stoll said.
City Historian Fred Wallace also offered some historical context for the term “Indian Head,” which first appeared on maps of the area in 1682. Wallace said it likely refers to a geographical feature, such as a hilltop or rocky outcropping, and not to the heads of natives, as the history of violence against native people might suggest.
Early European settlers were quick to assign names to the small hills that dot the city, Wallace head. Many are still in use today, such as Nobscot Mountain, Doeskin Hill, Bear Hill and Indian Head.
The two streets in question were named sometime in the early- to mid-20th century, Wallace said. A developer likely saw references to the term Indian Head in historical maps and adopted it for a new road under construction, he said.
“Ms. Gelfand’s proposal has much merit,” Wallace said. “At the same time, changing the names of these streets would have serious consequences for the families (who) live there.”