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Fanciful view of Roger Williams meeting the Narragansett in 1636.
Fanciful view of Roger Williams meeting the Narragansett in 1636.
By Meteor Blades

One of the menu items you'll see everywhere here in Providence is quahog chowder and, for the really adventurous, exotic dishes like jalapeño-stuffed quahogs. These delicious clams  got their name from the people who lived in Rhode Island before Europeans came — the Narragansetts.

Some 2400 tribally enrolled Narragansetts live in Rhode Island today. Many of them feel they are, like Native people elsewhere in the United States, invisible.

Visible all around Rhode Island, however, are Narragansett names of towns, bodies of water, islands and streets. The word "Narragansett" itself 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.

If you want to add some vegetables to your quahog selection, you might try succotash, (msíckquatash: "boiled corn kernels") or squash (askutasquash: "a green thing eaten raw"). A handful of Narragansett words spread beyond New England. There is, for instance, papoose (papoos: "child") and moose (moos. Plus a word far removed today from its original meaning, powwow (powwaw: "spiritual leader").

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 once all the tribe had left. Some 60 tribal members reside there now. 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 trace their lineage to a Narragansett ancestor.

A Little Narragansett History

• People have lived in the area around Narragansett Bay for thousands of years. The Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano is the first European known to have cruised the coast. That was in 1524.

• In 1617, a plague killed off huge percentages of the tribes in Massachusetts and other parts of New England. The Narragansetts were barely affected by the plague.

• In 1620, when the Mayflower landed at Plymouth in 1620, the Narragansetts were the most powerful tribe in southern New England, perhaps 10,000 people altogether. Their chief enemies were the Wampanoag, the "Thanksgiving" Indians, and the Pequot. They called the English Puritansciauquaquock (“people of the knife”).

Narragansett seal
• In 1636, Roger Williams was thrown out of Massachusetts. He bought land from the Narragansett upon which Providence was built. He had friendly relations with the tribe for 50 years.

• In 1637, the Puritans made war on the Pequots. They burned hundreds of men, women and children at a fort on the Mystic River and sold the survivors into Caribbean slavery. The Narragansett gained some benefit from the slaughter of their enemy, but their Mohegan rivals under the Uncas gained more. They grew ever weaker.

• In 1675, Metacomet, the Wampanoag leader known as "King Philip," decided to make war on the English. By then, the Narragansetts numbered 5000. At first they remained neutral, but the English saw them as allies of the Wampanaog. In the Great Swamp Fight, 1,000 colonial troops and their 150 Mohegan allies killed hundreds of Narrangansett. Captured survivors were sold into slavery or summarily executed in the case of young men.

The Narragansett Fight to Keep Their Identity

• In 1676, many surviving Narragansett fled to the Eastern Niantics and joined their tribe around Charlestown. Today many Niantics also claim Narragansett ancestors.

• In 1782, only 500 Narragansett were left to sign a peace treaty with the English, surrendering all but 15,000 acres of their traditional lands.

• In 1830 the Rhode Island legislature began a 50-year crusade to get rid of the tribe. Legislators claimed they were "mongrels ... in which the African blood predominates." The government wanted them off their remaining land so it could be sold to white settlers. But the legislators did not at first prevail. They tried again in 1852 and 1866, again without success.

• In 1866, the legislature tried again. A Narragansett spokesperson told the legislators:

"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."

• In 1880, Rhode Island detribalized the Narragansetts. The government broke up the reservation and sold the tribe's remaining 15,000 acres at auction, using most of the proceeds to cover tribally incurred debts,. The Narragansetts were left with 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 to stay together. They continued to meet, hold ceremonies and otherwise maintain their customs. After the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the Narragansetts began the long process of regaining tribal status.

Modern Times

• In 1975, the tribe filed a federal lawsuit seeking restoration of 3200 of the acres, five square miles. In 1978, 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, which contains the names of 324 Indians. Except for hunting and fishing, all the laws and rules of Rhode Island applied because the tribe did not yet have federal recognition.

