The Narragansett Indian Tribe of Rhode Island were a water-going people capable of building dugout canoes that could hold as many as 40 men.
Official Tribal Name: Narragansett Indian Tribe
Recognition Status: Federally Recognized
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Alternate names / Alternate spellings / Mispellings: Formerly known as the Narragansett Indian Tribe of Rhode Island.
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Region: Northeast (Eastern Woodland)
State(s) Today: Rhode Island
The Narragansett Indians were indigenous to the coastal region of southern Rhode Island. Likely inhabiting the region for at least 30,000 years, the tribe first came into contact with Europeans in 1524 with the arrival of explorer Giovanni di Verrazano. The continual wave of immigration from Europe would ultimately prove destabilizing to relationships among tribes in the region when they allied with the English, exacerbating already tense territorial competition among their traditional enemies, the powerful Wampanoag, Pequot and Mohegan nations.
Reservation: Narragansett Reservation
The Narragansett’s land is not currently considered a federal reservation because the land is not held in federal trust status. Additionally, they own a 31acre parcel which they acquired after the implementation of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, and for which they could be granted trust status under that law through the Department of the Interior.
However, the state of Rhode Island sued the DOI and won in the Supreme Court (Carcieri v. Salazar, 2009); the decision set a dangerous precedent for Indian country, delivering a crippling blow to tribal sovereignty. Congress is currently considering legislation reversing the precedent, and is known as the “Carcieri Fix.”
Land Area: 1800 acres
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The Narragansett were an Algonquin-speaking people of the Y-dialect (along with the Shinnecock and Pequots (compared to the N-dialect of the Wampanoag and Massachusetts Indians).
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Bands, Gens, and Clans
Nipmuc, Niantic, Pawtuxet, Pequot, Shawomet
Politically and militarily, they were a populous and powerful nation in the region.
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They migrated between winter and summer homes, in the winter occupying long houses that could hold 20 or more people and in the summer they moved to the shore and constructed wigwams, or “wetus.”
As is typical for the tribes of the northeast, the Narragansett subsisted on a combination of hunting, fishing, gathering and agriculture which centered on the three sacred plants known as the Three Sisters, or corn, beans and squash.
They were governed by a system of sachems, or chiefs, who could be allied with other smaller nations like the Wampanoag or the Niantic.
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The plague that swept through the region from 1616 to 1619 left the Narragansett’s largely untouched while the Wampanoag and others suffered devastating losses, increasing the Narragansett’s power.
What is known about the Narragansett is derived from colonial writings, especially those of Roger Williams, an English colonist considered to be a founder of Rhode Island, who purchased land rights from them and learned their language. His knowledge was written into a book called “A Key into the Language of America,” a text which is generally considered the canon of Narragansett history (although a recent burial discovery has uncovered evidence that calls into question some of Williams’ assumptions).
Throughout the 17th century the Narragansetts, like all the regional tribes, were caught in battles for power to maintain control of ancestral lands against the incursions of Europeans, or to gain control of other territories.
After the Pequot War in 1637-1638, Pequot lands that had been promised to the Narragansetts by the English went under the control of the Mohegans and incoming British settlers, inciting renewed battles between the Narragansetts and the Mohegan.
With the English threatening to invade Narragansett territory, a peace treaty was eventually signed, with the peace lasting 30 years. Increasing tensions between the Wampanoag and the colonists, eventually drew in other tribes including the Narragansett in a general Indian uprising culminating in King Philip’s War in 1675.
In the Great Swamp Battle, colonists attacked a Narragansett palisades fortress on December 19, massacring hundreds of old men, women and children and burned down the fort. The next spring, the surviving warriors launched a counter-offensive but were resoundingly defeated, crushing the Indian resistance.
The Narragansetts that remained scattered among other tribal and settler communities throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, intermarrying with African-Americans and white Americans who adopted Narragansett culture.
Attempts to “detribalize” them by the US after the Civil War based on their multiracial heritage, and later by the state of Rhode Island meant giving up their treaty rights as an autonomous people and was met with resistance. Ancestral lands were sold to the state—a move they soon regretted as they moved to regain their lost lands.
Organized to reclaim the lands, in 1800 the tribal roll listed 324 tribal members. In 1978 the tribe regained 1,800 acres of land in an agreement with the state of Rhode Island as a result of a lawsuit against the state, although the agreement stipulated that the tribal land would be subject to state law (unlike most reservation lands in the US). In 1983 the tribe was granted federal recognition.
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