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What is the Narragansett Tribe?

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  • Written By: Nick Doniger
  • Edited By: Jacob Harkins
  • Last Modified Date: 08 September 2016
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The Narragansett tribe is native to the U.S. state of Rhode Island, having existed as early as 28,000 BC. These natives were hunters and fishers, living in wooded areas during the winter and migrating to the shores during the warmer weather. The relationship between the early American colonists and the Narragansett tribe was violent, as events such as the Great Swamp Massacre diminished the tribe's population and forced them to retreat deeper into the woods of southern Rhode Island. Despite this, the tribe's people continued to practice their customs, and still continue to exist as a recognized tribe in the United States.

Based on archaeological findings and oral history, it is believed that the Narragansett tribe has existed in the region since 28,000 BC or earlier. The earliest existing documented contact, however, did not take place until 1524. It was in this year that Italian explorer Giovanni de Verrazano discovered them.

The Narragansett natives were considered warriors and protectors of other regional tribes. They were hunters and fishers, using canoes for both fishing and traveling purposes. During the summer, they constructed wigwams and other similar temporary structures by the shore. Aside from fish and meats, corn was an important staple of the Narragansett people's diet. In winter months, they shared their gathered foods and lived together in large homes designed to accommodate several families.

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A majority of the current Narragansett Reservation still exists in southern Rhode Island. Though the Narragansett tribe had once lived in other areas of the state, this migration was a result of the Great Swamp Massacre. A militia of Puritans from Rhode Island and Connecticut attacked women, children, and elderly tribesmen, forcing the tribe to retreat into wooded areas. Following this massacre, many who refused to live under Colonial rule were either killed or sold into slavery in the Caribbean.

The relationship between the tribe and the colonists continued violently, as the tribe refused to surrender customs and traditions. During the 17th Century, it is estimated that the Narragansett tribe population was close to 10,000. As a result of disease and murder at the hands of colonists, the population dropped, at one point, to as low as about 200.

Shortly after the Revolutionary War, the United States Congress passed a Non-Intercourse Act to prevent states from annexing Narragansett land. This act was mostly ignored. As reservation land diminished by the acre, hunting and farming grounds for the tribe became dangerously scarce. The Narragansett tribe, however, still continued to recognize its tribal leadership over American authority and custom.

It was not until 1934 that the Narragansett tribe was incorporated, and United States citizens recognized the offices of the chief, medicine man, council, scribe, and prophet. In 1983, the tribe finally received federal recognition. The current population of the tribe, as recognized by the Tribal Rolls, is around 2,400. Most members still reside in Rhode Island.

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