Mashapaug Nahaganset Tribe Files Lawsuit Charging R.I. and U.S. Governments with Environmental Racism

By SAM LIN-SOMMER/ecoRI News contributor

The tribe has accused the governments of violations of tenets of Rhode Island, U.S. and international law in a case that outlines a long history of land seizures and discrimination.

The tribe has accused the governments of violations of tenets of Rhode Island, U.S. and international law in a case that outlines a long history of land seizures and discrimination.

After centuries of marginalization by the Rhode Island and U.S. governments, one American Aborigine tribe has decided to look outside of state courts for legal reparations. On June 20, leaders of the Mashapaug Nahaganset tribe filed tort claims against the state of Rhode Island, the city of Providence and the city of Cranston in international court.

The Mashapaug Nahaganset tribe has sued those three governments for environmental racism in the District Court of the United States in Washington, D.C., one of three federal courts in which foreign nationals can file claims against the U.S. government. The tribe has accused the governments of violations of tenets of Rhode Island, U.S. and international law in a case that outlines a long history of land seizures, discrimination and environmental racism. With these claims, leaders of the tribe hope to bring governing bodies to the bargaining table after years of neglect.

The lawsuit is part of a group of parallel suits filed Jan. 7 by members of the Federation of Aboriginal Nations of America (FANA). In a motion of solidarity, the tribes filed four suits total against the states of Rhode Island, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. The suits call for reparations from the respective states for centuries of genocide, slavery and environmental racism.

The Sustainable Development Agenda, or Agenda 21, of the United Nations set a Dec. 31, 2014 deadline after which indigenous tribes can’t claim debts from other nations. However, the tort against the U.S. government was filed before that deadline, creating an avenue for the tribes to file claims.

Rightful inhabitants
The Mashapaug Nahaganset tribe is made up mostly of people living in urban areas in and around Providence who have made conscious decisions to reconnect with their heritage. The tribe re-formalized in 2009, and now counts about 100 people as members.

Members of the Mashapaug Nahaganset tribe trace their heritage to the area around the village that once thrived around Providence’s Mashapaug Pond. The land known as “Mashapaug” that the tribe once occupied extends throughout parts of Providence and Cranston.

The Mashapaug Nahaganset tribe is legally and geographically separate from the larger, federally recognized tribe called the “Narragansett” that has a reservation in southern Rhode Island.

Federally recognized tribes, such as the Narragansett, have to forfeit some sovereignty rights to the U.S. government and their land is kept in a trust managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In return, they gain protection and funding from the U.S. government that sovereign nations such as the Mashapaug Nahaganset don’t enjoy.

The Narragansett Indian Tribe of Rhode Island disavows any claims made in the Mashapaug Nahaganset's lawsuit, according to tribal medicine man John Brown. He said the group has no legal standing to make such claims.

"We don't know who they are," Brown said.

Mashapaug Nahaganset isn't recognized by the United Nations as a sovereign nation, but FANA has registered with the United Nations as an Indigenous People's Organization and Mashapaug is a charter nation of FANA. However, this doesn't denote any official status or relationship with the United Nations.

The alien tort statute claim sues the state of Rhode Island and the cities of Cranston and Providence. The cities sit on land that the tribe once occupied.

Before the arrival of Europeans on New England’s shores, the Narragansett had lived in Mashapaug for some 10,000 years. Subsequently, Europeans bought and seized Mashapaug land until Narragansett-controlled Mashapaug ceased to exist.

The most brutal moment in this progression of land loss occurred from 1675 to 1676 during King Philip’s War, considered by many to be the bloodiest war per capita ever fought on U.S. soil. In what amounted to a massacre, much of the Mashapaug Nahaganset population was slaughtered by the colonists, although some survived and continued to live in the area.

Some Mashapaug Nahaganset continued to live in West Elmwood, a neighborhood on Mashapaug Pond that was one of the first racially integrated neighborhoods in Providence. In the 1960s, the city, in one of many forced removals of communities of color in the name of “urban renewal,” declared West Elmwood a blighted neighborhood and forcibly removed its residents to build Huntington Industrial Park and Route 10.

Former residents of West Elmwood have said that the neighborhood wasn’t blighted, describing it instead as a tight-knit, working-class community in a bountiful rural landscape on the city’s edge.

Sacred land
In 2015, according to the U.S. Census, “American Indian and Alaskan Native” made up just 1 percent of Rhode Island’s population.

