Narragansett (Native Americans of the Northeast Woodlands)

Narragansetttmp2021_thumb, "People of the Small Point," was the name both of a specific tribe and a group of tribes—such as Shawomet, Pawtuxet, Coweset (Nipmuc), and eastern Niantic—dominated by Narragansett sachems. See also Pequot.

Location In the sixteenth century, the Narragansett proper were located in south-central Rhode Island, although the greater Narragansett territory extended throughout all but northwest and extreme southwest Rhode Island. Today, most Narragansetts live in southern Rhode Island.

Population There may have been about 3,000 Narragansetts in 1600. There were at least 2,400 in the mid-1990s.

Language Narragansetts spoke an Eastern Algonquian language.

Historical Information

History This group may have originated well to the southwest of their historical territory. They were the most powerful New England tribe until 1675, dominating neighbors such as the Niantic and Nipmuc. They may have encountered non-natives in 1524, although there was no significant contact for another century or so afterward.

Trade with the British and Dutch was under way by 1623. Although the Narragansetts largely avoided the epidemics of 1617-1619, smallpox and other diseases dramatically weakened the people in 1633 and thereafter. As British allies, some Narragansetts fought against the Indians in the Pequot war of 1636-1637. In 1636, the grand sachem Canonicus sold land to Roger Williams, on which he established the future state of Rhode Island.

In an effort to protect themselves from non-native depredations, the tribe voluntarily submitted to Britain in 1644. Despite Williams’s entreaties to treat the Indians fairly, many British remained extremely hostile. Eventually, they forced the Narragansett people to join the Nipmucs and Wampanoags in King Philip’s war (1675-1676). A huge defeat in December 1675, in which more than 600 Narragansetts were killed and hundreds more captured and sold into slavery, signaled the beginning of the end of the war as well as the virtual destruction of the tribe itself.

After the war, survivors dispersed among the Mahican, Abenaki, and Niantic, the last group thenceforth assuming the name Narragansett. Some of the Mahicans joined the Brotherton Indians in 1788 (see Pequot) and later moved with them to Wisconsin. Those who remained in Rhode Island (probably fewer than 100) worked as servants or slaves of the non-native settlers, who moved quickly to occupy the vacated Narragansett lands.

The people underwent a general conversion to Christianity in the mid-eighteenth century, at which time a Christian reservation community was established in Charlestown. After the last hereditary sachem died during that period, government changed to an elected president and council. The last native speaker died in the early nineteenth century. A constitution was adopted in 1849. All of the Narragansett Reservation, except for two acres, was sold in 1880, and the tribe was terminated by the state at that time. The Rhode Island Narragansett incorporated in 1934 under the terms of the Indian Reorganization Act.

Religion Cautantowwit, the supreme deity, lived to the southwest. There were also numerous other spirits or deities, who could and did communicate with people through dreams and visions. Priests or medicine men (powwows) were in charge of religious matters. They were usually men who realized their profession in a dream or a vision experience. Their main responsibilities included curing, bringing rain, and ensuring success in war. A harvest ritual was held in a longhouse near the sachem’s house. At one important ceremony, possibly held in winter, participants burned their material possessions.

Government Narragansetts recognized a dual (junior and senior) chief or sagamore. Power was shared with a council of elders, sachems, powwows, and other leaders. Sachems were responsible for seeing to the public welfare and defense and for administering punishment. The office of sagamore may have been inheritable and was occasionally held by a woman. Within the larger administrative body there were smaller groups presided over by lesser sachems.

Customs People changed their names at various life-cycle ceremonies. They were generally monogamous. The dead were wrapped in skins or woven mats and then buried with tools and weapons to accompany them to an afterworld located to the southwest. Only good souls joined the creator there; bad souls wandered aimlessly forever.

Women mostly assumed agricultural duties, set up the houses, made carrying and cooking items, and gathered wild foods and shellfish. Men made house poles and canoes and also hunted, fished, and fought. Some men also made tools and wampum, and old men made turkey-feather mantles.

Dwellings Narragansetts lived in dome-shaped, circular wigwams about 10-20 feet in diameter, covered with birch and chestnut bark in summer and mats in winter. Smoke passed through an opening at the top. Winter hunting lodges were small and built of bark and rushes. People erected temporary field houses where they stayed when guarding the crops. Villages were often stockaded.

Diet Women grew corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers; men grew tobacco. The men also hunted moose, bear, deer, wolves, and other game and trapped beaver, squirrels, and other small animals and fowl. Deer were stalked and may have been hunted communally. People fished in freshwater and salt water. They gathered much marine life, including the occasional stranded whale, as well as strawberries and a number of other wild foods.

Key Technology Crops were dried and stored in underground pits. Fish weirs were often made of stone. Needles were made from bone; necklaces and wampum from shell. Women made twined baskets, pottery, and mats.

Trade The Narragansett were notable traders. They dealt in wampum, skins, clay pots, carved bowls, and chestnuts. They imported carved stone and wooden pipes from the Mohawk.

Notable Arts Clothing was decorated with quillwork and wampum beads.

Transportation Canoes were mainly of the dugout variety.

Dress People generally wore deerskin breechclouts, skirts, and leggings. They might also wear turkey-feather mantles and moccasins. In winter they donned bear- and rabbit-skin robes, caps, and mittens.

War and Weapons Enemies at times included the Pokanoket (Wampanoag) and Pequot, and allies included the Niantic. Surprise attacks were favored, as were small attacks, although large-scale fights did occur. The people built forts within their territory; as a last resort they withdrew into swamps. Weapons were generally identical with hunting tools.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations In Charleston, Rhode Island, the Narragansett have 1,800 acres held in federal trust. They also own several hundred acres, acquired in 1991 from a private donation, in Westerly. Under its by-laws, the tribe recognizes an elected tribal council, a chief sachem, a medicine man, and a Christian leader (or prophet). A number of committees deal with various matters. Major decisions require the approval of the entire community.

Economy A fishery and high-stakes gambling were under consideration in the late 1990s, the latter being especially controversial.

Legal Status The Narragansett Tribe is a federally recognized tribal entity.

Daily Life In 1985, the state of Rhode Island returned two pieces of land of about 900 acres each. The August annual meeting and powwow have been held for the last 250 or more years on the old meeting ground in Charlestown. Other ceremonies are both religious (such as the Fall Harvest Festival held in the longhouse) and secular (such as the commemoration of the 1675 battle) in nature. There are tribal programs for the elderly and for children. Tribal representatives are involved in local non-native cultural and educational programs.

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