Narragansett people

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Total population
2400 (1990s[1])
Regions with significant populations
United States (Rhode Island)
Formerly Narragansett, now English
Traditional tribal religion,
Related ethnic groups
Nipmuc, Niantic, Pawtuxet, Pequot, Shawomet[1]

The Narragansett tribe are an Algonquian American Indian tribe from Rhode Island. For a long time, the tribe was nearly landless, but it worked to regain federal recognition, which it achieved in 1983. It is officially the Narragansett Indian Tribe of Rhode Island and re-established sovereignty. It is made up of descendants of tribal members who were identified in an 1880 treaty with the state.

In 2009, the United States Supreme Court ruled against the Narragansett request that the Department of the Interior take land into trust which they had acquired in 1991. In Carcieri v. Salazar, the Court ruled that tribes that had achieved federal recognition since the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act did not have standing to have newly acquired lands taken into federal trust and removed from state control.


The Narragansett tribe was recognized by the federal government in 1983 and controls the Narragansett Indian Reservation, 1,800 acres (7.3 km2) of trust lands in Charlestown, Rhode Island.[2] A small portion of the tribe resides on or near the reservation, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.[3] Additionally, they own several hundred acres in Westerly.[2]

In 1991, the Narragansetts purchased 31 acres (130,000 m2) in Charlestown for development of elderly housing. In 1998, they requested that the Department of the Interior take the property into trust on behalf of the tribe, to remove it from state and local control. The case went to the United States Supreme Court, as the state challenged the removal of new lands from state oversight by a tribe recognized by the US after the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. Rhode Island was joined in its appeal by 21 other states.[4][5]

In 2009, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Department of the Interior could not take land into trust, removing it from state control, if a tribe had achieved federal recognition after the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, and if the land in question was acquired after that federal recognition. Their determination was based on wording in the act which defines "Indian" as "all persons of Indian descent who are members of any recognized tribe now under federal jurisdiction."[6]


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.[2] The administration in 2017 was:

  • Chief Sachem: Matthew Thomas
  • Medicine Man: John Brown
  • First Councilman: Cassius Spears, Jr.
  • Second Councilman: John Pompey
  • Secretary, John Mahoney
  • Councilmen:
    • Yvonne Simonds Lamphere
    • Betty Johnson
    • Walter K. Babcock
    • Lonny Brown
    • Mary Brown

Name and language[edit]

The word Narragansett means literally "(People) of the Small Point".[1] Traditionally, the tribe spoke the Narragansett language, a member of the Algonquian languages family. The "point" referred to may be on the Salt Pond in Washington County, identified as RI Site 110. The language became almost entirely extinct during the Narragansetts' centuries of living within the larger English-majority society and their assimilation.

The tribe has begun language revival efforts, based on early 20th century books and manuscripts, and new teaching programs. The Narragansetts 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 spoken historically by tribes on Long Island and in Connecticut, respectively.

In the 17th century, Providence founder Roger Williams learned the tribe's language. He documented it in his 1643 work A Key Into the Language of America. Williams gave the tribe's name as Nanhigganeuck.

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, moose, papoose, powwow, squash, and succotash.


Narragansett tribal territory

The Narragansetts were one of the leading tribes of New England, controlling the west of Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island and portions of Connecticut and eastern Massachusetts, from the Providence River on the northeast to the Pawcatuck River on the southwest. The first European contact was in 1524 when explorer Giovanni de Verrazzano visited Narragansett Bay.

Between 1616 and 1619, infectious diseases killed thousands of Algonquians in coastal areas south of Rhode Island. The Narragansetts were the most powerful tribe in the southern area of the region when the English colonists arrived in 1620, and they had not been affected by the epidemics.[7] Massasoit of the Wampanoags allied with the colonists at Plymouth Colony as a way to protect the Wampanoags from Narragansett attacks.[8] In the fall of 1621, the Narragansetts sent a sheaf of arrows wrapped in a snakeskin to Plymouth Colony as a threatening challenge, but Plymouth governor William Bradford sent the snakeskin back filled with gunpowder and bullets. The Narragansetts understood the message and did not attack them.

European settlement in the Narragansett territory did not begin until 1635; in 1636, Roger Williams acquired land from Narragansett sachems Canonicus and Miantonomi and established Providence Plantations.

