Videos, photos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — A Sept. 5 march through the leafy, tree-lined streets of the East Side, down Thayer Street to the iconic gateway at Brown University, brought added media attention to Pokanoket Nation and its effort to reclaim land from the school.
The 70 or so protesters included Pokanokets, activists, and Brown University students and alumni who performed tribal dances and shouted slogans honoring sacred tribal land in Bristol known as Mount Hope or Potumtuk.
The walking protest drew local TV news coverage, and was timed to steal attention from a ceremony welcoming 2,700 new students to Brown. The university responded with a heavy security presence at campus entrances. Members of the tribe pounded drums and chanted slogans such as “Potumtuk is why we fight. Brown you can do what's right!”
The Pokanoket’s chief, Harry “Hawk” Quanunon Edmonds, insisted that the tribe intends to protect the mostly wooded property and keep it pristine. “We are not about casinos," he said. "I want the public to know that. We just want our land back to hold our sacred ceremonies.”
The Pokanoket Tribe did confirm that it declined an Aug. 31 proposal from Brown University to end its encampment at the 375-acre site. The university offered greater access to the property, along with a promise to fund a comprehensive study that will guide future use of the site for Native American groups.
The Pokanokets rejected the proposal because it gives Brown University the say over which tribes have access to the land, a privilege the Pokanokets believe is theirs. As a sovereign nation that predates formal recognition, the Pokanokets say the land was transferred to the colonists without their consent and therefore “a sovereign Tribe or Nation is imbued with the right to make decisions about its own lands free from interference by other tribes, nations or entities.”
In a press release, the tribe said it has acted in good faith during negotiations while Brown University has sent e-mails to students, facility and the media questioning the legitimacy of the tribe's origins. The school maintains that the Pokonokets dispersed into other tribes in Rhode Island and Massachusetts at the conclusion to King Philip’s War and the death of their sachem, Metacom, in 1676. Those tribes include the Narragansett Indians and the Mashpee, Gay Head, Aquina and Assonet tribes of Wampanoag.
“Brown has demonstrated over the years increasing commitment in stewarding the Bristol property in recognition of the fact that there are multiple Indigenous and Native tribes and peoples that regard this land as sacred and central to their history,” according to the university's Aug. 31 proposal.
Despite the acrimony, both sides intend to continue negotiations.
A Brown University spokesman told ecoRI News that the school prefers to communicate with Pokanokets directly rather than explain its concerns to the media.
“Our hope is to reach an agreement about a stewardship approach that is inclusive of all Native peoples that have a historical connection to the Bristol land,” said Brian E. Clark, the university's news director.