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Message-ID: <33C79FE7.68A9C899@frontiernet.net>
Date: Sat, 12 Jul 1997 11:16:57 -0400
From: john <john@frontiernet.net>
Reply-To: john@frontiernet.net
To: Maria Anani Jimenez <"anani1"@juno.com (Maria Anani Jimenez)>
Subject: Seminole Tribune

Chief's Bones Gone Volcano Very Mad

By Peter B. Gallagher, in Seminole Tribune
11 October 1996

For more than 2000 years, the skeleton of an indigenous chieftain lay at peace on the east side of this hilly island, an emerald between the Leeward and Windward Islands of the Caribbean's Lesser Antilles chain. Buried with adornment and artifact - the trappings of his wealth and status - the Chief's last resting spot was a pre-Arawak village near the shore of an endless turquoise sea, at the footstep of a serrated mountain range, on a speck of rock and rainforest unrecorded until Christopher Columbus sailed by in 1493.

Fifteen months ago, during an excavation required by the expansion of the tiny seaside airport here, human bones - long ago gobbled by the sinkhole of time - were discovered beneath an old sugar cane field. The abandoned rum plantation is now one of the finest archaeological sites in the Caribbean. Beneath 8 1/2 inches of soil lies the remarkably complete village; called the Trants Site, it mirrors sites found in Venezuela's Orinoco River Valley. The chief and the carbon-dated bones of his subjects provide the missing link between the indigenous people of South America and the Arawak and Carib speakers of the Americas to the north.

Scientists removed seven skeletons - including the bones and funeral possessions of the tall chieftain - and brought it all to the United States for closer study at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Three weeks later, on July 15, 1995, a Volcano erupted on the tiny (39.5 square miles) resort island of 10,000. A volcano few outside the geology classroom knew existed. A volcano, radio carbon tests now indicate, that last erupted about 400 years ago. People who live on the island describe it as a low rumbling freight train sound that went on for hours and blew up a thick cloud of ash that billowed out in stunning gallups of thicksmoke and hung in the air like a giant scoop of grey ice cream that didn't melt for weeks.

There was no warning. Just about the time that Carnegie scientist Dave Watters began unwrapping the bones of the Arawak chieftain in Pittsburgh, the sky went black over Montserrat. Then the earthquakes started. They haven't stopped. "Sometimes we have up to 600 a day. We are so used to it, we don't even notice it anymore, "says Richard Aspin, a consultant to the Montserrat government, who wryly adds: "There ARE those who say the bones of the Chief should be returned. In the absence of any other rational reason for all this, I can't dispute the idea. Whether that will work on the lady on the hill or not. I don't know."

A chance meeting with this reporter and Montserrat Director of Tourism Leona Midgette during a tourism conference in Berlin, last spring, led to an invitation for Seminole Chairman James Billie to visit Montserrat and, perhaps, to exchange culture and perform his music during the island's festival season in December. No sooner did Ms. Midgette return to her tiny homeland, however, than the volcano erupted again, this time with such force and destruction that 60 percent of the island was evacuated, the capital city - Plymouth - completely shut down, and about 4500 people - mostly the poor who live on the south end - were rendered homeless.

"I've had to move three times, myself," says Gov. Frank Savage, who is appointed by the Queen of England as her governing representative on this British Principal Trust Colony. "Parliament is meeting in a private home."

Since April, no one has been allowed to return to the Southern part of Montserrat, which is covered in a fine, gray ash. Cruise ships don't stop by anymore. Jet-setters don't stop in to rent the luxurious villas which dot the safe side of the mountains. The rainforest which once crept along the valley and up the Soufriere Hills has been destroyed, every square foot of the town of Plymouth is now a ghostly gray, cars and houses are buried in ash. a gigantic pyroclastic flow of ashen lava has formed a fan-shaped delta on the coast line, and little airy volcanic rocks are everywhere.

"The last time the whore on the hill lifted her skirts, rocks rained down on a five mile radius, even out to sea," said Aspin, who says the Soufeire Hills volcano has no name. "Most refer to it as the angry lady or the whore on the hill."

The "angry lady" shot her rocks off with incredible fury about four days before Chairman Billie's recent visit to the island in September. A tour arranged by the island government and a chance meeting with the Montserrat governor brought closer to the surface the plight of the local Montserratians, most of whom face an uncertain future, to say the least. Churches and other large buildings are stacked with costs.

"It is not like it was when Hurricane Hugo came in and we hid out for two days until it was over," says guide Cecil Cassells. "There is no end in sight."

Hugo physically destroyed Montserrat in 1989. But the volcano has taken more than a physical toll. "There is a lot of stress in not knowing what is going to happen, when," says Aspin. "Everything is crazy. We recently got a letter from Colombia complaining that the ash from our volcano is drifting over and dropping on their coffee crop. Juan Valdez is mad that his coffee is being ruined! What do they want us to do?

In what has been the paradise where Elton John was married, where Michael Jackson and Mick Jagger maintained villas, where Bruce Springsteen, Sting and others made albums and Beatles producer George Martin maintained a legendary recording studio high on a mountainside, now exists a destroyed economy, a half-gone island and an uncertain future.

"Geologists can't predict what is going to happen, how long the volcano will stay active, when it will go back to sleep," says German geologist Prof. Hansjorg Oeltzschner. "People hope it will be next week. But this volcano has no track record. It could be seven years. It could be decades."

The Queen and the British Government has pumped more than $100 million in disaster aid to tiny Montserrat in the past 15 months. The citizens of Montserrat have invited prince Charles (and his wealthy Prince's Trust) to take a look-see. There is talk of rebuilding the capital city on the safer northern end of the island. There is talk of evacuating everyone to another country. This is expensive talk. It all makes the British government nervous, for all the Queen's geologists and all the Queen's money may never be able to put Montserrat back together again.

Which brings us back to Carnegie Curator of Anthropology Watters, who has the permission of the Montserrat National Trust to study the bones and other artifacts for two years - until June of 1997. The deal was struck, it should be noted, before the volcano.

"It's a loan. We figured two years to properly analyze this material," says Watters. "I've been going down there since 1978 and I never even thought of volcanic activity. I mean, all of these islands are volcanic islands - that is common knowledge. But, you never except it to happen."

Watters is a scientist, so he does not put much stock in the idea that the angry Gods are demanding the return of the Arawak ancestors' skeletons. He sees the Trants Site as "valuable, priceless" in helping scientists understand the northward migrations of the Americas' indigenous people.

There are many on Montserrat, however, who wonder about the coincidence of a long dormant volcano blowing up after ancient skeletons are taken from their graves. In fact, Chairman Billie was asked several times if there were any medicines or medicine men who might be able to deal with a natural disaster such as the volcano.

"Shamanism is still alive," he told a curious Gov. Savage. "There are still those who practice it and teach people the old ways. I will have to ask them if they remember any songs to cool down the earth, to appease the Gods of the earth. I will tell them the story of the removed bones and see what they say."

"Who is to say it is not true," asked the Seminole Chief. "This is an insane world. The Conquistadors came in and tried to behead us because we did not understand what they were trying to say! What is on the surface may not always be the truth."

True, and in this case it is a collective emptiness, a series of voids about 8 1/2 inches below the surface. Are the empty tombs of Montserrat crying out for corpses? How long will the angry lady go? Can the Seminole medicine man help? One thing is for certain, sings Chief Billie, in one of his signature songs: "The old ways will survive." Stay tuned.

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