Pequot War[edit]

During the Pequot War of 1637, the Narragansetts allied with the New England colonists. However, the brutality of the colonists in the Mystic massacre shocked the Narragansetts, who returned home in disgust.[9] After the Pequots were defeated, the colonists gave captives to their allies the Narragansetts and the Mohegans.

The Narrangansetts later had conflict with the Mohegans over control of the conquered Pequot land. In 1643, Miantonomi led the Narragansetts in an invasion of eastern Connecticut where they planned to subdue the Mohegans and their leader Uncas. Miantonomi had an estimated 1,000 men under his command.[10] The Narragansett forces fell apart, and Miantonomi was captured and executed by Uncas' brother. The following year, Narragansett war leader Pessicus renewed the war with the Mohegans, and the number of Narragansett allies grew.

The Mohegans were on the verge of defeat when the colonists came and saved them, sending troops to defend the Mohegan fort at Shantok. The colonists then threatened to invade Narragansett territory, so Canonicus and his son Mixanno signed a peace treaty. The peace lasted for the next 30 years.

King Philip's War[edit]

Christian missionaries began to convert tribal members, and many Indians feared that they would lose their traditions by assimilating into colonial culture. The colonial push for religious conversion collided with Indian resistance. In 1675, John Sassamon, a converted "Praying Indian", was found bludgeoned to death in a pond. The facts about Sassamon's death were never settled, but historians accept that Wampanoag sachem Metacomet ("King Philip") may have ordered the execution of Sassamon because of his cooperation with colonial authorities. Three Wampanoag men were arrested, convicted, and hanged for Sassamon's death.

Roger Williams and the Narragansetts, a 19th-century engraving after a painting by A. H. Wray

Metacomet subsequently declared war on the colonists in what the colonists called King Philip's War. Metacomet escaped an attempt to trap him in the Plymouth Colony, and the uprising spread across Massachusetts as other bands joined the fight, such as the Nipmuc. The Indians wanted to expel the colonists from New England. They waged successful attacks on settlements in Massachusetts and Connecticut, but Rhode Island was spared at the beginning, as the Narragansetts remained officially neutral.

The leaders of the United Colonies (Massachusetts, Plymouth, and Connecticut) accused the Narragansetts of harboring Wampanoag refugees. They made a preemptive attack on the Narragansett palisade fortress in Rhode Island on December 19, 1675 in a battle that became known as the Great Swamp Fight. Hundreds of Narragansett men, women, and children perished in the attack and burning of the fort, but nearly all their warriors escaped. In January 1676, colonist Joshua Tefft was hanged, drawn, and quartered by colonial forces at Smith's Castle[11] in Wickford, Rhode Island. He had fought on the side of the Narragansetts during the Great Swamp Fight and was considered a traitor.

The Indians retaliated in a widespread spring offensive beginning in February 1676 in which they destroyed all Colonial settlements on the western side of Narragansett Bay. They burned Providence on March 27, 1676, destroying Roger Williams' house, among others. Indians destroyed many towns throughout New England, and the attackers raided the suburbs of Boston. However, disease, starvation, battle losses, and the lack of gunpowder caused the Indian effort to collapse by the end of March.

Troops from Connecticut composed of the colonists and Mohegan allies swept into Rhode Island and killed substantial numbers of the now-weakened Narragansetts. A force of Mohegans and Connecticut militia captured Narragansett sachem Canonchet a few days after the destruction of Providence, while a force of Plymouth militia and Wampanoags hunted down Metacomet. He was shot and killed, ending the war in southern New England, although it dragged on for another year in Maine.

After the war, the English sold some surviving Narragansetts into slavery and shipped them to the Caribbean; others became indentured servants in Rhode Island. The surviving Narragansetts merged with local tribes, particularly the Eastern Niantics. During colonial and later times, tribe members intermarried with colonists and Africans. Their spouses and children were taken into the tribe, enabling them to keep a tribal and cultural identity.

18th century[edit]

In the 1740s during the First Great Awakening, colonists founded the Narragansett Indian Church to convert Indians to Christianity. The tribe continued to retain control and ownership of the church and its surrounding 3 acres (12,000 m2), the only land that it could keep. This continuous ownership was critical evidence of tribal continuity when the tribe did the research and documentation needed to gain federal recognition, which it successfully did in 1983.[12]

19th century[edit]

In the 19th century, the tribe resisted repeated state efforts to declare that it was no longer an Indian tribe because its members were multiracial in ancestry. They contended that they absorbed other ethnicities into their tribe and continued to identify culturally as Narragansetts.

