The Narragansett

Published on January 5, 2013 by Amy

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Narragansett Administration Building
Narragansett Administration Building


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Early history

Indigenous peoples lived in the New England area for thousands of years. Gradually the Narragansett and other historic tribes arose as descendants of earlier cultures. Historically the Narragansett were one of the leading tribes of New England, controlling the west of Narragansett Bay in present-day Rhode Island, and also portions of Connecticut and eastern Massachusetts, from the Providence River on the northeast to Pawcatuck River on the southwest. The Narragansett culture has existed in the region for centuries. They had extensive trade relations across the region. The first European contact was in 1524, when the explorer Giovanni de Verrazano visited Narragansett Bay.

17th century

Between 1616 and 1619, pandemics originating from infectious diseases carried by European fishermen killed thousands of New England Algonquians in coastal areas south of present-day Rhode Island. At the time the English started colonizing New England in 1620, the Narragansett were the most powerful native nation in the southern area of the region; they had not been affected by the epidemics. Massasoit of the Wampanoag nation allied with the English at Plymouth as a way to protect the Wampanoag from Narragansett attacks.

In the fall of 1621, the Narragansett sent a “gift” of a snakeskin filled with arrows to the newly established English colony at Plymouth. The “gift” was a threatening challenge. The governor of Plymouth, William Bradford, sent the snakeskin back filled with bullets. The Narragansett understood the message and did not attack the colony.

They had escaped the epidemics that ravaged tribes further south on the coast in 1617. European settlement in their territory did not begin until 1635, and in 1636 Roger Williams acquired land use rights from the Narragansett sachems. It was later that Europeans and Native Americans realized they had different conceptions of land use.

In 1636, the Narragansett sachems (leaders), Canonicus and Miantonomi, sold the land that became Providence to Roger Williams. During the Pequot War, the Narragansett allied with the New England colonists. However, the brutality of the English in the Mystic massacre shocked the Narragansett, who returned home in disgust. After the defeat of the Pequot, the Narrangansett had conflict with the Mohegan over control of the conquered Pequot land.

In 1643 Miantonomi led the Narragansett in an invasion of what is now eastern Connecticut. They planned to subdue the Mohegan nation and its leader Uncas. Miantonomi had between 900-1000 men under his command. The forces fell apart, and Miantonomi was captured and executed by Uncas’ brother. The following year, the new war leader Pessicus of the Narragansett renewed the war with the Mohegan. With each success, the number of Narragansett allies grew. The Mohegan were on the verge of defeat when the English came and saved them. The English sent troops to defend the Mohegan fort at Shantok. When the English threatened to invade Narragansett territory, Canonicus and his son Mixanno signed a peace treaty. The peace lasted for the next 30 years, but land encroachment by the growing colonial population gradually began to erode any accords between natives and settlers.

As missionaries began to convert tribal members, many natives feared they would lose their traditions by assimilating into colonial culture. The colonial push for religious conversion collided with native resistance to assimilation. In 1675, John Sassamon, a converted “Praying Indian”, was found bludgeoned to death in a pond. Facts about Sassamon’s death were never settled. Historians accept that Metacomet, the Wampanoag Sachem, may have ordered the execution of Sassamon because of his cooperation with colonial authorities despite the growing discontent among Wampanoag. Three Wampanoag were arrested, convicted, and hanged for Sassamon’s death.

Metacomet subsequently declared war on the colonists, in what the English called King Philip’s War. Metacomet escaped an attempt to trap him in the Plymouth Colony; the uprising spread across Massachusetts as other bands, such as the Nipmuc, joined the fight. The Native Americans wanted to expel the English from New England. They waged successful attacks on settlements in Massachusetts and Connecticut, but Rhode Island was spared at the beginning as the Narragansett remained officially neutral.

The leaders of the United Colonies (Massachusetts, Plymouth, and Connecticut) accused the Narragansett of harboring Wampanoag refugees. They made a preemptive attack on the Narragansett palisade fortress in Rhode Island on December 19, 1675 and the battle became known as the Great Swamp Fight. Hundreds of Narragansett old men, women, and children perished in the colonists’ attack and burning of the fort, but nearly all their warriors escaped. In January 1676, the English colonist Joshua Tefft was hanged, drawn and quartered at Smith’s Castle[10] in Wickford, Rhode Island. He had fought on the side of the Narragansett during the Great Swamp Fight and was considered a traitor.

