Indianz.Com > News > Brian Lightfoot Brown: Narragansett Tribe still fighting for its sovereignty
Narragansett Tribe
Dancers at a Narragansett Tribe powwow in Rhode Island. The powwow, held every August, is the oldest recorded gathering of its type in the United States. Photo: Jack McLane
40 Years Later
Wednesday, April 12, 2023

April 11, 1983. The Narragansett Indian Tribe of Rhode Island had gained federal recognition and acknowledgment. It took approximately a full century to reclaim official tribal status after it was illegally taken away by the Rhode Island General Assembly during a series of hearings between 1880 and 1884, without the legally required federal sanction.

This illegal “detribalization” was utilized as a tool to sell off Narragansett tribal lands. It also served as a form of literary genocide, writing the Narragansett tribe out of documented existence. The tribe made several attempts to reclaim their land and status to no avail.

This “detribalization” would have negative impact that the Narragansett still contend with today. The tribe continued to be ignored into the early 20th century, until 1936 when Ellison “Tarzan” Brown burst onto the scene with his legendary, Heartbreak Hill-naming victory in the Boston Marathon, over the previous year’s winner, the iconic Johnny Kelley.

Ellison “Tarzan” Brown’s victory helped to earn him a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, but it also propelled the existence of the Narragansett people back in to the public’s awareness. Brown would go on to win the Boston Marathon, again, in 1939. Sadly, the Narragansett continued to be swept under society’s rug otherwise.

On June 18, 1934, the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) was passed, stating that tribes now under federal jurisdiction could follow the land-into-trust process. The Narragansett, due to the illegal actions of the Rhode Island General Assembly from 1880 through 1884, were not under federal jurisdiction. However, it was understood that it intended to mean at the time federal status was obtained. This was planting the seeds of many clashes the Narragansett would go on to have with the state of Rhode Island.

In 1975, the tribe filed a lawsuit over land that had been taken from them by unfair means. The lawsuit was settled in 1978 as the Rhode Island Indian Land Claims Settlement Act. The Narragansett regained 1800 acres of land around their reservation in Charlestown, Rhode Island.

However, the state did implement some stipulations that have also created disputes between tribe and state ever since. The tribe agreed that the land would be under legal jurisdiction of Rhode Island laws and taxes, with the exception of aboriginal hunting and fishing rights.

The next step was to file for federal recognition, something the Narragansett would have certainly obtained decades earlier, if not for the illegal detribalization of about 100 years before. Then it finally happened. On April 11, 1983, the Narragansett tribe was a federally recognized tribal nation.

The recognition status gave the Narragansett access to federal funding for healthcare, education and a multitude of other needs to assist tribal members. Internal disputes have risen up from time to time, but the tribe’s biggest opposition has been the U.S. government. In particular, their own home state of Rhode Island.

In the 1990s, the Narragansett began attempts at having a casino in the state. The tribe’s first major attempt was defeated at the polls, where the tribe hoped to build a casino in the town of West Greenwich, Rhode Island, in 1994. Just a few years later, Senator John Chafee snuck a rider onto an Omnibus Bill at the last moment, stating that the Narragansett tribal land was to be treated as settlement land and not usable through the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Chafee pulled this move to block the Narragansett from possibly building a gaming facility on tribal lands.

The Narragansett were astonished at the fact that the courts did not uphold the tribe’s status as a sovereign nation. Fast forward to July 14, 2003. The Narragansett Indian Smoke Shop raid. The tribe was running a tax-free smoke shop on tribal land, believing it was their right to do so, as a sovereign nation.

Then Rhode Island Governor Donald Carcieri felt otherwise. Carcieri sent a large force of state troopers to the smoke shop to issue a search and seizure warrant. The media cameras that were there caught the state troopers forcing their way through customers and tribal members, arresting several tribal members. Public opinion weighed strongly against the actions of the troopers, but the smoke shop has remained closed ever since.

Former Governor Carcieri’s final blow to the Narragansett came when he filed suit against the Secretary of the Interior, then Ken Salazar, stating that the Narragansett were not able to have land placed into trust for housing, because the tribe wasn’t under federal jurisdiction when the IRA became law.

On February 24, 2009, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas delivered the Carcieri vs. Salazar decision. The decision went against the Narragansett. Thomas stated that the IRA portion which stated “now under federal jurisdiction could follow the land-into-trust process” hinged on the word “now” and, to the court’s determination, “now” meant as of 1934.

This created an uproar in Indian Country and several bills have been introduced in the 14 years since, but none have made it to the President’s desk. Again, the injustice of the 1880-1884 illegal detribalization continues to unfairly haunt the Narragansett tribe.

The Narragansett people continue to survive, show perseverance and fight for equality. On the heels of Anthony Dean Stanton winning reelection to the office of Chief Sachem, the tribe still looks for opportunities to sustain the culture, continue the traditional ways and better the lives of the tribal community.

As of now, the Narragansett watch as the House of Representatives has introduced H.R.1208 and the Senate has introduced S.563. Both bills are to amend the Carcieri vs Salazar decision and allow the Secretary of the Interior to place land-into-trust for all federally recognized tribes, regardless of when they gained their federal status, or pass a clean Carcieri fix, in layman’s terms.

The tribe seeks potential financial ventures to help the community gain a level playing field in today’s world, with an eye on the future.

Should anyone want to help the push for a clean Carcieri fix, please feel free to click the link and sign the petition at

Forty years of federal recognition status and the Narragansett are still fighting for what’s rightfully ours. Fighting for things that we shouldn’t have to. But at least we are still here and we will continue to show our resilience.

Happy 40th Anniversary of recognition to us, the proud Nanhigganeuck. A’ho.

Brian Lightfoot Brown studied U.S. History at the University of Rhode Island, is an enrolled citizen of the Narragansett Tribe of Rhode Island and a grand nephew of 2-time Boston Marathon winner and 1936 U.S. Olympian Ellison “Tarzan” Brown.