In 1880 the Rhode Island general assembly passed the detribalization act. the purpose of this legislation was to assimilate the Narragansett Indians into the rest of the population of the state. Because by this time the Narragansetts had intermarried with Africans, African Americans –former slaves and escaped slaves, many did not consider them to be ‘real’ Native Americans. Of course this sentiment was not appreciated by the Narragansetts. In addition, this indigenous people, part of the Algonquins, had seen the treatment that former slaves received when they were assimilated after President Lincoln’s successful abolition efforts. Jim Crow laws made it self evident that the white man was never going to consider other races his equal. Therefore they resisted state pressure to ‘take up citizenship.’
A speech by an unnamed Narragansett spokesman claimed : We are not Negroes, we are the heirs of Ninagrit, and of the great chiefs and warriors of the Narragansetts. Because when your ancestors [speaking of whites] stole the negro from Africa and brought him amongst us and made a slave of him, we extended the hand of friendship, and permitted his blood to be mingled with ours. For this we are to be called ‘negroes?’ And to be told that we should become 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 Narragansetts, socially ahead of their time and especially their white neighbors, did not consider themselves a race per se. They had their own culture, and a proud but difficult history that included an epidemic of some ‘white man born’ diseases that just about wiped them out. They also lost just about all their warriors, and many women and children in King Philip’s war, and other conflicts over the centuries. They considered themselves a nation, a multi-racial nation of true equals regardless of skin color. At this time, this nation was situated on about 15,000 acres that the State of Rhode Island desired for its own real estate portfolio.
This purchase of land was prevented by the Non-intercourse act. This was a Federal act, actually, a series of about five acts, that basically blocked states from doing any business, especially land deals, with the Indians unless permission was granted by the Federal Government. The detribalization act was probably intended to circumvent the Non-intercourse act. They negotiated the sale of all but three acres of the Indian’s land for $5,000. The Narragansetts almost immediately regretted their decision and went to work to try to reclaim the property that they just sold to the state, while they remained on the land, kept their group identity, and incorporated in 1900.
It turned out that these illegal land negotiations that attempted to take tribal lands, and the bogus Detribalization Act that threatened to take away the tribe’s identity, and treaty rights, would be a great help to their cause of being declared an Native American Nation about one hundred years later. These negotiations named these 324 Indians. This list made it possible for the descendants of these people to genealogically trace their roots back to these verified Narragansett Indians. In 1983, they were finally granted federal recognition as the ‘Narragansett Indian Tribe of Rhode Island‘ as recorded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. They regained 1,800 acres in 1978 through a Joint Memorandum of Understanding.
The Narragansetts would be subject to all the States laws except those regarding hunting and fishing. Future disagreements about what other sovereignty the Indians would have on their lands arose and in 2003 when the Rhode Island State police, under Governor Carcieri’s orders, raided a smoke shop the tribe opened in order to sell tax free tobacco products. The raid turned into quite a melee. The Chief, Mathew Thomas, and other males and females of the tribe fought hand to hand with uniformed male and female State Police Officers and police dogs, trying to eject them from their store. Fortunately, there were no major injuries or deaths as a result of the brawl.
In 2006 it was determined that although excessive force was used by the police on at least one member of the tribe, who received a broken ankle, the State of Rhode Island was justified in using the thirty State Troopers to enforce Rhode Island law on tribal lands. The back story to the smoke shop raid was the Narragansetts’ struggle to achieve a sovereignty equal to other recognized Native Americans. Under Rhode Island law, which was deemed enforceable on tribal land, only state sponsored gambling was allowed. This crushed the Indians aspirations of keeping the smoke shop open, and eventually opening a casino.
Over a century had passed since Rhode Island’s original efforts to dissolve the tribe, acquire their lands, and assimilate their population. The struggles of these people to hold onto their identity and what little sovereignty they have on their small reservation continue to this day, and include another important legal battle that Governor Carceiri fought hard to win. This battle was over the right of the Narragansetts to expand their reservation by a mere 31 acres. Will the State of Rhode Island spend more in legal expenses than what this land is worth, just to keep it from the Narragansetts?
The Narragansetts acquired these additional 31 acres and desired them to be taken into trust by the Federal government. The State of Rhode Island, then under its current Governor Carciere, did its best to prevent that as well. Their strategy was interesting. They picked apart the legalese of the Federal Act, concerning a single word: ‘Now.’
The fights and struggles continue, and this battle for these 31 acres…is another war story, for another post…
- Tribe to mark anniversary of raid (wpri.com)
- Solidarity expressed with Narragansett Nation (workers.org)
- News | #17 Charlestown: RI’s Best Communities 2013 (golocalprov.com)