Students at Middlebury College in Vermont were outraged Wednesday when protesters took down a Sept. 11 memorial site on campus. One of the protesters later came forward, claiming the memorial had been sitting above a Native American burial site.
The memorial was comprised of nearly 3,000 flags, one for each life lost in the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. According to The Middlebury Campus news site, it has been placed in the same field for almost a decade.
Four women and one man were seen uprooting the flags and putting them in garbage bags, according to Middbeat, a student-run blog. Middlebury junior Anna Shireman-Grabowski came forward later that day, telling Middbeat that she and the other four protesters, who she says are not Middlebury students, were trying to protect a sacred Abenaki site.
"Today I chose to act in solidarity with my friend, an Indigenous woman and a citizen of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy who was appalled to see the burial grounds of another Indigenous nation desecrated by piercing the ground that their remains lay beneath," wrote Shireman-Grabowski. She also asked that the local Abenaki community not be at all associated with her actions.
Northern Vermont's Missisquoi Abenaki tribe has long struggled to protect from development many of its burial lands. A 2004 Vermont Law Review article notes that leaving burial sites "undisturbed" is of the upmost importance to Abenaki people, explaining that "[l]ike other Native American tribes, the Abenaki view of ancestral burial sites is part of a worldview that considers 'Mother Earth' as sacred."
That said, Middlebury does not seem to have proof that the memorial had been placed on top of a burial site.
"It has never before been suggested that this is a Native American burial ground," Sarah Ray, the school's director of public affairs, told The Huffington Post via email.
Middlebury College President Ron Liebowitz denounced the protest and announced an investigation in a letter posted on the school's official website.
"Like many of you, I was deeply disturbed by the insensitivity of this act," he wrote. "Destruction of property and interfering with the rights of others to express themselves violates the standards of our community."
A spokesperson for the Abenaki community was not immediately available for comment.