The Indians retaliated in a widespread spring offensive beginning in February 1676, in which they destroyed all English settlements on the western side of Narragansett Bay. They burned Providence on March 27, 1676, destroying Roger Williams’ house, among others. Across New England, Indians destroyed many towns, and the attackers raided the suburbs of Boston. In spite of waging a successful campaign against the colonists, by the end of March, disease, starvation, battle loses, and the lack of gunpowder caused the Indian effort to collapse.

Raiding parties from Connecticut composed of the colonists and Indian allies, such as the Pequot and Mohegan, swept into Rhode Island and killed substantial numbers of the now-weakened Narragansett. A mixed force of Mohegan and Connecticut militia captured Canonchet, the chief sachem of the Narragansett, a few days after the destruction of Providence and delivered him to Connecticut authorities. When told he was to die, he replied, “I like it well that I should die before my heart has grown soft and I have said anything unworthy of myself.”

He asked to be executed by Uncas, chief sachem of the Mohegan. Uncas and two Pequot sachems closest to Canonchet’s rank among his captors executed him in Indian style. The English treated Canonchet as a traitor, and had his body drawn and quartered. A mixed force of Plymouth militia and Wampanoag hunted down Metacomet. He was shot and killed by Alderman, who had earlier served with him. The war ended in southern New England, although in Maine it dragged on for another year.

After the war, some surviving Narragansett were sold into slavery and shipped to the Caribbean; others became indentured servants in Rhode Island. The surviving Narragansett merged with local tribes, particularly the Eastern Niantic. During colonial and later times, tribe members intermarried with Europeans, Africans, and African-Americans. Their spouses and children were taken into the tribe, enabling them to keep a tribal and Native American cultural identity.

18th century

In the 1740s during the First Great Awakening, colonists founded the Narragansett Indian Church, to try to convert more natives to Christianity. The church and its surrounding 3 acres (12,000 m2) were the only property never to leave tribal ownership. This continuous ownership was critical evidence of continuity during the tribe’s long documentation and success in gaining federal recognition in 1983.

19th century

In the 19th century, the tribe resisted repeated state efforts to declare it no longer valid because of intermarriage with other settlers. They contended that they absorbed others into their tribe. The tribal leaders resisted increasing legislative pressure after the Civil War to “take up citizenship” in the United States, which required them to give up their treaty privileges and Indian nation status. In testimony to the state legislature, a Narragansett spokesperson explained that they saw injustices under existing US citizenship. He noted Jim Crow laws that limited the rights of blacks despite their citizenship under constitutional amendments. They also resisted suggestions that some members did not qualify as Narragansett because of having African or European as well as Native ancestry. As the Narragansett saw it, they had brought people of European and African ancestry into their tribal nation by marriage, after which they and their children became culturally Narragansett.

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 Indians had a vision of themselves as “a nation rather than a race”, and it was a multiracial nation. They insisted on their rights to Indian national status and its privileges by treaty.

The state persisted in its efforts at “detribalization” from 1880-1884. While the tribe agreed to negotiations for sale of its land, it quickly regretted its action and set about to try to regain the land. In 1880 the state recognized 324 Narragansett tribal members as claimants to the land during negotiations. Although the state put tribal lands up for public sale in the 19th century, the tribe did not disperse and its members continued to practice its culture.

20th century

Although they lost control of much of their tribal lands during the state’s late 19th century “detribalization”, the Narragansett kept a group identity. The tribe incorporated in 1900. It built its longhouse in 1940 as a place for gatherings and ceremonies.

In the late 20th century, they took action to have more control over their future. They regained 1,800 acres (7.3 km2) of their land in 1978, and in 1983 gained federal recognition as a tribe. According to tribal rolls, there are approximately 2,400 members of the Narragansett Tribe today. Like most Americans, they have mixed ancestry, with descent from the Narragansett, other tribes of the New England area, as well as Europeans and Africans.