The tribal leaders resisted increasing legislative pressure after the American Civil War to "take up citizenship" in the United States, which would have required them to give up their treaty privileges and Indian nation status. While testifying about the issue to the state legislature, a Narragansett spokesman said that his people saw injustices under existing US citizenship. He noted Jim Crow laws that limited the rights of blacks despite their citizenship under constitutional amendments.[13]

The Narragansetts also resisted suggestions that multiracial members could not qualify as full members of the tribe. The Narragansetts had a tradition of bringing other people into their tribe by marriage and having them assimilate as culturally Narragansett, especially as their children grew up in the tribe.[13]

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.[13]

The Narragansett Indians 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.[13]

From 1880-84, the state persisted in its efforts at "detribalization". The tribe had agreed to negotiations for sale of its land, but it quickly regretted the decision and worked to regain the land. In 1880, the state recognized 324 Narragansett tribal members as claimants to the land during negotiations. The state put tribal lands up for public sale in the 19th century, but the tribe did not disperse and its members continued to practice its culture.

20th century[edit]

The Narragansett Indian Church in Charlestown was founded in the 1740s. This building was constructed in 1859 to replace one that burned down.[14]

The Naragansetts lost control of much of their tribal lands during the state's late 19th century detribalization, but they kept a group identity. The tribe incorporated in 1900 and built their longhouse in 1940 as a traditional place for gatherings and ceremonies.

In the late 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 gained federal recognition as a tribe in 1983. According to tribal rolls, there are approximately 2,400 members of the Narragansett Tribe today. Like most Americans, they have mixed ancestry, with descent from the Narragansetts and other tribes of the New England area, as well as Europeans and Africans.

21st century[edit]

A 2006 survey conducted in preparation for development of a new residential subdivision revealed what archaeologists consider the remains of a Narragansett Indian village dating from 1100 to 1300. It is located at the top of Point Judith Pond in Narragansett, Rhode Island. This area had been identified in a 1980s survey as historically sensitive, and the state had a conflict with the developer when more remains were found. The state intervened in order to prevent development and to buy the 25-acre site for preservation; it was part of 67 acres planned for development by the new owner.[15]

Further archaeological excavation on the site quickly revealed that it was one of two villages on the Atlantic Coast to be found in such complete condition. The other pre-Columbian village (Otan in Narragansett Algonquin) is in Virginia. It has a high concentration of permanent structures.[15][citation needed]

Preliminary surveys of the Narragansett tract, known as RI 110, have revealed a village with perhaps as many 22 structures, as well as three known human burial sites. There is also evidence of granaries, ceremonial areas and storage pits that may shed new light on the importance of maize agriculture to woodland tribes.[15]

Historians and archeologists knew that maize was cultivated by Algonquin tribes, but there has never been physical evidence before the discovery of this site. The tribe's method of grinding the kernels into a powder was not conducive to preservation. In the first week of excavation, 78 kernels of corn were found at this site, the first time that cultivation of maize could be confirmed this far north on the Atlantic Coast.

The current members of the Narragansett tribe have contributed through oral history to accounts about the ancient people who inhabited this site. They were members of the Turtle Clan, and the settlement was a conduit for trade in medicines. They used the surrounding pond and its many islands for hunting camps, resource collection, fishing, shellfish, burial sites, and herbal collections for medicine and ceremony.

Providence founder Roger Williams was brought to the top of Sugarloaf Hill in nearby Wakefield when treating with the Narragansett tribe. They pointed toward this large settlement and told him that it was called Nanihigonset. This site is now believed to be the center of the Narragansett geography, where they coalesced as a tribe and began to extend their dominion over the neighboring tribes at different points in history.[16]

Land claim suit[edit]

In January 1975, the Narragansett Tribe filed suit in federal court to regain 3,200 acres (13 km2) of land in southern Rhode Island which they claimed the state had illegally taken from them in 1880. The 1880 Act authorizing the state to negotiate with the tribe listed 324 Narragansetts approved by the Supreme Court as claimants to the land.[17]

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. The state transferred a total of 1,800 acres (7.3 km2) to a corporation formed to hold the land in trust for descendants of the 1880 Narragansett Roll. In exchange, the tribe agreed that the laws of Rhode Island would be in effect on those lands, except for hunting and fishing. The Narragansetts had not yet been federally recognized as a tribe.[18]

Federal recognition[edit]

The tribe prepared extensive documentation of its genealogy and proof of continuity as descendants of 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).

