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Narragansett people

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Narragansett people

The Narragansett tribe are an Algonquian Native American tribe from Rhode Island. For a long time, the tribe was nearly landless, but it worked to regain federal recognition, which it achieved in 1983. It is officially the Narragansett Indian Tribe of Rhode Island and re-established sovereignty. It is made up of descendants of tribal members who were identified in an 1880 treaty with the state.


In 2009, the United States Supreme Court ruled against the Narragansett request that the Department of the Interior take land into trust which they had acquired in 1991. In Carcieri v. Salazar, the Court ruled that tribes that had achieved federal recognition since the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act did not have standing to have newly acquired lands taken into federal trust and removed from state control.


The Narragansett tribe was recognized by the federal government in 1983 and controls the Narragansett Indian Reservation, 1,800 acres (7.3 km2) of trust lands in Charlestown, Rhode Island. A small portion of the tribe resides on or near the reservation, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. Additionally, they own several hundred acres in Westerly.

In 1991, the Narragansetts purchased 31 acres (130,000 m2) in Charlestown for development of elderly housing. In 1998, they requested that the Department of the Interior take the property into trust on behalf of the tribe, to remove it from state and local control. The case went to the United States Supreme Court, as the state challenged the removal of new lands from state oversight by a tribe recognized by the US after the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. Rhode Island was joined in its appeal by 21 other states.

In 2009, the US Supreme Court ruled that tribes which achieved federal recognition after the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act could not have the Department of the Interior take their lands into trust if they were acquired after federal recognition, removing them from state control. Their determination was based on four words in the act, referring to its definition of "Indian" as "all persons of Indian descent who are members of any recognized tribe now under federal jurisdiction" (emphasis added).


The tribe is led by an elected tribal council, a chief sachem, a medicine man, and a Christian leader. The entire tribal population must approve major decisions. The current administration is as follows:

  • Chief Sachem: Matthew Thomas
  • Medicine Man: John Brown
  • First Councilman: Cassius Spears, Jr.
  • Second Councilman: John Pompey
  • Secretary, John Mahoney
  • Councilpersons:
  • Yvonne Simonds Lamphere
  • Betty Johnson
  • Walter K. Babcock
  • Lonny Brown
  • Mary Brown
  • New temporary Council Members as of October 2016
  • Name and language

    The word Narragansett means literally "(People) of the Small Point". Traditionally, the tribe spoke the Narragansett language, a member of the Algonquian languages family. The "point" referred to may be on the Salt Pond in Washington County, identified as RI Site 110. The language became almost entirely extinct during the Narragansetts' centuries of living within the larger English-majority society and their assimilation.

    The tribe has begun language revival efforts, based on early 20th century books and manuscripts, and new teaching programs. The Narragansetts spoke a "Y-dialect", similar enough to the "N-dialects" of the Massachusett and Wampanoag to be mutually intelligible. Other Y-dialects include the Shinnecock and Pequot languages spoken historically by tribes on Long Island and in Connecticut, respectively.

    In the 17th century, Providence founder Roger Williams learned the tribe's language. He documented it in his 1643 work A Key Into the Language of America. Williams gave the tribe's name as Nanhigganeuck.

    American English has absorbed a number of loan words from Narragansett and other closely related languages, such as Wampanoag and Massachusett. Such words include quahog, moose, papoose, powwow, squash, and succotash.

    Early history

    Historically, the Narragansetts 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 the Pawcatuck 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 explorer Giovanni de Verrazano visited Narragansett Bay.

    17th century

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

    In the fall of 1621, the Narragansetts sent a sheaf of arrows wrapped in a snakeskin to the newly established English colony at Plymouth as a threatening challenge. Plymouth governor William Bradford sent the snakeskin back filled with powder and bullets. The Narragansetts understood the message and did not attack the colony.

    European settlement in the Narragansett territory did not begin until 1635; in 1636, founder Roger Williams acquired land use rights from the Narragansett sachems. In 1636, Narragansett sachems (leaders), Canonicus and Miantonomi sold the land that became Providence to Roger Williams, a leader of English colonists.

    Pequot War

    During the Pequot War of 1637, the Narragansetts allied with the New England colonists. However, the brutality of the English in the Mystic massacre shocked the Narragansetts, who returned home in disgust. After the Pequots were defeated, the English gave captives to both of their allies. The Narrangansetts had conflict with the Mohegans over control of the conquered Pequot land.

    In 1643, Miantonomi led the Narragansetts in an invasion of what is now eastern Connecticut. They planned to subdue the Mohegans and their leader Uncas. Miantonomi had an estimated 900-1,000 men under his command. The Narragansett forces fell apart, and Miantonomi was captured and executed by Uncas' brother. The following year, Narragansett war leader Pessicus renewed the war with the Mohegans. With each success, the number of Narragansett allies grew.

    The Mohegans 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 Indians and settlers.

