Perspective of the Narragansett Indian Tribe
The Narragansett Indians are the descendants
of the aboriginal people of the State of Rhode Island. Archaeological
evidence and the oral history of the Narragansett People establish their
existence in this region more than 30,000 years ago. This history transcends
all written documentaries and is present upon the faces of rock formations
and through oral history. The first documented contact with the Indians of
Rhode Island took place in 1524 when Giovanni de Verrazano visited
Narragansett Bay and described a large Indian population, living by
agriculture and hunting, and organized under powerful "kings".
The Tribe and its members were considered
warriors within the region. The Narragansett customarily offered protection
to smaller tribes in the area. Certain Nipmuck bands, the Niantics,
Wampanoag, and Manisseans all paid tribute to the Narragansett tribe. These
tribes all resided in areas of Rhode Island at the time of the first
European settlement around 1635. In 1636, Roger Williams acquired land use
rights to Providence from the Narragansett Sachems. The colonists quickly
came into contact with both the Narragansett and Niantic Sachems.
Historically, tribal members had two homes; a
winter home and a summer home. The winter home would be called a long house
in which up to 20 families would live in over the cold winter months. During
the summer, the tribe would move to the shore and construct Wigwams or Wetus,
temporary shelter made of bark on the outside and woven mats on the inside.
They would dig out large canoes from trees which could hold up to forty men.
King Philip's War and the Great
In 1675, the Narragansett allied themselves
with King Philip and the Wampanoag Sachem, to support the Wampanoag Tribe's
efforts to reclaim land in Massachusetts. In the Great Swamp Massacre, a
military force of Puritans from Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, and Connecticut
massacred a group of Narragansett, mostly women, children, and elderly men
living at an Indian winter camp in the Great Swamp located in present day
South Kingstown. Following the massacre, many of the remaining Narragansett
retreated deep into the forest and swamp lands in the southern area of the
State. (Much of this area now makes up today's Reservation). Many who
refused to be subjected to the authority of the United Colonies left the
area or were hunted down and killed. Some were sold into slavery in the
Caribbean, others migrated to upstate New York and many went to Brotherton,
Reservations and Wompesu
During the 18th century, reservation life was
extremely harsh. The State abolished the position of the Sachem, the
traditional tribal leader, and took over the affairs of the Tribe with a
five-man council in 1792. However, tribal members continued to recognize the
Sachems and traditional leadership.
Due to the increase in number of colonists,
the Narragansett hunting and farming grounds were greatly depleted.
Colonists also introduced the common hog to the area. These domesticated
hogs would roar along the coast and dig up the clam beds, a traditional food
source for the Indians.
The Tribe was under great pressure to abandon
the traditional ways and adopt Waumpeshau (white man) ideas of civilization.
As a result of dealing with the Waumpeshau, many debts were incurred which
were paid off by land grants. By the end of the 18th century, the
reservation area had been reduced to 15,000 acres.
In 1790, the U.S. Congress introduced and
passed the Non-Intercourse Act, which prohibited the taking of Indian lands
as payment for debts incurred. However, the intention of the Act was ignored
in the 19th century when the State of Rhode Island unilaterally attempted to
relieve itself of the responsibilities of trustee to the Narragansett
Although Narragansett leaders resisted
attempts by outsiders to take the remaining 15,000 acres of reservation
lands, the State of Rhode Island illegally "detribalized" the Narragansett
Tribe without federal sanction during the period of 1880-1884. After
"detribalization," the Tribe continued to maintain its traditional
government and recognized Sachems, Medicine Men and Women, the Tribal
Council, Sub-Chiefs, Tribal Prophets, the War Chief, and Clan Mothers.
Monthly meetings were held despite the population's dispersion into towns
surrounding the old reservation. Some members who were able to purchase land
remained in the reservation area. The annual gathering meeting, 2nd weekend
in August, continued to be held each and every year. In 1935, Senator
Theodore Frances Greene recognized this gathering and proclaimed the second
Saturday of August as Rhode Island Indian Day. This annual ceremony
continues to this day and marks the Tribe's 333th year in succession.
