A slight different version of this diary first appeared Sunday as a segment of the 15th edition of First Nations News & Views, an element of the "Invisible Indians" project created by navajo and me. You can read all previous editions here.
Though there are some 2400 tribally enrolled Narragansetts living in Rhode Island today, many of them feel they are, like Native people elsewhere in the United States, invisible. Small wonder. Just 20 miles south of Providence, in Exeter, is a museum devoted to the culture of the Narragansetts and Wampanoags, who also live in Rhode Island, just as they did before the first Europeans stepped onshore. Seventy percent of the museum's visitors are surprised to learn that neither tribe is extinct. Despite hundreds of years of prodigious efforts to extinguish them — to take their land, their culture, their language — they live on. But I'll get to all that momentarily.
Narragansett word "poquauhock"
All around Rhode Island, Narragansett words name towns, bodies of water, islands and streets. The word "Narragansett" itself, which is an apparent English corruption of Nanhigganeuck, means "small point of land." There's Pawtuxet ("Little Falls") Village, which will commemorate its 375th birthday next year, one of the oldest villages in New England. The Hotel Manisses on Block Island takes its name from what the Narragansetts called that island, the "little god place." A ride to the north edge of the city will take you to Wanskuck ("the steep place") Park.
Narragansett word msíckquatash
Today, the descendants of the Narragansetts live throughout Rhode Island. Their tiny reservation is at Charlestown, just 1800 acres (2.8 square miles) surrounding the three acres that was by 1884 all the tribe had left. Some 60 tribal members reside there now. That in itself is practically a miracle given the more than three centuries settlers and militias and government bureaucrats spent trying to obliterate the tribe. In addition to the 2400 enrolled members, there are perhaps another 2000 or so people in Rhode Island and the rest of the United States who can trace their line to a Narragansett ancestor.
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The Narragansetts were fortunate. They were barely affected by the plague. Already strong before the illness struck down their rivals, by the time the Mayflower landed its passengers at Plymouth in 1620, they were the most powerful tribe in southern New England, comprising perhaps 10,000 people. They were enemies of the Wampanoag, the "Thanksgiving" Indians, and the Pequot, with whom they fought regularly. The English, who they called ciauquaquock (“people of the knife”), would not trade with them directly.
In 1636, Roger Williams, who openly said colonists had no right to seize Indian land was forced out of Massachusetts. He bought land from the Narragansett and ushered in a period of trust between him and the tribe that lasted until his death near half a century later.
That trust was early on reinforced when the Narragansett briefly joined the Puritans in a three-year war against the Pequot. In the last year of that war, 1637, the English slaughtered hundreds of Pequot women, children and the elderly by burning them alive inside their palisade fort at Mystic River and selling the survivors into Caribbean slavery. In disgust, the Narragansett went home. Although they gained some benefit from the war, their Mohegan rivals under the sachem Uncas, who had also allied with the English, got the most.
The Narragansett sought to maintain their superiority in southern New England, but events ran out of their control. Over the years of shifting alliances and steady English immigration, many skirmishes occurred, there were a couple of real battles, and the Narragansett wound up paying annual tribute to the English. Isolated, their traditional turf threatened by a tribe the English protected, the Narragansett grew weaker every passing year.
The sachem began his attacks and the English countered. The Narragansett remained neutral for the first six months of what we call King Philip's War. But they took Wampanoag refugees into a fort they had constructed for themselves and waited things out. The English saw this as a violation of neutrality and sent 1,000 colonial troops and 150 Mohegan scouts to lay siege. In the fighting, the Narragansetts lost 600 warriors and 20 sachems.
King Philip's War was at first a close thing. Some scholars say the allied Indians had a narrow possibility of driving the English out altogether. But after nine months, the insurgent tribes, outnumbered from the beginning, were running short of food, gunpowder and warriors. Metacomet was hunted down, shot in the heart, hanged and decapitated. His head was sold for 30 shillings.
The Narragansett Fight to Keep Their Identity
of the Eastern Blanket Dance
In 1830 the state sought to portray them as unworthy to be a tribe. "Forty years ago this was a nation of Indians, now it is a medly [sic] of mongrels in which the African blood predominates," read a report from a committee of the legislature. The real motivation behind this claim could be found in the recommendation that a white overseer be appointed and the land be sold for "publick uses" as soon as the tribe was deemed extinct.
The legislature tried again in 1852. A report stated: "While there are no Indians of whole blood remaining, and nearly all have very little of the Indian blood, they still retain all the privileges which belonged to the Tribe in ancient times." And those, it said, should be extinguished. The Narragansetts successfully resisted.
In 1866, they resisted again. This time the oratory against the effort to break up their tribe and make them citizens was couched in language that explicitly attacked racial prejudice:
"We are not negroes, we are the heirs of Ninagrit, and of the great chiefs and warriors of the Narragansetts. Because, when your ancestors stole the negro from Africa and brought him amongst us and made a slave of him, we extended him the hand of friendship, and permitted his blood to be mingled with ours, are we to be called negroes? And to be told that we may be made negro citizens? We claim that while one drop of Indian blood remains in our veins, we are entitled to the rights and privileges guaranteed by your ancestors to ours by solemn treaty, which without a breach of faith you cannot violate."The Narragansett had responded that they were a multiracial nation, culturally Indian, thereby turning the emerging "one-drop" rule on its head. Once more, their resistance succeeded.
