The Narragansett tribe are a Algonquian Native American tribe from Rhode Island. Today they are enrolled in the Narragansett Indian Tribe of Rhode Island, a federally recognized tribe.
The Narragansett tribe controls the Narragansett Indian Reservation, 1,800 acres (7.3 km2), or 3.357 square miles acres of trust lands in Charlestown, Rhode Island. A small portion of the tribe resides on or near the reservation, whose population is 60, 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 housing for the elderly. In 1998 they requested that DOI take the property into trust, thereby removing it from state and local control.
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 word “Narragansett” means, literally, “People of the Small Point.” Traditionally the tribe spoke the Narragansett language, an Algonquian language. The language went almost extinct, but tribal members are trying to revive it from books in the early 20th century and then teach it to the next generations. The Narragansett 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.
In the 17th century, Roger Williams, a co-founder of Rhode Island, learned the tribe’s language, documenting it in his 1643 work, A Key Into the Language of America. Williams gave the tribe’s name as “Nanhigganeuck”, of which “Narragansett” seems to be an English corruption. 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,” “papoose,” “powwow,” “squash, and “succotash.”
They were historically 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 Pawcatuck River on the southwest. The Narragansett culture has existed in the region for centuries. with extensive trade relations. The first European contact was in 1524, when Giovanni de Verrazano visited Narragansett Bay.
They escaped the epidemics that ravaged tribes further south on the coast in 1617. European settlement in their territory did not begin until 1635, and in 1636 Roger Williams acquired land use rights from the Narragansett sachems. It was later that Europeans and Native Americans realized they had different conceptions of land use.
As the Native Americans suffered extensive losses from King Philip’s War, the Narragansett absorbed members of other, smaller tribes to keep an Indian identity. The Niantic tribe became fully merged into the Narragansett. During colonial and later times, tribe members also intermarried with Europeans, Africans, and African-Americans, making spouses and children part of the tribe and keeping a tribal identity.
Between 1616 and 1619, pandemics originating from infectious diseases carried by European fishermen killed thousands of New England Algonquians. When the English started colonizing New England in 1620, the Narragansetts had not been affected by the epidemic and were the most powerful native nation in the southern area of the region. Massasoit of the Wampanoag nation allied himself to the English at Plymouth as a way to protect the Wampanoags from Narragansett attacks.
In the fall of 1621, the Narragansetts sent a “gift” of a snakeskin filled with arrows to the newly established English colony at Plymouth. The “gift” was really a threatening challenge. The governor of Plymouth, William Bradford, sent the snakeskin back, but this time it was filled with bullets. The Narragansetts understood the message and did not attack the colony.
In 1636, the Narragansett sachems (leaders), Canonicus and Miantonomi sold the land that became Providence to Roger Williams. During the Pequot War, the Narragansetts were allied with the New England colonists. However, the brutality of the English shocked the Narragansetts, who returned home in disgust. After the defeat of the Pequot, there was ongoing conflict with the Mohegans over control of the conquered Pequot land.
In 1643 the Narragansetts under Miantonomi invaded what is now eastern Connecticut. The plan was to subdue the Mohegan nation and its leader Uncas. Miantonomi had between 900-1000 men under his command. The invasion turned into a fiasco, and Miantonomi was captured and then executed by Uncas’ brother. The following year, the new war leader Pessicus of the Narragansetts renewed the war with the Mohegan. 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 would last for the next thirty years, but the encroachment by the growing colonial population gradually began to erode any accords between natives and settlers.
As missionaries began to convert tribal members, many natives feared the assimilation of native traditions into colonial culture. The colonial push for religious conversion collided with native resistance to assimilation. In 1675, John Sassamon, a converted “Praying Indian”, was found bludgeoned to death in a pond. Facts about Sassamon’s death never surfaced. 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 Wampanoags were arrested, convicted, and hanged for Sassamon’s death. Metacomet subsequently declared war on the colonists.
Metacomet escaped the attempt to trap him in the Plymouth Colony and the uprising spread across Massachusetts as other bands, such as the Nipmucs joined the fight. They waged successful attacks on settlements in Massachusetts and Connecticut, but Rhode Island was spared at the beginning as the Narragansetts remained officially neutral. However, the leaders of the United Colonies (Massachusetts, Plymouth, and Connecticut) accused the Narragansetts of harboring Wampanoag refugees. As a result, the United Colonies made a preemptive attack on the Narragansett palisaded fortress in Rhode Island on December 19, 1675 in what became known as the Great Swamp Fight. Hundreds of old men, women, and children perished in the battle and burning of the fortress, but nearly all the warriors escaped to fight another day. The Indians retaliated with their great spring offensive beginning in February 1676 which saw the destruction of all white settlement on the western side of Narragansett Bay, including the burning of Providence on March 27, 1676. Among the houses destroyed was Roger Williams’ home. All over New England the Indian offensive led to the destruction of 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 loses, and the lack of powder caused the Indian effort to collapse.
