Response to the Durham Heritage Commission (DHC) Mill Pond Dam Statement issued on 2/10/2022

On behalf of INHCC: Response to Durham Heritage Commission (DHC) [see their statement below our response] Mill Pond Dam Statement issued on 2/10/2022

The recent statement (2/10/2022) by the DHC declares that “dams are not simply a Colonial device” and goes on to compare Indigenous stone fish weirs and seasonal dams from precontact sites to colonial mill and dam practices. Making such a comparison is ill-informed and frankly, ridiculous. There can be no comparison drawn between Indigenous sustainable harvesting practices and the colonial introduction of an extractive economy. These are on different orders of magnitude and trying to draw comparisons between them is impossible. Native American peoples in New Hampshire were and are sophisticated and had/have a deep knowledge of how to maximize resources in their times of seasonal abundance. Before the arrival of European settlers, Native peoples did modify their landscapes to increase yields and harvests of the natural resource base. But, this was done on the scale at which they lived their lives – an emplaced local, and sometimes regional, scale that ensured the health of their environment for future generations. There can be no comparing this to the global scale and extractive nature of the era of colonialism starting in the 1600s here in this ecosystem.

Across the globe, European colonialism was radically disruptive, and unlike anything that came before, because it was driven by global capitalism with an extractive imperative that cut across both flesh and earth. The violent disruption of human relationships to the environment was central in the unfolding of settler colonialism globally. Viewing nature and humans as commodities, market incentives came to dominate human interaction with the environment, leading to rapid and intensive exploitation of natural resources and an attendant demand for (often forced) labor to support resource extraction. This led to commercial land use practices and ultimately fueled the development of industrial societies. The mad dash of extraction and industry took a terrible toll: People lived and died often at astounding rates, natural ecologies previously managed sustainably were radically decimated, and social and economic worlds were transformed forever.

This is true for the Great Bay Estuary of which Oyster River is a tributary. Here, in the early 1600s, English colonists arrived and quickly introduced an extractive economy across this ecosystem. The region’s abundant forests were a stark contrast to those in England, where the mainland had been largely deforested throughout the preceding centuries. Finding themselves in this ecosystem with robust forests and out of the reaches of England where water (and wind) powered mills were restricted by law so as to curb deforestation there, English colonists saw a specifically appealing extraction opportunity. And so, lumber, processed in water-powered sawmills placed at the estuary’s many waterfalls (which provided the power), became, above all, the key commodity exported from here into the larger global West India trade of the 17th century. To attempt comparison of small-scale Indigenous dam practices to the mills of the colonial era is both illogical and insulting; such a comparison only makes sense as an attempt to co-opt Indigenous knowledge for ends that Indigenous communities today stand against. It is evidence of just how much the colonial mindset that washed ashore here in the 1600s still lingers with us.

The DHC statement ends with “It will be a tragedy if we lose a historic, cultural, and recreation resource, only to find that we have destroyed our history to fabricate an inauthentic landscape afflicted by the ongoing environmental problems that plague it now.” We hope that the Commission is aware that dams are listed as the third greatest threat to biodiversity extinction (after Housing and Urban Development and Agro-industry farming) by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The same organization estimates (conservatively) that since the year 1500, over 900 of the species (that they know about) are now extinct. The reference to a fabrication of “an inauthentic landscape” is an affront to the Indigenous tribal leaders and elders who not only have generational knowledge but also invested time and effort into educating our communities about the damage that the existing dams present.

On cultural and historical grounds, the DHC claim that the dam ought to be preserved in place because in the early 1900’s such technology was innovative – a “technological marvel” – is absurdly regressive. This would be like claiming that we should keep driving gasoline cars because they were a technological marvel in 1920. The Town of Durham has demonstrated commitment to advancing energy technologies such as photovoltaic solar, thus removing and replacing carbon-dependent energy technologies which, in their time, were innovative. It is imperative that out-dated technologies are replaced, and that brittle ideas about historical preservation are not permitted to obstruct progress toward sustainable energy and ecological systems in Durham and surrounding areas.

The stubborn presence of the Mill Pond Dam undermines an otherwise internationally renowned reputation for ecological stewardship in the Town of Durham. Famously, the Town’s opposition to the proposed Aristotle Onassis Olympic Oil Refinery in the 1970s was successful due to this strong commitment to stewarding ecologies connected to the Great Bay Estuary. At times, ecological stewardship means preserving current conditions (such as in the 1970s); however, by contrast, in the aftermath of industrialization there is much damage that needs to be actively undone to achieve similar standards of stewardship. Many course-corrective ecological restoration efforts are ongoing in the Durham area, such as oyster revival in Great Bay. Hence, removing the dam in Durham is consistent with these forward-looking and restorative ecological efforts and advances the Town’s strong reputation and commitment to the lands and waterways on which its inhabitants reside.

See ORCA’s post on 2/15/22 and the meeting visual notes here.

And see the DHC’s meeting’s notes here.