By Brian Lightfoot Brown
Ever since Europeans began venturing to and settling in the “New World", the ultimate removal of the Indigenous peoples was to be the plan. Even to the extent of eradicating the Native peoples, in order to make room for themselves. Every tribe has their own distinct story, their own specific moment in time where they were the “problem" for these invaders.
In regards to the Narragansett people of modern-day Rhode Island, December 19, 1675, was a major blow to their society. The Great Swamp Massacre decimated the Narragansett population
greatly. Over the next few months, remaining pockets of Narragansett offered some military resistance, but ultimately not enough.
About 500 Narragansett are believed to have survived the ordeal but were no longer in control of their world. Many were sold into slavery in the Caribbean, some were shot on site, many became indentured servants and others went to the Charlestown, Rhode Island reservation among the Niantic, a smaller tribe who had lived under the protection of the Narragansett.
As the 1700s came and went, many Narragansett had intermarried with members of the black community and some with the white community. This continued through the 11800s and would become grounds for Rhode Island’s General Assembly to pressure the Narragansett into surrendering their tribal status in order to allow the state to buy and sell Indian land. The state had to detribalize the Narragansett to circumvent the 1790 Non-Intercourse Act and then be able to take their land.
The state argued to the tribe that they no longer “looked like red men" due to intermingling their bloodline with black and white bloodlines. The state argued that the tribe no longer spoke their Algonquin language, no longer practiced tribal traditions, no longer dressed as Indians. They stated that the Narragansett were assimilated into the dominant white culture. The Narragansett strongly disagreed and still wished to be viewed and dealt with as a tribe.
The dominant white culture began documenting the Narragansett as practically non-existent and basically extinct. Making such unfounded claims in local newspapers and any other literary forms. Literary genocide. Erasing the Narragansett from the pages of history. Unbeknownst to these writers, politicians and white citizens is that there were still some remaining full bloods and there were still some Narragansett who maintained their language, customs and spirituality, secretly hidden from scrutiny.
Between 1880 and 1884, the Rhode Island General Assembly made a hard push to remove the tribal status of the Narragansett and deem them extinct. Legally, the federal government was the only portion of the government with the “legal authority" to make the determination of a tribe as extinct and the Rhode Island Assembly went ahead and illegally “detribalized" the Narragansett without federal representation.
Undoubtedly, the General Assembly utilized false promises, fast talking and misinformation to lull the tribe into believing they were benefiting from selling their land. 324 Narragansett people were listed as legal claimants and enrolled tribal citizens. The Narragansett tribal lands were reduced to just 2 acres. Immediately, the Narragansett realized they were victims of a misleading deal. The tribe tried constantly to reverse the decision but the state just brushed them aside.
A photo from the collection
of the Boston Public Library shows Narragansett citizen Ellison “Tarzan”
Brown winning the Boston Marathon in 1939.
Conveniently, when Ellison “Tarzan" Brown won the Boston Marathon
in 1936 and 1939, and when he competed in the 1936 Olympics, Rhode Island was more than happy to acknowledge “their Indian" but after that, anything about the tribe got swept back under the rug. In 1934, the Indian Reorganization Act became law and allowed “any tribe that is now under federal jurisdiction", which meant tribes under any form of federal status to place their lands into federal trust. The general understanding was that this meant at the time the land trust status was requested.
In the 1970s, the Narragansett took the State of Rhode Island to court over land and in 1978, the Rhode Island Indian Land Claims Settlement Act was passed, restoring 1800 acres of land to the tribe. The deal did stipulate that, other than aboriginal hunting and fishing rights, the land would be bound by Rhode Island laws and taxes. The tribe saw this as a victory, and rightfully so.
On April 11, 1983, the Narragansett regained their federal recognition status that had been illegally taken and kept from them for about a century. By the early 1990s, the Narragansett began a campaign to open a casino in Rhode Island. The tribes attempts were thwarted at every turn. But IGRA still gave the tribe an option until the late Rhode Island Senator John Chafee slipped a last minute rider on a spending bill which prevented Narragansett tribal land from being eligible to follow IGRA. Former Rhode Island Representative Patrick Kennedy seemed to be the loudest voice in defense of the Narragansett , but to this day the rider is still law.
As the calendar moved us into a new century, the Narragansett were still looking for viable options to help the tribe self-sustain financially. On Saturday, July 12, 2003, the Narragansett opened a tax-free smoke shop on tribal land. Just two days later, on Monday, July 14, 2003, then-Governor of Rhode Island Donald Carcieri sent Rhode Island State Troopers, with an alleged warrant, to shut down the smoke shop. Many recall what transpired next.
An all out raid by the troopers, with tribal members, random customers and media cameras all there. Several tribal members, including the Chief Sachem, were arrested on camera. In the aftermath, many Rhode Island citizens were astonished and sympathized with the tribe. In the midst of the backlash, the Governor and the State Troopers began pointing the finger of blame at one another. Nevertheless, neither the troopers nor the Governor were penalized or reprimanded in any way.
The Narragansett continued to get nowhere with Governor Carcieri and the Governor would stall the tribe once more before leaving office. The tribe had purchased 31 acres of land in 1991 and notified the Department of the Interior of their intent to have the 31 acres placed into federal trust. When the DOI made the state aware of this, the state challenged it in court. The tribe won in court and the state would simply appeal to the next level of court. Eleven years ago today, on February 24, 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court made their ruling and it went against the tribe.
Justice Clarence Thomas determined that in the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, within the phrase “now under federal jurisdiction", that “now" meant when the act was passed. The problem this has created is that it blocks many tribes, like the Narragansett, from being able to follow the land-into-trust process because they obtained federal status after 1934. Many critics have come to the forefront and attempted several tries at a Carcieri “fix" but nothing has been able to bear any fruit.
, which was passed by a wide margin in the Democratic-controlled House
, sits on a shelf collecting dust in the Republican-controlled Senate since May 2019. The bill was originally introduced in the House by Republican Congressman and enrolled citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, Tom Cole. If this bill can become law, it would right a huge wrong in Indian Country. It would correct a blatant injustice.
Certainly in the case of the Narragansett Tribe, why wasn't it asked or looked into as to why they were not “under federal jurisdiction" when the IRA was passed. It seems like common sense was left out of the equation when it’s obvious that the Narragansett had not been “under federal jurisdiction" in 1934 due to being unlawfully held back by the State of Rhode Island. The tribe had no control over the situation and that fact alone, is unjust.
Please push the U.S. Senate to pass H,R.375 and correct an error in Indian Country.
Brian Lightfoot Brown is an enrolled citizen of the Narragansett Tribe and a grand-nephew of Ellison "Tarzan" Brown. This opinion is his own.
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