    King Philip's War

    As missionaries began to convert tribal members, many Indians feared that they would lose their traditions by assimilating into colonial culture. The colonial push for religious conversion collided with Indian resistance. In 1675, John Sassamon, a converted "Praying Indian", was found bludgeoned to death in a pond. The 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 Wampanoags. Three Wampanoag men were arrested, convicted, and hanged for Sassamon's death.

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

    The leaders of the United Colonies (Massachusetts, Plymouth, and Connecticut) accused the Narragansetts of harboring Wampanoag refugees. They made a preemptive attack on the Narragansett palisade fortress in Rhode Island on December 19, 1675 in a battle that became known by the colonists as the Great Swamp Fight. Hundreds of Narragansett men, women, and children perished in the colonists' attack and burning of the fort, but nearly all their warriors escaped. In January 1676, English colonist Joshua Tefft was hanged, drawn, and quartered by colonial forces at Smith's Castle in Wickford, Rhode Island. He had fought on the side of the Narragansetts 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 losses, and the lack of gunpowder caused the Indian effort to collapse.

    Raiding parties from Connecticut composed of the colonists and Mohegan allies swept into Rhode Island and killed substantial numbers of the now-weakened Narragansetts. A mixed force of Mohegans and Connecticut militia captured Narragansett sachem Canonchet a few days after the destruction of Providence. A mixed force of Plymouth militia and Wampanoags hunted down Metacomet. He was shot and killed, ending the war in southern New England, although it dragged on for another year in Maine.

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

    18th century

    In the 1740s during the First Great Awakening, colonists founded the Narragansett Indian Church to convert Indians to Christianity. The tribe continued to retain control and ownership of the church and its surrounding 3 acres (12,000 m2), the only land that it could keep. This continuous ownership was critical evidence of tribal continuity when the tribe did the research and documentation needed to gain federal recognition, which it successfully did in 1983.

    19th century

    In the 19th century, the tribe resisted repeated state efforts to declare that it was no longer an Indian tribe because its members were multiracial in ancestry. They contended that they absorbed other ethnicities into their tribe and continued to identify culturally as Narragansetts.

    The tribal leaders resisted increasing legislative pressure after the American Civil War to "take up citizenship" in the United States, which would have required them to give up their treaty privileges and Indian nation status. While testifying about the issue to the state legislature, a Narragansett spokesman said that his people saw injustices under existing US citizenship. He noted Jim Crow laws that limited the rights of blacks despite their citizenship under constitutional amendments.

    The Narragansetts also resisted suggestions that multiracial members could not qualify as full members of the tribe. The Narragansetts had a tradition of bringing other people into their tribe by marriage and having them assimilate as culturally Narragansett, especially as their children grew up in the tribe.

    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.

    From 1880-84, the state persisted in its efforts at "detribalization". The tribe had agreed to negotiations for sale of its land, but it quickly regretted the decision and worked to regain the land. In 1880, the state recognized 324 Narragansett tribal members as claimants to the land during negotiations. The state put tribal lands up for public sale in the 19th century, but the tribe did not disperse and its members continued to practice its culture.

    20th century

    The Naragansetts lost control of much of their tribal lands during the state's late 19th century detribalization, but they kept a group identity. The tribe incorporated in 1900 and built their longhouse in 1940 as a traditional 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 gained federal recognition as a tribe in 1983. 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 Narragansetts and other tribes of the New England area, as well as Europeans and Africans.

    21st century

    A 2006 survey conducted in preparation for development of a new residential subdivision revealed what archaeologists consider the remains of a Narragansett Indian village dating from 1100 to 1300. It is located at the top of Point Judith Pond in Narragansett, Rhode Island. This area had been identified in a 1980s survey as historically sensitive, and the state had a conflict with the developer when more remains were found. The state intervened in order to prevent development and to buy the 25-acre site for preservation; it was part of 67 acres planned for development by the new owner.

    Further archaeological excavation on the site quickly revealed that it was one of two villages on the Atlantic Coast to be found in such complete condition. The other pre-Columbian village (Otan in Narragansett Algonquin) is in Virginia. It has a high concentration of permanent structures.

    Preliminary surveys of the Narragansett tract, known as RI 110, have revealed a village with perhaps as many 22 structures, as well as three known human burial sites. There is also evidence of granaries, ceremonial areas and storage pits that may shed new light on the importance of maize agriculture to woodland tribes.

    Historians and archeologists knew that maize was cultivated by Algonquin tribes, but there has never been physical evidence before the discovery of this site. The tribe's method of grinding the kernels into a powder was not conducive to preservation. In the first week of excavation, 78 kernels of corn were found at this site, the first time that cultivation of maize could be confirmed this far north on the Atlantic Coast.

    The current members of the Narragansett tribe have contributed through oral history to accounts about the ancient people who inhabited this site. They were members of the Turtle Clan, and the settlement was a conduit for trade in medicines. They used the surrounding pond and its many islands for hunting camps, resource collection, fishing, shellfish, burial sites, and herbal collections for medicine and ceremony.