Many petitions of rebuke were written
by tribal leaders protesting State actions, but to no avail. The Tribal
Council continued to function, and tribal meetings and elections were
conducted between 1889 and 1901. The Tribe raised funds from its members,
compiled a roll and hired an attorney to pursue its land claims. The State
Assembly investigated but rejected a claim for the Rhode Island shoreline in
1884. In 1898, the State Supreme Court heard and rejected another land
After 1901, there continued to be several
leaders who were recognized both by the community and by outsiders as
Narragansett tribal leaders. The Narragansett Tribe of Indians was
incorporated in December 1934. The public once again recognized the offices
of the Chief Sachem, Medicine Man, a nine-member Council, and Scribe and the
office of Prophet were re-established.
Members of the Tribe also began a Native
American magazine called, "The Narragansett Dawn". The magazine was;
"published monthly in the interest of The Narragansett Tribe of Indians".
The magazine ran for approximately three years and copies can be found at
the Smithsonian Museum and the Rhode Island Historic Preservation Society.
The Longhouse was built in the early 1940's
to provide a convenient meeting place for Tribal members. Prior Tribal
Council and Tribal Body meetings were held at the Narragansett Indian
Meeting House (Church) and the local Charlestown tribal homes of the
governing body. The Narragansett Indian Longhouse became the center of
Tribal activities. The three acres of land on which the Indian Church is
located is the only original parcel of tribal land that has never been out
of the possession of the Narragansett Tribe.
Reclaiming the Land
In 1975, the Tribe filed a land claim suit
against the State of Rhode Island and several landowners for the return of
approximately 3,200 acres of undeveloped reservation lands. The suit was
eventually concluded in an out-of-court settlement in 1978 of approximately
1,800 acres. Under state law, the Narragansett Indian Land Management
Corporation was created for the purpose of "acquiring, managing and
purchasing real property" as provided in the land claim settlement. The
corporation was to hold title to the land claim settlement until the
Narragansett Indian Tribe was officially reinstated as a federally
recognized and acknowledged Indian Tribe.
In 1978, with the support of the Native
American Rights Fund, a tribal genealogist was elected to compile data for a
federal status petition. A fifteen-volume petition for federal recognition
was submitted to the Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs in
The Narragansett Indian Tribe received
federal recognition and acknowledgement on April 11, 1983. State
legislation, which transferred title to the Tribe, was enacted in 1985. The
Tribe then initiated procedures in 1985 to obtain federal trust status for
the settlement land. The land was placed in provisional trust, subject to a
completed, tribally approved cadastral survey.
The Narragansett Tribe Today
The Narragansett People have seen many
changes in their lands; however, their traditional culture has been passed
down from generation to generation and is even stronger today. Narragansett
Indian men and women have fought with honor in every war starting with the
United States revolution. Tribal members have careers in every profession
including; doctors, lawyers, teachers, artists, as well as fisherman,
lobsterman, cooks, and masons.
The Tribe has greatly expanded its
administrative capability. Policies and procedures have been implemented to
protect and preserve its land, water and cultural resources and promote the
welfare of Tribal members.
The education, family circle, traditional
ceremonies, and Narragansett language are important aspects of the
Narragansett Indian Tribe's culture and daily lives. Tribal monthly meetings
and other special, traditional gatherings take place at the Four Winds
Community Center, on Route 2 in Charlestown, RI.
Since April 1983, The Narragansett Indian
Tribe, a Sovereign Nation, is a Federally Recognized Tribe of the Federal
Government. The Tribe has been involved with Federally Funded Programs,
which include the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of Indian
Health Services. Through the Federally funded programs the tribe is able to
service many of its Tribal Body members in all aspects of life. The mission
of the Tribe is to continue to promote and develop awareness among Tribal
members the importance of education, culture, and family life within their
own tribal community. Quality job opportunities are being established and
members are seeking out educational opportunities to enhance their
Membership in the Narragansett Indian Tribe
is verified by tracing a person's genealogy to the 1880-1884 Roll, which was
established when Rhode Island illegally "detribalized" the Narragansett
Tribe and to be known in the community. Presently, the Tribal Rolls are
closed. The current population stands at approximately 2400 members. The
majority of Tribal members live in Rhode Island, but members also live in
other states and countries.