But in 1880, just as the federal government would seek to do with all the tribes, Rhode Island detribalized the Narragansetts. This was illegal under federal law, but Washington did not intervene. At the time, there were 324 people the state considered part of the "mongrel" tribe. The government broke up the reservation, sold the remaining 15,000 acres at auction using most of the money to cover incurred debts, and leaving only the three acres around the Indian church founded in 1744. The state ended all treatment of the tribe as a political entity.
Despite detribalization, however, the Narragansetts took great pains over the next half century to continue meetings and ceremonies, maintaining the customs as best it could under trying circumstances. In 1900, it incorporated. After the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the Narragansetts began the long process of regaining tribal status.
It was not until 1975, however, that the tribe filed a federal lawsuit seeking restoration of 3200 of the acres taken nearly a century before, five square miles. Three years later, it signed an agreement with Rhode Island, the muncipality of Charlestown and white property owners for 1800 acres to be turned over to the tribal corporation and held in trust for the descendants of the 1880 Narragansett Rolls.
tries to hold back a Rhode Island State Police officer
from entering the Narragansett Indian Smoke Shop
in Charlestown, R.I., in 2003. The tribe claimed it had
the sovereign right not to collect taxes there.
The lack of sovereignty was punctuated in 2009, when U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Narragansetts and other tribes in the case of Carcieri v. Salazar. The tribe had purchased 31 acres that it wished to have brought into federal trust lands governed by the Department of Interior. The department agreed to do so. Rhode Island appealed administratively and then in the courts, losing until the case reached the Supreme Court. The state argued that the vague wording of the Indian Reorganization Act did not allow the federal government to transfer land into federal trust for tribes that were not recognized before 1934. The Court agreed in a decision affecting not just the Narragansetts but 30 other tribes. Since then, bills have been drafted for a legislative "fix," but none has yet emerged from committee. President Obama has made a statement hinting that the Department of Interior should be able to transfer land to tribes recognized after 1934, but the executive branch cannot take unilateral action. Meanwhile, the Charlestown Citizens Alliance and the RI Statewide Coalition continue to oppose anything that would give the Narragansett more control over their own affairs.
Thus, politically, the Naragansetts remain in a kind of tribal limbo, without the full rights of other tribes, but better off than the many unrecognized tribes with no rights at all.
Culturally, it's a different matter. The Narragansett know who they are. All that resistance in the face of great odds has bound them together in pride over the generations. While their blood mingled, their spirit and unforgotten traditions has kept them united.
The museum's exhibits focus on the Narragansetts' past, both distant and recent, but its mission is educate everyone, including Waumpeshau (white people), about Native history, culture, art and philosophy:
[Visitors can explore] Narragansett history through The Pursuit of Happiness: An Indigenous View, which reflects on the denial of our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The exhibit focuses on Education, Spirituality, Political and Economic Sovereignty, Love and Family, and the importance of traditional language.
Citing the marathon historian Tom Derderian, Gary David Wilson writes of Brown:
He was regarded by most as a freak — undisciplined and uncontrollable, a child of nature, an awesome natural talent — and if he won or lost it was because of his unalterable nature. Thus, as an Indian with physical gifts, he would never get personal credit for what he accomplished. It was expected he could run — he was an Indian, after all — so he got no credit for character, courage or work ethic. If he succeeded it was because he did what his handlers prepared him to do, like a thoroughbred racehorse. When he failed, it was his own fault, because he was "just an Indian."As Wilson says, few even in the running community know of him today, though there is now a book on his life.
The museum is only part of Spears's work. Her teaching background with at-risk kids spurred her to establish the Nuweetoun School adjacent to the museum to teach kindergarten through 8th grade children in a supportive environment that adds Native culture and history to all areas of study. For her work, she was chosen as one of 11 Extraordinary Woman honorees for 2010 in Rhode Island. Writes Leslie Rovetti:
The building that houses the school used to be her grandparent's business, the Dove Crest Restaurant, which served raccoon pot pie, cornmeal pudding, cod cakes, succotash, venison and native clam bakes, in addition to more common foods like steaks and "the most amazing double-stuffed potatoes," Spears said. When the building that was the restaurant's gift shop became the museum, she said her grandmother was on the founding board.Because of flooding, the school is on hiatus. But Spears is busy with a new grant-funded project, building a curriculum the tribe would like to be used throughout all schools in Rhode Island. The curriculum would be used together with the film, Places, Memories, Stories & Dreams: The Gifts of Inspiration. Spears says she remembers “being in a history class during my elementary days and actually reading that I supposedly didn’t exist, that my family didn’t exist, that my people didn’t exist.”
The film features traditional Narragansett stories and an oral history presented by tribal elder Paulla Dove-Jennings (aka SunFlower), a renowned Indian storyteller. Once the project is complete, the film’s six segments narrated by Dove-Jennings will be organized within the 43-page curriculum. That will be available for downloading from the museum's website, free to teachers who want to use it for lessons.
If the curriculum comes to be widely used in Rhode Island schools, it might go a long way toward ending the Narragansetts' invisibility in the very place they lived for so many milleniums. That would be a very good thing.
Indeed, no reason exists why such a curriculum couldn't be developed for every school district where Native people once lived and many still do, even if nobody notices until there's trouble. But widespread adoption of such curriculums tailor-made to local circumstances means discomfort for many people when Indians and all we represent in this country — culturally, politically, historically — emerge from invisibility. Strong opposition could be expected. What are they afraid of after all these years?