    Providence founder Roger Williams was brought to the top of Sugarloaf Hill in nearby Wakefield when treating with the Narragansett tribe. They pointed toward this large settlement and told him that it was called Nanihigonset. This site is now believed to be the center of the Narragansett geography, where they coalesced as a tribe and began to extend their dominion over the neighboring tribes at different points in history.

    Land claim suit

    In January 1975, the Narragansett Tribe filed suit in federal court to regain 3,200 acres (13 km2) of land in southern Rhode Island which they claimed the state had illegally taken from them in 1880. The 1880 Act authorizing the state to negotiate with the tribe listed 324 Narragansetts 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. The state transferred a total of 1,800 acres (7.3 km2) to a corporation formed to hold the land in trust for descendants of the 1880 Narragansett Roll. In exchange, the tribe agreed that the laws of Rhode Island would be in effect on those lands, except for hunting and fishing. The Narragansetts had not yet been federally recognized as a tribe.

    Federal recognition

    The tribe prepared extensive documentation of its genealogy and proof of continuity as descendants of 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 Court of Appeals reversed the prior decision, stating that 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 to be illegal all non-state-run lotteries or gambling. 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 that it constructed along RI Route 2 (South County Trail) to serve as a place of American Indian cuisine and cultural meeting house. These plans have been in the works for more than 15 years. The Longhouse was built in 1940 and has fallen into disrepair. Upgrades are also being planned for the Narragansett tribal medical, technological, and artistic systems.

    The Narragansetts have undertaken efforts to review tribal rolls and reassess applications for membership, like numerous other tribes in the 21st century. They currently require tribal members to show direct descent from one or more of the 324 members listed on the 1880-84 Roll, which was established when Rhode Island negotiated land sales.

    The current population numbers about 2,400 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) in the fall of 2008, a case determining American Indian land rights. 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 the Interior (DOI) over its authority to take land into trust on behalf of certain American Indians.

    The authority was part of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, but the state argued that the process could not hold for tribes that achieved federal recognition after 1934. The US Supreme Court upheld the state based on language in the act. At issue is 31 acres (130,000 m2) of land in Charlestown which the Narragansetts purchased in 1991. The Narragansetts requested the DOI to take it into trust on their behalf in order to remove it from state and local control, after trying to develop it for elderly housing under state regulations in 1998.

    Cultural institutions

    The Narragansett Tribe operates the Tomaquag Indian Memorial Museum in Exeter, Rhode Island. They run the Nuweetooun School at the museum, exclusively for the Narragansett children.

    The Narragansett Tribe hosts their annual August Meeting Powwow, which takes place the second weekend of August on their reservation in Charlestown, Rhode Island. It is a gathering of thanksgiving and honor to the Narragansett people and is the oldest recorded powwow in North America, dating back to 1675 (earliest colonial documentation of the gathering, since the powwow had almost certainly been centuries old before European contact).

    Notable Narragansetts

    The following are listed in alphabetical order by surname.

  • Earl W. Bascom (1906–1995), a descendant of Narragansett Chief Miantonomo, rodeo pioneer, rodeo champion, inventor, artist/sculptor, Hollywood actor, Hall of Fame inductee, international honoree of the National Day of the Cowboy, "Father of Modern Rodeo" and "Father of Brahma Bull Riding".
  • Tiffany Cobb (1976–present), R&B singer who is of Narragansett, Cape Verdean, French, German, English, and Scots ancestry.
  • Ella W.T. Sekatau Ph.D. (1928–2014), Medicine Woman, ethno-historian, linguist, spokeswoman, cultural teacher, adviser, and artisan. Responsible for the reintroduction of cultural traditions and values. First to re-introduce the original dialect of "Narragansett".
  • Ellison "Tarzan" Brown (1914–1975), two-time Boston Marathon winner (1936, 1939) and 1936 U.S. Olympian
  • Sonny Dove (1945–1983), basketball player
  • George Fayerweather (1802–1869), blacksmith in Kingston, Rhode Island of Narragansett-African descent who was host to anti-slavery activists; his wife Sarah Harris Fayerweather, also a free person of color, was particularly active in the movement
  • John Christian Hopkins (born 1960), journalist
  • Nancy Elizabeth Prophet (1890–1960), sculptor of African-Narragansett descent
  • Russell Spears (1917–2009), stonemason
  • Princess Red Wing (1896–1987), historian, museum curator and Squaw Sachem of the New England Council of Chiefs
  • Loren Spears, educator, writer
  • Stone Wall John (c. 1625–c. 1700), stonemason
  • Raymond Two Hawks Watson, activist is of African American and Narragansett ancestry. In 2016 he won a $300,000 innovation grant from the Rhode Island Foundation
  • Eric Tate, Yeti truther
  • Patrick Reardon, Recruitment Operations Manager, Maxim Healthcare
  • References

    Narragansett people Wikipedia

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