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Cambridge will install new street signs with road names translated into the Massachusett language in a multi-year initiative to recognize the city’s historical ties to its Indigenous residents.
The project, first approved as part of the city’s 2021 participatory budgeting cycle, will begin with roughly 80 translated street signs on First Street through Eighth Street. An accompanying website will allow residents and passersby to access audio of sign name pronunciations and context around the history of the Massachusett people in Cambridge.
Sage B. Carbone — a member of the Northern Narragansett Indian Tribe of Rhode Island who first proposed the initiative — said Indigenous translations on signs in reservations are commonplace, but the project represents a milestone for Indigenous recognition in Cambridge.
“This is a unique project,” said Carbone, a Cambridge resident. “This is the first time that — in any of our research — I found that the signs are being put on municipal city land.”
The initiative is part of the city’s African American and Indigenous Peoples Historical Reckoning Project, which received $180,000 in funding during the 2021 Participatory Budgeting cycle.
In total, Cambridge allocated $1 million of the city’s 2021 budget to “one-time capital projects to improve Cambridge,” according to the city’s website. Funds for the project became available on July 1, 2022.
While Carbone praised the passage of the initiative, she said the timeline for its implementation has been drawn out since its approval.
“I waited for quite a while — a few months, and then nearly a year — and I hadn’t heard anything about whether the project was moving forward and who was being engaged with it,” Carbone said.
After the initiative’s approval, the city assigned the Cambridge Historical Commission to oversee the project. The commission assembled an advisory group, composed of Carbone and several other volunteers and experts, to select the language, context, and location of the signage.
Sarah L. Burks, the preservation planner at the Historical Commission who assembled the advisory group, acknowledged the delays.
“We wanted, definitely, for members of the Indigenous community to be guiding the process,” Burks said. “So it did take a while to get that discussion flowing.”
Burks added that she was “confused initially” by the purpose of the initiative, but she began to understand its importance after conversations with the advisory group.
“Through the conversation and in our advisory group, it came to be understandable to me that this is more about normalizing seeing the language and its written form,” Burks said. “To be a visual reminder of our Native culture in our day-to-day world.”
Carbone said the signage initiative is just the beginning of a series of reforms she would like to enact “once we get more of the budget of the general funds towards activities, events and engagement.”
She added that she hopes the project will help mitigate what she described as a lack of city-wide programming recognizing Indigenous residents of Cambridge.
“This year, as an example, there were — to my knowledge — zero events that the city hosted to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” Carbone said.
City spokesperson Jeremy C. Warnick wrote in a statement that Cambridge has previously organized Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebrations.
“In the past, the Office of the Mayor has celebrated Indigenous Peoples’ Day with special story times, film screenings have been hosted, and the Cambridge Public Library has compiled a list of books for children, teens, and adults who want to learn more about Indigenous history and culture,” Warnick said.
According to Carbone, the signage project will next move to the city’s Traffic, Parking, and Transportation Department, which will “actually do the physical signage.”
“Cambridge and Boston have always been places where many languages were spoken,” Carbone said. “This is the first time that Cantabrigians will be seeing Indigenous words on their everyday commutes.”
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