Quenikun Pau Paukunawaw, the intergovernmental liaison for the Mashapaug Nahaganset tribe and one of the leaders in the filing of the lawsuit, puts the legacy of colonialism in southern New England simply: “They killed off 95 percent of the native population, then they tried to absorb us into their society and their government.”

Since taking the Mashapaug Nahaganset’s land, the tribe argues that the government has mismanaged it, making it impossible for the tribe to use either public lands or the private lands that they might reclaim.

Mashapaug Pond, Providence’s largest body of water, forms the center of Mashapaug. The Mashapaug Nahagansett consider it a sacred site. The pond is now polluted to the point at which its water is undrinkable and unswimmable, and its fish inedible.

The pond borders the former site of the Gorham silver manufacturing plant, which left behind toxic metals in the pond’s waters and sediment. Alvarez High School was built above the property’s toxic remains, prompting frustration from concerned parents and residents about students’ health.

The tribe still holds ceremonies in the few public green spaces around the pond, but hopes to regain rights to the land — in the form of tax revenue and land repatriation, but isn't looking to forcibly remove any current residents — and for the pond to be cleaned up.

Paukunawaw said many of the nature-oriented activities that are central to Nahaganset culture are impossible, because of the state’s mismanagement of the land.

“If I wanted to be an American Indian today, I could say I want to quit my job, hunt these animals, fish these rivers ... (but) there’s no way I could do that,” he said. “There’s no land that hasn’t been polluted, there’s no river that hasn’t been polluted. If I wanted to go back to my land and live a traditional lifestyle, it’s not possible.”

Landmark case
In the tort case, the Mashapaug Nahaganset tribe accuses the governments of Rhode Island, Providence and Cranston of violating multiple cases of international, state and federal law. The suit argues that the long history of genocide, land seizures and other injustices against the Mashapaug Nahaganset constitute violations of jus cogens, the core principles of international law.

The Mashapaug Nahaganset claim that the government has taken its lands without compensation, constituting a civil-rights violation under U.S. law and a violation of Article 1 Section 16 of the Rhode Island Constitution, titled “Compensation for taking of private property for public use.”

The case also claims that state and local governments have violated the tenants of the United Nations’ 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The tribe argues that state and local governments have, throughout a history of systemic racism, “permanently and substantially” violated their rights to life, food, water and health, along with the enjoyment of indigenous lands.

The case cites the 1973 Apartheid Convention, claiming that the injustices against the tribe amount to acts of apartheid. Specifically, the Mashapaug Naraganset argue that government has oppressed them by racially segregating them, taking their land to enrich a specific racial class and, in turn, forcing them to work for people on land that was originally theirs.

Lastly, the case claims that the government’s taking and mismanagement of ancestral lands constitutes environmental racism. Paukunawaw estimated that state and local governments owe the tribe about $200 million.

The Mashapaug Nahaganset tribe’s goal isn’t to bankrupt state and city governments. Paukunawaw said the hope is to push government toward settling out of court.

“If we can settle this outside of a court in an amicable way, then we would do that,” he said. “If we can’t, that’s what the lawsuit is for.”

In addition to forcing settlements, the Mashapaug Nahaganset hope to win a symbolic victory, showing both Rhode Island and people worldwide that indigenous people can and will take legal action to secure their rights.

In 2007, the United Nations adopted a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that established government standards regarding the treatment of indigenous peoples. Since then, indigenous people have begun to mobilize for their rights in international court. Last February, for example, two western First Nations, the Onion Lake Cree and Poundmaker Cree, sued the Canadian government for $3 billion for the mishandling of their oil resources.

If this tort claim goes to court, Paukunawaw said it will be a “landmark case.”

“No one has really sued a country for their land back yet,” he said. “But it is something that has been discussed by multiple indigenous peoples around the world. We would be the first who would actually have a case heard on the international level.”

The Mashapaug Nahaganset also hope that this case can bring international recognition for Native Americans on the East Coast. In popular culture, Paukunawaw said, Native Americans tend to be confined to history books, invisible in contemporary American media, politics and culture.

Neesu Wushuwunoag, the Mashapaug Nahaganset’s pomham sachem, or principle chief, said it’s time the U.S. government acknowledges the people whose land it sits on.

“The Mashapaug were instrumental in the founding of Providence,” he said. “For those people to not be acknowledged or enjoy their land is an insult. ... We’re trying to be respectful and amicable, but our patience is growing thin.”

ecoRI News staffer Frank Carini contributed to this report.