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Brown University
Built in 1770, University Hall is the first and oldest building at Brown University in Rhode Island. Photo: Kenneth C. Zirkel
Brown University adopts land acknowledgment with pledge to do more
Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Brown University in Rhode Island has adopted a land acknowledgement following consultation with leaders and citizens of the Narragansett Tribe.

Brown President Christina H. Paxson announced the acknowledgment on Tuesday, according to a news release. It reads:

“Brown University is located in Providence, Rhode Island, on lands that are within the ancestral homelands of the Narragansett Indian Tribe. We acknowledge that beginning with colonization and continuing for centuries the Narragansett Indian Tribe have been dispossessed of most of their ancestral lands in Rhode Island by the actions of individuals and institutions. We acknowledge our responsibility to understand and respond to those actions. The Narragansett Indian Tribe, whose ancestors stewarded these lands with great care, continues as a sovereign nation today. We commit to working together to honor our past and build our future with truth.”

Efforts on the land acknowledgment began in March 2021, according to the release. A working group established by Paxson included Sherenté Harris, a Narragansett citizen who arrived at Brown as a new student in 2018.

“If land acknowledgments were to be given here at Brown, it was important to me that they be based on historical fact,” said Harris (they/them/their). “Colonial documents acknowledge that the Narragansett are the Indigenous people of Rhode Island. Our oral history speaks to stories of us in this place since time immemorial. And yet we’re often left out of the historical record. Being seen once more in our homelands is crucial — it is what will allow us to uphold our rights as a sovereign nation, to break free from intergenerational trauma and from the oppressive systems that hold us down.”

The working group was led by Rae Gould, who serves as executive director of Brown’s Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative. She said it was important that the university take additional steps beyond recognizing the historical realities of the campus being Narragansett territory.

“I think this work enabled all of us to think more deeply about what ‘land acknowledgment’ can really mean,” said Gould, who hails from the Nipmuc Tribe, based in neighboring Massachusetts. “It needs to be more than a performative statement recited before an event or gathering. It needs to have meaning and depth. It needs to help respond to the history of dispossession in some way — and we can’t determine what that might mean in a few months or even a year. Figuring that out takes time, patience and layers of conversations.”

As part of those efforts, Brown has committed to developing and supporting research into the origins of the university and its relations with Native people and to work more closely with the Narragansett Tribe, especially on expanding opportunities for Native youth throughout New England. More support is also being promised to Gould’s group and to the Native Americans at Brown student group.

“Committing to a set of actions to educate our community and support broader engagement with the tribe and other Indigenous peoples of the region is critical to understanding our shared history and developing strong relationships,” Paxson said in an announcement on Tuesday, according to the news release.

A number of educational institutions throughout New England have adopted land acknowledgments. One of the first was Harvard University in Massachusetts, whose acknowledgment was developed in 2019:

“Harvard University is located on the traditional and ancestral land of the Massachusett, the original inhabitants of what is now known as Boston and Cambridge. We pay respect to the people of the Massachusett Tribe, past and present, and honor the land itself which remains sacred to the Massachusett People.”

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology adopted a land acknowledgment in 2020, although it is currently being redeveloped to address concerns about accuracy. The original statement reads:

“MIT acknowledges Indigenous Peoples as the traditional stewards of the land, and the enduring relationship that exists between them and their traditional territories. The land on which we sit is the traditional unceded territory of the Wampanoag Nation. We acknowledge the painful history of genocide and forced occupation of their territory, and we honor and respect the many diverse indigenous people connected to this land on which we gather from time immemorial.”

In Connecticut, Yale University has published a land acknowledgment as well. It reads:

“Yale University acknowledges that indigenous peoples and nations, including Mohegan, Mashantucket Pequot, Eastern Pequot, Schaghticoke, Golden Hill Paugussett, Niantic, and the Quinnipiac and other Algonquian speaking peoples, have stewarded through generations the lands and waterways of what is now the state of Connecticut. We honor and respect the enduring relationship that exists between these peoples and nations and this land.”