In January 1975, the Narragansett Tribe filed suit in federal court to regain 3,200 acres (13 km2) of aboriginal land in southern Rhode Island, which they claimed the state had illegally taken from them in 1880. The 1880 Act’s authorizing the state to negotiate with the tribe listed 324 Narragansett approved by the Supreme Court as claimants to the land.

In 1978 the Narragansett Tribe signed a Joint Memorandum of Understanding (JMOU) with the state of Rhode Island, Town of Charlestown, and private property owners in settlement of their land claim. A total of 1,800 acres (7.3 km2) was transferred to a corporation formed to hold the land in trust for descendants of the 1880 Narragansett Roll, in exchange for agreeing that, except for hunting and fishing, the laws of Rhode Island would be in effect on those lands. The Narragansett had not yet been federally recognized as a tribe.

The tribe prepared extensive documentation of its genealogy and proof of continuity with the 324 tribal members of treaty status. In 1979 the tribe applied for federal recognition, which it finally regained in 1983 as the Narragansett Indian Tribe of Rhode Island (the official name used by the Bureau of Indian Affairs).

Current events

The state and tribe have disagreed on certain rights on the reservation. On July 14, 2003, Rhode Island state police raided a tribe-run smoke shop on the Charlestown reservation, the culmination of a dispute over the tribe’s failure to pay state taxes on its sale of cigarettes. In 2005 the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals declared the police action a violation of the tribe’s sovereignty. In 2006, an en banc decision of the First Circuit reversed the prior decision, stating the raid did not violate the tribe’s sovereign immunity because of the 1978 Joint Memorandum of Agreement settling the land issues, in which the tribe agreed that state law would be observed on its land.

In a separate federal civil rights lawsuit, the tribe charged the police with the use of excessive force during the 2003 raid on the smoke shop. One Narragansett man suffered a broken leg in the confrontation. The case was being retried in the summer of 2008. Competing police experts testified on each side of the case.

The Narragansett Tribe is negotiating with the General Assembly for approval to build a casino in Rhode Island with their partner, currently Harrah’s Entertainment. The Rhode Island Constitution declares all non-state-run lotteries or gambling illegal. A proposed constitutional amendment to allow the tribe to build the casino was voted down by state residents in November 2006.

The tribe has plans to upgrade the Longhouse along US 2 (South County Trail) as a place of indigenous American cuisine and cultural meeting house. These plans have been in the works for well over 15 years. Originally built in 1940, the Longhouse has fallen into disrepair. Upgrades for Narragansett Indian tribal medical, technological, and artistic systems are also being planned.

The late 20th and 21st century have brought new questions of Native American identity. Like numerous other tribes, the Narragansett have recently undertaken efforts to review tribal rolls and reassess applications for membership. They currently require tribal members to show direct descent from one or more of the 324 members listed on the 1880-1884 Roll, which was established when Rhode Island negotiated land sales that appeared to take away their tribal status.

The current population numbers about 2400, and the tribe has closed the rolls. They have dropped some people from the rolls and denied new applications for membership. Scholars and activists see this as a national trend among tribes, prompted by a variety of factors, including internal family rivalries and the issue of significant new revenues from Indian casinos.

The US Supreme Court agreed to hear Carcieri v. Salazar (2009), a case determining Native American land rights, in the fall of 2008. The Court ruled in favor of Rhode Island in February 2009. The suit was brought by the state of Rhode Island against the Department of Interior (DOI) over its authority to take land into trust on behalf of certain American Indians. While the authority was part of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, the state argued that the process could not hold for tribes that achieved federal recognition after 1934. The US Supreme Court upheld the state. At issue is 31 acres (130,000 m2) of land in Charlestown which the Narrangansett purchased in 1991. After trying to develop it for elderly housing, in 1998 they requested the DOI to take it into trust on their behalf to remove it from state and local control.

Cultural institutions

The museum of the Narragansett is the Tomaquag Indian Memorial Museum in Exeter, Rhode Island. The school for the Narragansett children is the Nuweetooun School at the same museum.

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