Photo f Lorén Spears, curator of Tomaquag Museum
Lorén Spears, curator of Tomaquag Museum
• The federal government recognized the Narragansett tribe in 1983. But, while recognition provides the tribe with some financial and other benefits from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Narragansetts cannot build a casino or sell cigarettes without paying taxes on them as other tribes can do. It also cannot have its and placed in federal trust to be held in common. The Naragansetts thus 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.

• One of the keepers of the flame today is Lorén Spears, the executive director of Tomaquag Indian Memorial Museum in Exeter. The word tomaquag is Narragansett for "he who cuts." That's the beaver, an animal that once thrived abundantly throughout Rhode Island.

• 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 learn about Narragansett notables like marathon runner Ellison "Tarzan" Brown, known as Deerfoot among his own people. He won the Boston Marathon twice, once in 1936 and in 1939. He was the first ever in the Boston event to break the 2:30 mark (2:28:51).

• 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.

• Flooding caused the school to go on hiatus that same year. But Spears is busy building a curriculum around a film the tribe would like to be used throughout all public schools in Rhode Island. 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 will be organized within the 43-page curriculum. This will be available for downloading from the museum's website, free to teachers who want to use it for their 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.

• No reason exists why such a curriculum couldn't be developed for every school district in the nation where Native people once lived and many still do. 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 should be expected. What are opponents of such curriculums afraid of after all these years?  

Written and published by First Nations News & Views, a project of Neeta Lind (Navajo Nation) and Meteor Blades (Seminole)

Indians have often been referred to as the "Vanishing Americans." But we are still here, entangled each in his or her unique way with modern America, blended into the dominant culture or not, full-blood or not, on the reservation or not, and living lives much like the lives of other Americans, but with differences related to our history on this continent, our diverse cultures and religions, and our special legal status. To most other Americans, we are invisible, or only perceived in the most stereotyped fashion.

We are Meteor Blades (Seminole) and Neeta Lind (Navajo Nation). We designed First Nations News & Views to provide a window into our world. Each Sunday at Daily Kos, we publish a small number of stories and commentaries, both the good and the not-so-good, to present readers with a reminder of where we American Indians came from, what we are doing now and what matters to us.

We wish to make it clear that neither of us makes any claim whatsoever to speak for anyone other than ourselves, as individuals, not for the Navajo people or the Seminole people, the tribes in which we are enrolled as members, nor, of course, the people of any other tribes.

Originally posted to Native American Netroots on Thu Jun 07, 2012 at 04:56 AM PDT.

Also republished by Street Prophets .

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Comment Preferences

  •  I Was At Cahokia Mounds (21+ / 0-)

    in southern Illinois a few weeks ago. One of the exhibits is on trade. They found clams they believe came from RI. I clearly don't think for a second Native American were backwards, but it still stuns me folks in Southern Illinois were trading with people as far away as RI more than a thousand years ago.

    When opportunity calls pick up the phone and give it directions to your house.

    by webranding on Thu Jun 07, 2012 at 05:03:45 AM PDT

    •  They had good river travel (0+ / 0-)

      and must have traded over the mountains or through the Hudson Valley with whatever came before the Iroquois. It would be a real task to keep the clams alive so they wouldn't spoil. But the Mississippian Empire (the nation that built Cahokia) was, from what little we can tell, a rather powerful and wide-ranging state, and had settlements and trade routes across the continent.

      Note, however, that like so many great nations in the Americas, the Mississippian Empire is thought to have collapsed without a conquering power. By the time European disease got there, the civilization that built Cahokia was already gone, just like Teotihuacan before it.

      Male, 21, -4.75/-6.92, born and raised TN-05, now WI-02, remorseless supporter of Walker's recall. Pocan for Congress and Baldwin for Senate!

      by fearlessfred14 on Thu Jun 07, 2012 at 11:13:45 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Awesome first diary of NN12 (18+ / 0-)

    a tribute to the original people.
    Perfect.

    Here is the truth: The Earth is round; Saddam Hussein did not attack us on 9/11; Elvis is dead; Obama was born in the United States; and the climate crisis is real. It is time to act. - Al Gore

    by Burned on Thu Jun 07, 2012 at 05:04:00 AM PDT

  •  I'm thinking that the discomfort (14+ / 0-)

    that has continuously plagued the U.S. despite periods of financial prosperity has so much to do with a sickness inside regarding the arrival, genocide, and takeover of a land that wasn't ours to take, then doubling down with slavery.