Current events[edit]

The state and tribe have disagreed on certain rights on the reservation. On July 14, 2003, Rhode Island state police raided a tribe-run smoke shop on the Charlestown reservation, the culmination of a dispute over the tribe's failure to pay state taxes on its sale of cigarettes.[19] In 2005, the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals declared the police action a violation of the tribe's sovereignty. In 2006, an en banc decision of the First Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the prior decision, stating that the raid did not violate the tribe's sovereign immunity because of the 1978 Joint Memorandum of Agreement settling the land issues, in which the tribe agreed that state law would be observed on its land.

In a separate federal civil rights lawsuit, the tribe charged the police with the use of excessive force during the 2003 raid on the smoke shop. One Narragansett man suffered a broken leg in the confrontation. The case was being retried in the summer of 2008. Competing police experts testified on each side of the case.[20]

The Narragansett Tribe is negotiating with the General Assembly for approval to build a casino in Rhode Island with their partner, currently Harrah's Entertainment. The Rhode Island Constitution declares to be illegal all non-state-run lotteries or gambling. A proposed constitutional amendment to allow the tribe to build the casino was voted down by state residents in November 2006.

The tribe has plans to upgrade the Longhouse that it constructed along RI Route 2 (South County Trail) to serve as a place of American Indian cuisine and cultural meeting house. These plans have been in the works for more than 15 years. The Longhouse was built in 1940 and has fallen into disrepair. Upgrades are also being planned for the Narragansett tribal medical, technological, and artistic systems.

The Narragansetts have undertaken efforts to review tribal rolls and reassess applications for membership, like numerous other tribes in the 21st century. They currently require tribal members to show direct descent from one or more of the 324 members listed on the 1880-84 Roll, which was established when Rhode Island negotiated land sales.

The current population numbers about 2,400 and the tribe has closed the rolls. They have dropped some people from the rolls and denied new applications for membership. Scholars and activists see this as a national trend among tribes, prompted by a variety of factors, including internal family rivalries and the issue of significant new revenues from Indian casinos.[21]

The US Supreme Court agreed to hear Carcieri v. Salazar (2009) in the fall of 2008, a case determining American Indian land rights. The Court ruled in favor of Rhode Island in February 2009.[22] The suit was brought by the state of Rhode Island against the Department of the Interior (DOI) over its authority to take land into trust on behalf of certain American Indians.[22]

The authority was part of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, but the state argued that the process could not hold for tribes that achieved federal recognition after 1934. The US Supreme Court upheld the state based on language in the act.[22] At issue is 31 acres (130,000 m2) of land in Charlestown which the Narragansetts purchased in 1991. The Narragansetts requested the DOI to take it into trust on their behalf in order to remove it from state and local control, after trying to develop it for elderly housing under state regulations in 1998.[5]

Cultural institutions[edit]

The tribe hosts their annual meeting powwow on the second weekend of August on their reservation in Charlestown, Rhode Island. It is a gathering of thanksgiving and honor to the Narragansett people and is the oldest recorded powwow in North America, dating back to 1675's colonial documentation of the gathering (the powwow had been held long before European contact).

In August 2017, the tribe held the 342nd powwow with events including the traditional grand entry, a procession of military veterans, dancers, and honored tribal representatives, and the ceremonial lighting of a sacred fire. There was also a church service, food vendors, and arts and crafts.[23]

Notable Narragansetts[edit]

The following are listed in alphabetical order by surname.

