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The Narragansett tribe are a Native American tribe of the Algonquian language group. They were historically one of the leading tribes of New England, controlling the west of Narragansett Baymarker in present-day Rhode Islandmarker, and also portions of Connecticutmarker and eastern Massachusettsmarker, 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 town of Narragansett, Rhode Islandmarker, is named after them. They consider themselves descendants of aboriginal people whose archaeological artifacts attest to their presence in Rhode Island 30,000 years ago.

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.

Although they lost control of much of their tribal lands during the state's late 19th c. "detribalization", Narragansetts kept a group identity. In the 20th century, they took action to have more control over their future. They regained 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. They have closed the rolls.

The word "Narragansett" means, literally, "[the people] of/at the small, narrow point." Some members speak a form of the Algonquian languages. It had died out but tribal members were able partially to reclaim 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.

The museum of the Narragansett is the Tomaquag Indian Memorial Museum in Exeter, Rhode Islandmarker. The school for the Narragansett children is the Nuweetooun School at the same museum.


Narragansett tribe
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 Plymouthmarker 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 sagamores (leaders) sold the land that became Providencemarker 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 Miantonomo invaded what is now eastern Connecticutmarker. The plan was to subdue the Mohegan nation and its leader Uncas. Miantonomo had between 900-1000 men under his command. The invasion turned into a fiasco, and Miantonomo was captured and then executed by Uncas' brother. The following year, the new leaders Canonicus and Pessicus of the Narragansetts renewed the war with the Mohegan. With each success, the number of Narragansett allies grew. The Mohegan 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, the 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.

Roger Williams and the Narragansetts - a 19th century engraving, after a painting by A.
Setting aside tribal tensions of the previous five decades, the Narragansetts decided to ally themselves with the Wampanoags under the leadership of Metacomet (called King Philip by English colonists). The allied warriors of the Narragansetts and Wampanoags waged a guerrilla war against the colonists of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. After just a few months of fighting, the native forces had burned the settlement of Newportmarker to the ground and heavily damaged Providence. The natives also waged successful attacks on settlements in Massachusetts and Connecticut. The leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared war on the Narragansetts and Wampanoags. In spite of waging a successful campaign against the colonists, the allied native forces began to run low on supplies and retreated to northern Rhode Island to open a cache of corn.

The Pequots of Eastern Connecticut, now allied with the English colonists, knew of this cache and helped the colonists ambush most of the native warriors en route to the cache. Subsequently, the colonists converged on southern Rhode Island, in the Great Swamp, where the Narragansetts had built a palisaded fort that housed the women, children and elderly of the tribe. Seeking retribution for the destruction of Providence and Newport, the colonists attacked the fort in what is now known as the Great Swamp Fight in December, 1675. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of women and children were killed in this conflict, which may be called a massacre. On 27 March, 1676 an expedition led by Capt. George Denison, Lts. James Avery and Thomas Minermarker, left Norwichmarker, returning 10 Apr. On this campaign Canonchet, the Narragansett Chief was captured and brought to a council at Anguilla Plain. He bravely refused to submit to surrender to the English, and when told that he must 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 was executed in the Indian fashion by Oneko and two other Pequot sachems closest to his rank among his captors.Following this event, the surviving Narragansetts were either sold into slavery or absorbed by other local tribes.

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 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.

19th century

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 multi-racial 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.

20th c. to present

The Narragansett Indian Church in Charlestown was founded in the 1740s.
Constructed in 1994, this building replaced one that burned down.
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 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 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.

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 gained in 1983 as the Narragansett Indian Tribe of Rhode Island (the official name used by the Bureau of Indian Affairs circa 2003). A small portion of the tribe resides on or near the Narragansett Indian Reservation, whose population is 60, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. There are 2400 members of the tribe according to tribal rolls. Located in the Town of Charlestown, Rhode Islandmarker, the land is held in trust by the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. The land area is , or 8.694 kmĀ² (3.357 sq mi).

A Narragansett woman dressed up for a powwow.
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. 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 reversed the prior decision, stating 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.

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 all non-state-run lotteries or gambling illegal. 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 along RI Route 2 (South County Trail) as a place of indigenous American cuisine and cultural meeting house. These plans have been in the works for well over 15 years. Originally built in 1940, the Longhouse has fallen into disrepair. Upgrades for Narragansett Indian tribal medical, technological, and artistic systems are also being planned.

The late 20th and 21st century have brought new questions of Native American identity. Like numerous other tribes, Narragansetts have recently undertaken efforts to review tribal rolls and reassess applications for membership. They currently require tribal members to show direct descent from a member listed on the 1880-1884 Roll, established with Rhode Island illegally "detribalized" them. Current population numbers about 2400 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. Tribes across the country have been purging their rolls and creating more stringent requirements for membership.

The US Supreme Courtmarker agreed to hear Carcieri v. Kempthorne (2009), a case determining Native American land rights, in the fall of 2008. The Court ruled in favor of Rhode Island in February 2009. The suit was brought by the state of Rhode Island against the Department of Interior over its authority to take land into trust on behalf of certain American Indians, under the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. The US Supreme Court upheld the state, which had argued that the US Dept. of Interior could not take new land into trust for th Narragansett, as the Tribe was not federally recognized in 1934. At issue is of land in Charlestown which the Narrangansetts purchased in 1991.

In 1991 the Narragansetts purchased 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. Given state residents' disapproval of a proposed amendment to allow the Narragansett Tribe to build a casino, the state is concerned about the tribe's potential for building a casino on such trust land. State governments and Indian rights groups will all be watching the outcome closely.


  • An account of life with the Abenaki can be found in the narrative given by the captive Mary Rowlandson from the raid on Lancastermarker on the 10th February 1675.

See also


  1. "Historical Perspective of the Narragensett Indian Tribe", Narragansett Indian Tribe website, accessed 8 Mar 2009
  2. William Bradford reports this in chapter 33 of his history of Plymouth Of Plymouth Plantation
  3. In 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. He may be the only person ever hanged, drawn and quartered in United States history.
  4. Center Profile: Narragansett Indian Church
  5. 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
  6. Center Profile: Narragansett Indian Church
  7. "Paul Campbell Research Notes", Rhode Island Historical Society, April 1997, accessed 3 Aug 2008
  8. 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
  9. "Police experts testify in smoke shop trial", The Westerly Sun, 25 Jul 2008, accessed 3 Aug 2008
  10. Emily Bazar, "Native American? The tribe says no",, 28 Nov 2007, accessed 3 Aug 2008
  11. "Carcieri, Governor of Rhode Island, et al. v. Salazar, Secretary of the Interior, et al.", Supreme Court of the United States, accessed 8 Mar 2009
  12. [1]
  13. "Supreme Court will rule on Narragansett dispute with Rhode Island", Boston Globe, 25 Feb 2008, accessed 3 Aug 2008
  14. "Supreme Court will rule on Narragansett dispute with Rhode Island", Boston Globe, 25 Feb 2008, accessed 3 Aug 2008
  15. Women's Indian Captivity Narratives, ed. Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola, Penguin, London, 1998

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