    Recognizing truth, teaching truth, learning truth, from our schools to the press would go a long ways towards healing what ails this nation.

    Instead we are still to this day fed a dream that as George Carlin said, you have to be asleep to believe.

    Starting at the beginning, on even as small a scale as this welcome diary out of NN12 does in recognizing the truth of the original people of RI is the way to go, from these small gatherings to the spread of the nation itself.
    Through truth, find the source of the discomfort and begin to heal it for everyone.

    Here is the truth: The Earth is round; Saddam Hussein did not attack us on 9/11; Elvis is dead; Obama was born in the United States; and the climate crisis is real. It is time to act. - Al Gore

    by Burned on Thu Jun 07, 2012 at 05:32:22 AM PDT

  •  Metacomet was aided by his (8+ / 0-)

    his brother's widow, Weetamoo who was one of the most
    extraordinary women in the 17th century. As for Metacomet's fate, it was marked by one of the most shameful acts in colonial history, a history marked by many shameful acts. His head was mounted on a pole and his body cut up and then placed to hand on trees for decades at Plymouth

  •  I really like these stories. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mint julep, Eric Nelson, GreyHawk

    It reminds me of just how far greed will drive people, something I think we should all keep in mind.

    One of my very first DK diaries was about what the whites did to the Indians.

    I have Creek blood in me; not much (one Seminole war chief early in 1800s married a runaway slave, and we come from them) -- not enough to claim anything.  But even if I hadn't, what the Europeans have done is almost beyond belief.

    And what we as a nation continue to do to Native Americans is shameful.

    --

    Republicans chap my ass

    Me

    by Marc in KS on Thu Jun 07, 2012 at 07:08:55 AM PDT

  •  Quahog chowder YUM (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    GreyHawk

    I had the good fortune, in my youth, to work at a cultural institution that hosted a POWWOW every year...  until that time the most I knew about our native American communities was the stories I heard, as an even younger child, about the Mohegan tribe...because I spent my early summers at Mohegan lake and my Dad loved to take us arrow head (and berry) hunting in the woods behind our 'shack' and I loved hearing about WHY there were arrow heads to be found behind our house.

    When I worked at my first POWWOW I got thrown into a world I had never had any contact with and I loved loved loved it...  I got to meet people I never met, experience things I never experienced, learn about a culture I did not know about and taste foods I had never heard of...  

    My experience was a purely cultural one...  not much HISTORY was exchanged but I learned what a FANCY DANCE is, what a SHAWL DANCE is...  how to DRUM so others could dance and just how diverse the native American community is...and how delish FRY BREAD is :)

    From my POWWOW experience I came to have a better basic understanding of Native Americans, their history and especially (for me) the cultural aspects that ARE part of the American persona...  

    and to love FRY BREAD :)   YUM

    oh and I also live in a neighborhood that still goes by its native American name, albeit with a western spelling.

    "You've got to be an optimist to be a Democrat, and a humorist to stay one" - Will Rogers

    by KnotIookin on Thu Jun 07, 2012 at 07:13:53 AM PDT

  •  The Narragansetts have always gotten... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mint julep, GreyHawk

    the shit end of the stick. As a native Rhode Islander I was interested to read the "negro blood" comments. It's something I have always known about but I've never seen it in print. Even our favorite local progressive independent Lincoln Chafee still seems to suffer from his late father's ingrained anti-Narragansett predjudice. Look up the Chafee Rider.

    Nice article MB

    "Congressmen should be just like athletes. They should have to wear the brand of the corporation they're working for." - Robin Williams

    by Independant Man on Thu Jun 07, 2012 at 08:37:34 AM PDT

  •  Wonderful tribute, MB... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Fiona West, Eric Nelson, GreyHawk

    and such a wonderful way to introduce NN12 and the history of Providence, RI. Heartfelt thanks.

