Skip to main content

Brian Lightfoot Brown

Narragansett Tribe

“For many years, the Narragansetts were visitors to a place that was theirs … Now that this has happened, we know we can go back to a place of our forefathers, where there was happiness and sorrow, and we can go there as rightful owners.”

- John Brown III, Narragansett Medicine Man and Tribal Historic Preservation Officer (The Boston Globe)

In the rural modern-day town of South Kingstown, Rhode Island lies a patch of forest and swamp known as the Great Swamp. In this part of swamp and forest is the area where English colonists ambushed and slaughtered nearly 1,000 women, children and elders of the Narragansett tribe nearly 346 years ago.

Now, after about four years of negotiating, the Rhode Island Historical Society has returned ownership of this sacred place back to the Narragansett, though the land will remain open to the public.

The New England colonists were engaged in what they called King Philip’s War, against the Wampanoag people and their allies. Metacom, sachem of the Wampanoag and son of Ousamequin, aka Massasoit, had finally reached his breaking point with the English undermining Native culture and authority.

The colonists were imposing their beliefs, laws and way of life on the Indigenous population with no regard for the history of Natives having helped early colonists survive within the previous generation.

The Narragansett people, longtime rivals of the Wampanoag, had sworn to remain neutral but were sympathetic to the Wampanoag cause. The Narragansett allowed injured Wampanoag to seek shelter among them and refused to surrender them to the colonists. The English used this as an excuse to attack the Narragansett fort at the Great Swamp.

Both Native and non-Native historians agree that the colonists went far beyond what was needed to subdue the fort, and burned and shot the unarmed Natives as they attempted to flee. The tragic events of that day were a devastating blow to the Narragansett tribe. The savagery and brutality occurred on Dec. 19, 1675, merely 55 years after the Mayflower landed at Plymouth. The incident is known as the Great Swamp Massacre.

The Narragansett have held an annual ceremony at the monument every fall, to remember all our ancestors who died that day and to show gratitude to the ancestors who survived this horrific event.

The land is a part of a wildlife preserve with hiking paths and has been controlled by the Rhode Island Historical Society since 1906.

The history between the tribe and the state has been more than bumpy throughout history, but this is a long-overdue correction. The Narragansett will continue to honor our ancestors from that tragic date, but now will be able to do it with more clarity and control of what was rightfully ours and holds a sacred value like no other.

The Narragansett are elated to have this land returned to them as the true stewards of the land. Now if the tribe can only get the Senate, House and President to grant a clean Carcieri fix, to right another enormous wrong. Until then, the Narragansett celebrate this restoration of territory that is so deeply ingrained in who we are. A’ho

Brian Lightfoot Brown
ICT Phone Logo

This opinion-editorial essay does not reflect the views of Indian Country Today; voices in our opinion section represent a variety of reader points of view. If you would like to contribute an essay to Indian Country Today, email opinion@indiancountrytoday.com.

More information about our guidelines here: Submission guidelines.