Group of Rhode Island Native Americans File Lawsuit Against State for Reparations

Video and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — A federally unrecognized local Native American tribe is seeking reparations from Rhode Island and the U.S. government.

The Mashapaug Nahaganset tribe, with some 100 members living the Providence area, accuses the state and federal government of mismanaging their former land around Mashapaug Pond in Providence and Cranston.

The lawsuit also argues that a history of genocide, land seizures without compensation and other crimes against the Mashapaug Nahaganset constitute violations of international, federal and state law. The tribe estimates that it is owed about $200 million.

Legal papers were originally filed June 20, but a clerical error by U.S. District Court forced the Mashapaug Nahaganset tribe to refile its claim this month.

Morgan Victor, right, serves the lawsuit for the Mashapaug Nahaganset tribe to Gov. Gina Raimondo's legal office. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

Morgan Victor, right, serves the lawsuit for the Mashapaug Nahaganset tribe to Gov. Gina Raimondo's legal office. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

In a Nov. 9 press event outside the Statehouse, Raymond "Two Hawks" Watson explained that a court clerk failed to record payment of a $400 filing fee, which prompted the case to be dismissed. Once the error was found, the case started anew and legal papers were filed with the state of Rhode Island, the city of Providence and the city of Cranston.

“The overall case is environmental racism and that’s doing things to denigrate my natural inhabitation specifically because of who I was,” Watson said. “Basically, the first argument is that you took my land and it’s not yours. It’s mine.”

The Mashapaug Nahagansets maintain that government has oppressed them through racial segregation, land taking to benefit a ethnic class and forced labor on property that was originally theirs.

Watson said the lawsuit isn't about being adversarial or getting back at the state. “It’s about the fact that you did something wrong and you need to make amends for it, because we can’t move forward collectively ... unless we address what the wrongs in the past were.”

Other tribes along the East Coast signed away their land through treaties written long ago, Watson said.

"But here, after King Philip's War, they massacred us, sent us to reservations and they took the land. No contract," Watson said.

The Mashapaug Nahaganset tribe reestablished in 2009 as decedents sought to reconnect with their heritage. The Mashapaug Nahaganset tribe isn't federally recognized like the larger Narragansett tribe that has a reservation in southern Rhode Island.

The Narragansett tribe doesn't acknowledge the Mashapaug Nahaganset tribe. The Mashapaug Nahagansets consider themselves an American Aborigine tribe and thereby don't receive the same protections and rights as federally recognized tribes.