    We're walking temples of noise, and when you add tender hearts to this mix, it somehow lets us meet in places we couldn't get to any other way.-Anne Lamott

    by alicia on Thu Jun 07, 2012 at 08:41:10 AM PDT

  •  I just arrived here (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Eric Nelson, GreyHawk

    in Providence, and what a lovely greeting this diary is.  Thanks.

    (For a few paragraphs, it was like one of Ojibwa's diaries.)

    Old people are like old houses - lots of character, but the plumbing leaks.

    by ramara on Thu Jun 07, 2012 at 08:50:40 AM PDT

  •  Enjoyed Reading (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Eric Nelson, GreyHawk

    Thanks for sharing, my heart goes out to you and your people.

  •  A perfect time to run this FNNV story (6+ / 0-)

    Hopefully a number of NN12 participants ill be able to take some time to pay their respects to this First Nations people who are still there by visiting the sites that are theirs, past and present.

    Organ donors save lives! A donor's kidney gave me my life back on 02/18/11; he lives on in me. Please talk with your family about your wish to donate.

    Why are war casualty counts "American troops" and "others" but never "human beings"?

    by Kitsap River on Thu Jun 07, 2012 at 11:02:55 AM PDT

  •  Thanks for this diary. I liked the mix of (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Eric Nelson, GreyHawk, alicia

    history, from the 1500's all the way to the present -- very succinct, but affecting -- and information about the Narragansetts now.  Ms Spears is impressive.  I'd love to see the museum, and I hope she's able to get that film out into the schools.

    I remember growing up partly in Indiana, and never realizing, in elementary school, that it was named that because it had been Indian land.

    For kids to grow up knowing something about the native people of their own home region could really change awareness on many levels.

    Best to all of you at NN '12!  Enjoy it for us all, and come back with lots of ideas and info and energy!

    --------------- --------------- --------------- "Every part of you belongs to you." -- from a story of Virginia under the Personhood law. Read it here.

    by Fiona West on Thu Jun 07, 2012 at 07:17:39 PM PDT

  •  This is a nice write up of Lorén Spears and her.. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    GreyHawk, alicia

    ..work in The Westerly Sun - March 3, 2012 11:45 pm | Updated: 9:14 am, Mon Mar 5, 2012. By CASSIDY SWANSON  

    Narragansett Lorén Spears, executive director of the Tomaquag Indian Memorial Museum in Exeter, hopes the new material will help educate local youth about the Narragansetts — something she did not have when she was in school.

    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,” Spears notes in the curriculum.

    She's got a plan:
    “The curriculum is connected to the grade span expectations” for different academic subjects, Spears said. “We really worked at that, because a lot of times in this modern world, teachers are like, ‘Well, how do we incorporate that and still meet our required expectations?’ So we did a lot with that.”
    And she's doing it:
    Spears, who holds a master’s degree in education, has a vested interest in incorporating native studies into the classroom. She founded and ran the Nuweetooun School, a kindergarten through eighth grade private school adjacent to the museum, for 7 years, until the school was forced into hiatus after the March 2010 flooding. The school integrated native culture and history into all aspects of the curriculum: language arts, mathematics, science, history and health.
    She's got a target:
    “This is targeting kids sort of in the middle school age group,” Spears said. “Although, there’s a lot of content that, really, mainstream people don’t necessarily know, unless they’ve gone to college and are studying native history.”
    Named the hurdles:
    • The curriculum also covers the issue of de-tribalization — a main factor in the “invisibility” of native culture.

    • “There really is no U.S. history without native history,” Spears said.

    Lorén Spears is creating a tool for all children, that has been missing from the every day curriculum since - always. This is a very good thing

    Thx MB

  •  Next time we are in RI (0+ / 0-)

    we will be sure to look up the Tomaquag Indian Memorial Museum in Exeter.  

    Mr Pinhole is among those who has white settlers from the area in his background.  However he is well aware of the injustices and genocide in general terms that they caused.  

    It is important that history not be white-washed and told from one "side" only.  History, like current events, is complex; full of human shame and brilliance.  

    Thanks MB for this peek into a place of regional history.  It leaves one with more questions than answers.  

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