List of Narragansett Sachems[edit]

Name Regency Liaison Remarks
Tashtassuck Historically uncertain
Wessoum Son of Tashtassuck Historically uncertain, should marry his sister
Canonicus 1600s to 1636 Son 1. Sachemdom
Miantonomo 1636 to 1643 Nephew of Canonicus
Canonicus 1643 to 1647 Oncle of Miantonomo 2. Sachemdom
Mriksah 1647 to 1667 Son of Canonicus
Canonchet 1667 to 1676 Son of Miantonomo, Greatcousin of Mriksah
Interregnum 1676 to 1682 1682 the remaining Narragansett went to the Eastern Niantic

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Pritzker, 442
  2. ^ a b c Pritzker, 443
  3. ^ Narragansett Reservation, Rhode Island United States Census Bureau Archived March 9, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
  4. ^ Ray Henry, "High court to hear case over Indian land: Usage of tribal property at issue", Associated Press, Boston Globe, 3 Nov 2008, accessed 11 Oct 2010
  5. ^ a b "Supreme Court will rule on Narragansett dispute with Rhode Island", Boston Globe, 25 Feb 2008, accessed 3 Aug 2008
  6. ^ Chris Keegan, "High court thwarts RI casino plan" Archived 2013-08-01 at the Wayback Machine., The Westerly Sun, 25 February 2009, accessed 21 March 2013
  7. ^ Wright, Otis Olney, ed. (1917). History of Swansea, Massachusetts, 1667-1917. Town of Swansea. p. 20. OCLC 1018149266. Retrieved 11 June 2018. 
  8. ^ Wright, pg. 23
  9. ^ William Bradford, Of Plimoth Plantation, 1620-1647, ed. Samuel Eliot Morison (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966), p. 29; and John Underhill, Newes from America; or, A New and Experimentall Discoverie of New England: Containing, a True Relation of their War-like Proceedings these two yeares last past, with a figure of the Indian fort, or Palizado (London: I. D[awson] for Peter Cole, 1638), p. 84.
  10. ^ William Bradford, chapter 33, History of Plymouth Plantation
  11. ^ "The Celebrated Josua Tefft"
  12. ^ Center Profile: Narragansett Indian Church
  13. ^ a b c d Ariela Gross, "Of Portuguese Origin": Litigating Identity and Citizenship among the "Little Races" in Nineteenth-Century America, Law and History Review, Vol. 25, No.3, Fall 2007, accessed 22 Jun 2008. Archived July 9, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
  14. ^ [1] Archived May 11, 2012, at the Wayback Machine.
  15. ^ a b c ELIZABETH ABBOTT, "Ancient Indian Village in Rhode Island Pits Preservation Against Property Rights", New York Times, 6 April 2010; accessed 5 December 2016
  16. ^ Kirby, Shaun. "Salt Pond, center of the ancient Narragansett world". Rhode Island Central News and Information. Southern Rhode Island Newspapers. Archived from the original on 18 April 2014. Retrieved 18 April 2014. 
  17. ^ "Paul Campbell Research Notes", Rhode Island Historical Society, April 1997, accessed 3 Aug 2008
  18. ^ Jana M. (Lemanski) Berger, "Narragansett Tribal Gaming vs. "The Indian Giver": An Alternative Argument to Invalidating the Chafee Amendment", Gaming Law Review - 3(1):25-37, 1 Feb 1999, accessed 3 Aug 2008
  19. ^ Gavin Clarkson (2003-07-25). "Clarkson: Bull Connor would have been proud". Indian Country Today. Retrieved 2009-12-14. [dead link]
  20. ^ "Police experts testify in smoke shop trial" Archived 2013-08-01 at the Wayback Machine., The Westerly Sun, 25 Jul 2008, accessed 3 Aug 2008
  21. ^ Emily Bazar, "Native American? The tribe says no",, 28 Nov 2007, accessed 3 Aug 2008
  22. ^ a b c "Carcieri, Governor of Rhode Island, et al. v. Salazar, Secretary of the Interior, et al.", Supreme Court of the United States, Providence Journal, February 2009, accessed 8 Mar 2009 Archived March 19, 2009, at the Wayback Machine.
  23. ^ Farragher, Thomas (2017-08-09). "Meet the Narragansett leader who is still going strong at 99". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 2017-08-10. 
  24. ^ Arna Alexander Bontemps and Jacqueline Fonvielle-Bontemps (eds.), eds. (2001). "African-American Women Artists: An Historical Perspective". Black feminist cultural criticism. Keyworks in cultural studies. Malden, Mass: Blackwell. pp. 133–137. ISBN 0631222391. 


  • Pritzker, Barry M. A Native American Encyclopedia: History, Culture, and Peoples. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN 978-0-19-513877-1.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 41°24′34″N 71°40′03″W / 41.40944°N 71.66750°W / 41.40944; -71.66750