Pokanoket Tribe Rejects Brown University's Offer

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

BRISTOL, R.I. — The Pokanoket Tribe recently rejected an offer from Brown University to end its occupation of disputed Native American land on the school's Haffenreffer campus.

In its proposal delivered to the tribe on Aug. 30, Brown University asked the Pokanokets to leave the site if the school promises to make the 375-acre parcel more accessible to Native American groups. The university also offered to fund a comprehensive investigation of the land’s tribal history and use that information to make recommendations regarding the future use of the property.

The Pokanokets didn't reply to a request for comment, but in separate statement issued a plea for donations, camping supplies and announced a protest march in Providence on Sept. 5.

The Pokanokets and activist groups, on Aug. 20, took over the entrance and compound to Brown University's Haffenreffer property and set up an encampment. About two dozen tents and trailers were set up as "Po Metacom Camp" to house tribal members and activists.

In its response to the rejected offer, Brown University said the Pokanokets took issue with the inclusion of other Native American groups in determining who has claim to the land.

“Unfortunately, the modern Pokanoket group refuses to recognize the connection of the other peoples to the land, and that is something Brown does not find ethical or acceptable as owners and stewards of the Bristol property,” according to a Brown University statement.

The Providence-based university maintains that multiple Native American tribes, such as the Wampanoags of Gay Head, the Mashpee Wampanoags and the Narragansett Indian Tribe, regard the land as hallowed and historic. The university contends that the Pokanokets assimilated into these tribes after losing King Philip’s War and their leader, Metacom, was killed by colonists in 1676.

The Pokanokets claim the land was illegally transferred to the colonists in 1680. The tribe believes it owned the land before state and federal agreements were established for tribal recognition. The Pokanokets consider themselves an aboriginal tribe, which earns them title to the property, as defined by the 2008 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. The Pokanokets and other tribes use the site regularly for ceremonies.

Brown University indicated that it intends to continue negotiations with the tribe. The university uses the property to store exhibits for the Haffenreffer Museum in Providence. The facility is also used for camps and educational activities.

Brown initially said the tribe can remain during negotiations. But in its latest press release, the university said the encampment is hindering museum employees and others from doing work at the facility.

“Brown hopes to reach a resolution that will avoid interference with the teaching and research at the core of the university’s mission to advance knowledge and understanding," according to the press release.

Brown University acquired the land in 1955 from the Haffenreffer family.