Op-eds, Opinions

Bustos ’16: Contested claims

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

As a former high school and college student, I was privileged to visit the land at 300 Tower Street in Bristol many times. Every summer, the University hosts the Brown Environmental Leadership Lab, a two-week program for high school students. In 2011, I was a BELL student, and, in 2013, I worked as a leader fellow. Afterward, I continued to visit the property until graduation.

During the program, we slept in tents, walked around the site, talked about climate change and learned about the history of the land. A lesson on Native history was one of the most enriching experiences of the summer. We discussed the transformations the property had experienced, the systematic dispossession of the Wampanoags and the turning points during King Philip’s War. We even walked in silence to the spot where King Philip (also known as Metacom) had been killed. As occupiers of land that underwent processes of dispossession and settler colonialism, we students — and for that matter, most of the public — had much to learn about the histories that have been deliberately erased.

My memories of the property are colored with emotion and even nostalgia. It was here where I made a decision to pursue environmental studies, where I first thought that Brown could one day be home, a place where I ran miles lost in my own thoughts. So when I first heard about the Pokanoket Nation occupying the 375-acre land where I had spent many summer days, my immediate reaction was confusion. Why were there tents and boards all over the familiar landscape? Why were the Pokanoket claiming ownership of the property if Brown had held a legal title for decades? Hadn’t the University sustained or at least attempted to maintain friendly relationships with several Wampanoag tribes and even facilitated access to their spiritual visits every year?

As I began to read more about the context behind the claims and the contrasting statements between Brown and Pokanoket leadership, I was struck by the complexity of the issue. This was not just about occupying space in an act of defiance but about the implications of indigenous identity on land claims, notions of justice and stewardship. These concepts are inherently complicated, interconnected and far-reaching — as are several key questions behind this situation.

First, there was the issue of self-identification and federal recognition. A specific piece of the University’s statement stirred some controversy: “There is a delicate yet important technical difference between holding Native ancestry and holding nation status, and that is at the heart of the issue here.” But so what if the Pokanoket were not federally recognized? Of course this recognition has substantial legal implications, but what about the right to self-identification, which is in itself enshrined in international human rights law? Different interpretations of the notion of self-determination, in Paraguay for example, argue that neither courts nor states can determine the ethnic identity of a community, respecting the right to autonomy and self-determination. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that “indigenous peoples have the right to determine their own identity or membership in accordance with their customs and traditions.” With this in mind, whether or not the group had federal recognition should not hinder a fair and responsive exchange. Though Brown’s response was more complex than this, the federal recognition statement only raised further questions for me.

Second, beyond the claim to the land, what else could reparations to historical exclusion and dispossession entail? For several decades, Brown has been in the process of coming to terms with its own involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. As a result, it has created the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, installed a Slavery Memorial and pursued other ways to understand and recognize the past. What would a parallel process for reparations to other ethnic communities look like? Assistant Professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies Adrienne Keene has discussed some of the steps the University has already taken. But if Brown eventually reaches an agreement with the indigenous groups in the area, what would that mean for broader processes of collective reparation? Furthermore, if all the land we currently occupy has a nuanced history of dispossession and exclusion, what happens to the rest of the properties where so many other people have laid roots and built livelihoods? Even if there was an agreement with the Pokanoket and the other tribes with claims to the land, what would the implications be?

Third, while Brown makes a valid point when it says that other Wampanoag peoples like the Aquinnah, Mashpee, Assonet, Herring Pond Wampanoag and Narragansett need to be involved in any negotiation, part of me wondered whether Brown was also trying to capitalize on existing tensions between these groups to defend its own interests. I fully agree with the need to hold discussions with all the relevant stakeholders, but this claim struck me as an effort to dilute the main sources of tension.

Fourth, as Brown explains in a recent press release, I am puzzled by the Pokanoket’s refusal to recognize the connection of other groups to the land. Perhaps this is where my lack of expertise on the subject matter fails me, but how can they be so certain of their claim as the only valid one? When the sources of Native history are closely linked to oral tradition, how do we reconcile conflicting versions of the “truth”?

As an outsider, I do not pretend to hold any definitive answers to the questions I have raised. If anything, the past days have reminded me of how little we know about the histories of the land we now occupy. Even as someone who had spent time and was acquainted with the history of the Bristol site, I still find myself perplexed by the complexity and nuances of the situation.

As many of my peers, my immediate reaction was to express solidarity with the Pokanoket and their claims. Now, as we await statements from the other Wampanoag peoples with spiritual and material ties to the land, I invite careful reflection on this moment. Beyond an intricate land dispute between a number of stakeholders, this case is also an opportunity to think critically about how we understand contested land claims, identities and processes of collective reparation. What is at stake here and what is being negotiated goes beyond this particular case in Bristol, Rhode Island. We must acknowledge the complexity of spiritual and ethnic claims to the land even when our legal systems do not.

As someone who cherishes the memories and the time spent in 300 Tower Road, Bristol, I hope the land remains accessible to anyone who wishes to teach, learn or walk on it. And at the same time, I hope that — whatever legal, symbolic or ethical battles are fought over it — considerations of justice, environmental stewardship and public interest are part of the picture.

Camila Bustos ’16 works on human rights and climate issues in Colombia. She can be reached at

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One Comment

  1. georgewebbhead says:

    Narragansetts are not Wampanoags!

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