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”).
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.