Published December 29, 2016
In Indian Country, I have seen what seems to be a trend. That trend is lack of recognition and acknowledgement of Native American tribes of the eastern coast of the United States, in particular, from the New England region. It seems that these tribes are largely forgotten, overlooked or just simply ignored. I often wonder why so many either don’t want to acknowledge or honestly just don’t know of the existence of legitimate indigenous tribes in the northeastern portion of the United States.
First, I’ll begin with the common, generally non-Native person from the northeast. Most of them are probably unaware of the presence of actual Native Americans in their immediate vicinity. This is probably due to a number of reasons. The stereotypical image in many people’s minds as to what a ‘real’ Native American looks like, is the main cause of this. It’s no secret that a vast majority of Native Americans from the New England area are of mixed heritage. Some mixed with European American blood and many mixed with African American blood. The interracial mixing has made many members of these tribes ‘look black or white’ in the eyes of the non-Native population. These people are not the same as those other white Americans who claim they had a Cherokee Princess in the family tree. These are people who are valid descendants of the actual tribes from this part of the country and a full-blooded Native ancestor, somewhere in the family history, intermarried and had a family with someone of another race.
Every federally recognized tribe sets its own criteria for tribal citizenship, and many of the tribes from the New England region do not use a blood quantum. Many use lineal descent to tribal members of the past, usually in connection with a treaty, official records or some other form of documentation from a specific time in the past. For example, the Narragansett Tribe of Rhode Island requires that you prove your descent from at least 1 of the 324 Narragansett people listed on an 1880 tribal roll that was used when the state of Rhode Island illegally ‘detribalized’ the Narragansett in order to make tribal lands available for sale to non-Natives.
This tends to lead many people, presumably of non-indigenous heritage, to assume that the people calling themselves Native American from tribes like the Narragansett, Pequot, Shinnecock and others to be ethnic frauds.
Even when articles on local media sites are written about these tribes, regardless of the subject matter of the articles, many non-native viewers post off-topic comments ridiculing and denouncing the legitimacy of their Native lineage. As I eluded to earlier, this is most certainly the product of stereotypical thinking and lack of knowledge of the tribal histories and the tribal families who have survived to this point. Also, most northeastern Natives are of mixed heritage, and by using the word most, this means that not all are of mixed heritage. Though there are much fewer of these families around today, there are still some who have not had their ancestry intermingled. The non-natives who post rants in newspaper comment sections, challenging the possibility of Native existence among the New England tribes in the 21st century tend not to notice these tribal members, conveniently.
Second, the dominant portion of Indian Country doesn’t seem to be aware of these northeastern tribes. There are many western US Natives who are aware, but when I have introduced myself to most of them and tell them of my own Narragansett ancestry, the look of uncertainty on their faces as they say “Oh where are your people from?”, or “I’ve never heard of them” is the most common reaction I get. Now this is generally just because they honestly haven’t heard of us. Nothing malicious or intentional. However, due to the lack of knowledge of our existence, we don’t seem to draw as much attention in various news outlets or media sites that are owned by and intended for news and information regarding Native American tribes.
I am personally trying to bridge a lot of this gap between tribes from the eastern United States and tribes from the western part of the country, but it’s still a big gap and I am but one person. I want to see a day when news about tribal politics, tribal cultural events, tribal history and tribal news of the day are regularly featured through the numerous indigenous media outlets. Part of the survival of Native Americans is to never forget who and what we were, are and will be. We must find a way to quiet those who refuse to accept the truth of our existence. This is a task for all Native tribes, east or west or middle America, and so on. But the eastern tribes have to fight a little bit harder to be heard than western tribes do. All Narragansett, Pequot, Mohegan and Abenaki people have all heard of the Navajo, Lakota, Apache and Hopi but how many of those tribal nations have never heard of the Narragansett, Pequot, Mohegan or Abenaki? The eastern tribes were forced into the European ideology of assimilation, in some cases, 150-200 years sooner than many of the tribes of the American west, and have had more time to be forced away from some traditions, ceremonies and languages.
As Native Americans, we must be aware of each other, acknowledge one another and form unity that can perhaps keep the existence and acknowledgment of these tribes alive, even among non-natives. We are all brothers and sisters in the eye of the Creator, when all is said and done.
Brian Lightfoot Brown, a member of the Narragansett Tribe of Rhode Island, resides in Phoenix, Arizona.
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