A community process
The commitments resulted from a year-long process that included research and exploration of Indigenous history and culture by the Land Acknowledgment Working Group, which Paxson formed in March 2021. The group’s work included delving into bodies of scholarship, knowledge-building with members of the University community and learning directly from the Narragansett Indian Tribe.
Rae Gould, executive director of Brown’s Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative, co-chaired the group. She said meetings began with conversations about what land acknowledgments can and should accomplish, encompassing discussion of existing land acknowledgment models from organizations and institutions of higher education across the country. The group also engaged in outreach, meeting with Narragansett Tribal Medicine Man and Historic Preservation Officer John Brown on the tribal reservation in Charlestown and engaging in regular dialogue with members of the Narragansett Tribe.
“I think this work enabled all of us to think more deeply about what ‘land acknowledgment’ can really mean,” Gould said, adding that it’s important that the University understands it is only a first step toward building greater understanding. “It needs to be more than a performative statement recited before an event or gathering. It needs to have meaning and depth. It needs to help respond to the history of dispossession in some way — and we can't determine what that might mean in a few months or even a year. Figuring that out takes time, patience and layers of conversations.”
Recognizing the preliminary nature of the Land Acknowledgment Working Group’s findings, the new scholarship commissioned by the University will include collaboration between Indigenous peoples of the region and the John Carter Brown Library, the University’s Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative and other academic units at Brown.
The working group’s recommendations, shared first with the Narragansett Tribe and then with more than a dozen representatives from local tribal communities in the region, included a brief history of the land where Brown’s Providence campus now sits, from its Narragansett history to the 1636 arrival of Roger Williams, an English-born minister who founded what would come to be known as Providence. An illustration of Williams’ storied initial encounter with the Narragansett people is depicted on the City of Providence seal, which decorates one column of Brown’s Van Wickle Gates.
Executive Vice President for Planning and Policy Russell Carey co-chaired the group with Gould. He said the work offered a deeper understanding of history of the land on which Brown is located, and he hopes both the acknowledgment and the work to advance each of the commitments will offer that to the full community.
“I hope our work will serve to inspire members of the Brown community to learn more about the history of our region and to engage in efforts to strengthen our relationship with the Narragansett Indian Tribe and other Indigenous peoples throughout southern New England,” he said.
The history and lived experience of the Narragansett was a contribution that Sherenté Harris, a student enrolled in the Brown-RISD dual degree program, felt it was important to make to the University’s exploration of land acknowledgment. Harris is a member of the Narragansett Indian Tribe and was one of two students who served on the Land Acknowledgment Working Group.
Harris, who uses “they/them/their” pronouns, said the work of developing a land acknowledgment “began brewing in my heart and my mind when I first arrived at Brown” in 2018. They would often hear departments and groups at the University recite individually developed land acknowledgments — and while Harris appreciated those acknowledgments’ thoughtfulness, they also recognized that some of the statements were historically inaccurate.
“If land acknowledgments were to be given here at Brown, it was important to me that they be based on historical fact,” Harris said. “Colonial documents acknowledge that the Narragansett are the Indigenous people of Rhode Island. Our oral history speaks to stories of us in this place since time immemorial. And yet we’re often left out of the historical record. Being seen once more in our homelands is crucial — it is what will allow us to uphold our rights as a sovereign nation, to break free from intergenerational trauma and from the oppressive systems that hold us down.”