The Pokanoket Encampment

From the Steering Committee of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative

August 24, 2017

Dear Brown community friends,

We are writing on behalf of Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS) at Brown, an interdisciplinary initiative of faculty and students interested in teaching and research that seeks to learn more about, and increase the understanding of, the cultural traditions and political experiences of Indigenous Peoples (especially in the Western Hemisphere) through historical and contemporary lenses.

We’re sure by now many of you have heard that a group of Native people has occupied a portion of Brown’s land in Bristol. There have been several news stories, and we know the social media posts have been flowing as well. The University has issued a statement (continually updated).  We respect and appreciate the larger issues of dispossession and tribal sovereignty that are at stake here, and we are committed to continuing to communicate and act in ways that are respectful and meaningful to all parties involved.  This is a much more complicated situation than the articles have let on, and it is clear that most folks sharing them are not aware of the nuance, so we wanted to provide you with a bit more context.

In the state of Massachusetts, there are two federally recognized Wampanoag Nations—The Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah and the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. Here in Rhode Island, the Narragansett Indian Tribe in South County is the only federally recognized tribe. While there is a long history of erasure and forced assimilation of Native peoples in the Northeast, meaning many tribal communities have been written out of history, the Pokanoket Tribe is not recognized by the federal government or the state, and more importantly is not recognized by the other federally recognized Wampanoag communities.

The Pokanoket are a group that claims descent from the line of King Philip (Metacom) after King Philip’s War, and many members of the group may very well have Native ancestry. However, according to historical records used by Mashpee for their language revitalization, the Pokanoket families were taken in by Mashpee after the war, and became a part of their community. There is a delicate yet important technical difference between holding Native ancestry and holding nation status, and that is at the heart of the issue here.

Like all universities in the United States, Brown University is on indigenous land, and part the goal of the NAIS Initiative is to help Brown to productively recognize that relationship and the responsibilities it carries. In the last few decades, Brown has made incremental progress on that front, and is poised to do much more in the coming years with our Native studies initiatives and other work in progress.

Currently, Brown recognizes the cultural significance of the Bristol grounds to Wampanoag peoples and offers access to any local Native person (including the Pokanoket) who wish to use the land for spiritual or community needs. The Pokanoket also work with the adjacent Mt. Hope Farm each summer to run a culturally based summer camp on the land in question, and they additionally host an annual community harvest festival on the land.

Local activist organizations such as the FANG Collective (primarily an anti-fracking group) have jumped into supporting and orchestrating the cause without reaching out to Aquinnah, Mashpee, Assonet, Herring Pond Wampanoag, or Narragansett, which is a problem. Because the Pokanoket are unrecognized, they would not have access to any of the federal or state protections around tribal land holdings, and would not be able to put the land into trust, the cornerstone of tribal sovereignty. Improving cultural stewardship and use of this land needs to involve all of the tribes that have ancestral and spiritual ties to the land.

We have worked for many years to encourage Brown to recognize its relationship and responsibilities to the local Native communities, and those relationships are very important to us as we move forward with our NAIS initiative.  High-level Brown administration members have reached out to and are working with Aquinnah and Mashpee on this issue, and they have also met with the Pokanoket currently on the land. The hope is that they can come to a peaceful conclusion.

We respectfully ask that you don’t share out any FANG sponsored petitions, fundraising drives, or materials, and that you ask us any questions you may have before sharing out information. We are happy to provide more resources on any of the topics mentioned briefly in this email, and recognize that the nuances of this may not be completely clear for those outside of Native communities.

More information soon.