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Boy Scout takes on cleanup, restoration and research of Indian burial ground

Boy Scout Aidan Decker renovated the Matinecock grave site at the Zion Episcopal Church cemetery in Douglaston as his Eagle Scout project. Descendants Donna Baron and Unkechaug Chief Harry Wallace spoke of the importance of honoring their ancestors following a unveiling ceremony on Sept. 9, 2018. Credit: Ted Phillips

Fragrant smoke wafted above the final resting place of members of the Matinecock Nation in Douglaston, Queens, in a rededication ceremony punctuated with prayers, drum beats and raindrops on Sunday.

“What you have here re-establishes a place of honor for our family,” Harry Wallace, chief of the Unkechaug Nation told dozens assembled in front of a carved split stone in the Zion Episcopal Church cemetery. “For you to show your respect, to show your remembrance and for us to restore well-being from a violation that took place in 1929.”

In 1929 the remains of Matinecocks — a native tribe on Long Island’s North Shore before Europeans arrived — were dug up and reburied to make room for the widening of Northern Boulevard nearby. A 1998 Newsday article on the “devastated” native peoples of Long Island pointed out that when the stones were unveiled in 1936 engraved with the words “Here Rest the Last of the Matinecoc,” two descendants of the tribe attended.

The intervening decades were also unkind: A plaque marking the site disappeared; a stone pathway faded away; and overgrown shrubbery nearly concealed the stones.

Last year 15-year-old Boy Scout Aidan Decker of Little Neck embarked on a journey of fundraising, paperwork, landscaping and masonry that has transformed the languishing memorial into a sanctum of veneration. Decker had visited the site for years and developed an interest in Native American folklore.  

“I was just always fascinated by it,” Decker said.

As he was looking for a project to earn his Eagle Scout rank, the highest level in the Boy Scout organization, he said the idea of restoring the Matinecock mass grave clicked in his mind. Research in the church’s archive turned up an original drawing of the site and Decker reached out to Donna Baron, a Matinecock descendant from Little Neck whose ancestors are among those buried, to get her input.

Decker’s father Lee, estimated the cost at about $6,000, including donated time and materials as well as money raised by the teen. Last month, dozens joined in to transform the site over three days.

On Sunday, Wallace lit a bundle of sage called a smudge stick and circled its smoke above a new plaque marking the site and a newly installed stone bench before walking down freshly laid stones in concrete back before the split rock.

“I ask the Creator to continue to bless us and keep us safe,” Wallace said in English before chanting a prayer in his native language. “I ask the Creator to remember our grandmothers and I ask the Creator to remember our grandfathers.”

After the ceremony Baron said the Deckers had given her “a beautiful gift.”

“Our family was finally recognized because they were buried here and basically forgotten,” Baron said. The restored site will bring the Matinecocks new recognition, she said. “Their history is being told and their memory is being kept alive,” she said.

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