Rading parties from Connecticut composed of the colonists and Indian allies, such as the Pequots and Mohegans,swept into Rhode Island and killed substantial numbers of the now-weakened Narragansetts. A mixed force of Mohegans and Connecticut militia captured Canonchet, the chief sachem of the Narragansetts, just a few days after the destruction of Providence and delivered him to Connecticut authorities. When he was told he was to die, he replied, “I like it well that I should die before my heart has grown soft and I have said anything unworthy of myself”. He asked to be executed by Uncas, chief sachem of the Mohegans. Uncas and two Pequot sachems closest to Canonchet’s rank among his captors executed him in Indian style. That done, the English treated Canonchet as a traitor, and his body was drawn and quartered. Metacomet, himself, was hunted down by a mixed force of Plymouth militia and fellow Wampanoags and shot by Alderman, who had earlier served with Metacomet. The war ended in southern New England even though it dragged on in Maine for another year. After the war, some surviving Narragansetts were sold into slavery and shipped to the Caribbean, others became indentured servants in Rhode Island or were merged with local tribes, particularly the Eastern Niantics. Earlier, in January 1676, Joshua Tefft was executed at Smith’s Castle in Wickford, Rhode Island. He was an English colonist who fought on the side of the Narragansett during the Great Swamp Fight of King Philip’s War.
In the 1740s during the First Great Awakening, colonists founded the Narragansett Indian Church, to try to convert more natives to Christianity. The church and its surrounding 3 acres (12,000 m2) were the only property never to leave tribal ownership. This continuous ownership was critical evidence of continuity during the tribe’s long documentation and success in gaining Federal recognition in 1983.
In the 19th century, the tribe resisted repeated state efforts to declare it no longer valid because of intermarriage with other settlers. Tribal leaders resisted increasing legislative pressure after the Civil War to “take up citizenship” in the United States, which required them to give up their treaty privileges and Indian nation status. In testimony to the legislature, a Narragansett spokesperson explained that they saw injustices under existing US citizenship, and pointed to Jim Crow rules then in effect that limited citizenship of blacks despite their rights under the law. They also resisted the idea that any black ancestry was more important than all other ancestry in defining tribal identity. As the Narragansett saw it, they had brought people of European and African ancestry into their tribal nation by marriage and they became Narragansett.
“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 thus 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.
The state persisted in its efforts at “detribalization” from 1880-1884. While the tribe agreed to negotiations for sale of its land, it quickly regretted its action and set about to try to regain the land. In 1880 there were 324 Narragansett tribal members recognized as claimants to the land during negotiations. Although the state put up tribal lands for public sale in the 19th century, the tribe did not disperse and continued to practice its culture.
The Narragansett Indian Church in Charlestown was founded in the 1740s. Constructed in 1994, this building replaced one that burned down.
Although they lost control of much of their tribal lands during the state’s late 19th century “detribalization”, Narragansetts kept a group identity. Among the most notable tribal members was 2-time Boston Marathon winner and 1936 U.S. Olympian Ellison “Tarzan” Brown. In the 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 in 1983 gained Federal recognition as a tribe. According to tribal rolls, there are approximately 2,400 members of the Narragansett Tribe today, most of which are of heritage mixed between Narragansett, many other tribes of the New England area, as well as with European and African descent and very few tribal members who are at least of half Narragansett descent or more.
The tribe incorporated in 1900 and built its longhouse in 1940 as a place for gatherings and ceremonies.
In January 1975 the Narragansett Tribe filed suit in Federal court to regain 3,200 acres (13 km2) of aboriginal land in southern Rhode Island which they claimed the state had illegally taken from them in 1880. The 1880 Act’s 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. A total of 1,800 acres (7.3 km2) was transferred to a corporation formed to hold the land in trust for descendants of the 1880 Narragansett Roll, in exchange for agreeing that, except for hunting and fishing, the laws of Rhode Island would be in effect on those lands, since the Narragansett did not have federal status given back to them as of yet. Since the tribe had no federal status, they were left with no choice but to agree to the state’s stipulations.
The tribe prepared extensive documentation of its genealogy and proof of continuity with 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.
The museum of the Narragansett is the Tomaquag Indian Memorial Museum in Exeter, Rhode Island. The school for the Narragansett children is the Nuweetooun School at the same museum.
Notable Narragansett people
* Ellison “Tarzan” Brown (1914–1975), marathon runner and Olympic athlete
* Canonicus (ca. 1565–1647), chief and diplomat
* Miantonomoh (ca. 1565–1643), chief and nephew of Canonicus
* Russell Spears (1917-2009), stonemason
* Sonny Dove (1945–1983), basketball player
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