Dancers at a Narragansett Tribe powwow. Photo: Jack McLane

Brian Lightfoot Brown: A 'tragic day' for the Narragansett people

A sad day for the Narragansett people
By Brian Lightfoot Brown

December 19th is a tragic day in the history of my tribe, the Narragansett Tribe.

As the only federally recognized tribe in the state of Rhode Island, we are a small tribe, with approximately 2,400 to 2,600 tribal members today. But we once numbered 15,000 to 20,000, prior to European colonization.

As Europeans further encroached upon tribal lands and continued to undermine tribal leaders, tribal culture, religious customs and beliefs, more and more generations were settling in the area and pushing the indigenous population away. After a wave of disease ripped through the New England tribes between 1616 and 1619, the Narragansett somehow managed to avoid losing many to the diseases. This left the Narragansett as the largest and most powerful tribe in the region.

When the youngest son of Wampanoag leader Massasoit, Metacom (or King Philip, as the English knew him) had finally reached his breaking point with the English colonies blatant disregard for the tribes, he waged war on the settlers for hanging Wampanoag men under what he felt were bogus circumstances. The Narragansett vowed neutrality.

As the fall of 1675 wound down and winter approached, colonists from Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, and indigenous scouts felt that the Narragansett weren't keeping their word of remaining neutral when the Narragansett allowed injured Wampanoag to seek shelter with them. The English colonies then set about to attack a large Narragansett fort in the Great Swamp, in present-day South Kingstown, Rhode Island.

On December 19, 1675, my ancestors were ambushed -- estimates range from 600 to 1,000 Narragansett were brutally slaughtered in blizzard-like conditions at their winter fort in the Great Swamp. Most of the Narragansett who were murdered that day were women, children and the elderly. Many were burned alive.

Surviving Narragansett fought on over the next few months but were ultimately defeated when the last of their great sachems were killed. Three-hundred forty-one years ago, the Narragansett had been neutralized and lost control of their freedom in such devastating fashion. The remaining Narragansett were either sold into slavery in the Caribbean, forced into indentured servitude or left to find their own way, without any resources.

Fast forward 318 years to December 19, 1993: the Narragansett Indian Church, on the tribe's reservation in Charlestown, was burned down and the guilty parties endured a conveniently soft punishment considering their wretched deed. Twenty-three years ago, the Narragansett were basically attacked yet again.

Today the Narragansett continue to battle against challenges to the validity of our place in society and our place in what was once our homeland alone. The tribal community continues to find ways to survive and trudge on and refuses to cease to remain.

Even though the church was rebuilt, the scars still exist. But they are scars of survivors and of our undying spirit.

Brian Lightfoot Brown is a member of the Narragansett Tribe. This opinion is his own.