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Legal claims cloud University, Pokanoket encampent dispute

U. proposed to consult with indigenous groups on condition that land be broken up

Since the Pokanoket Tribe began an encampment on University-owned property in August, contradictory claims to the land have clouded communications between the two entities, surfacing layers of complex ancestries and historical legal acts.

The University offered a plan Aug. 30 to Pokanoket leaders outlining a timeline to work toward an agreement with the Pokanoket encampment. Leaders there rejected the proposal the next day.

In the proposal, the University suggested a 12 to 18 month process during which it would consult with stakeholders, including indigenous groups with ties to the contested land, the city of Bristol and the state of Rhode Island. The University also offered to fund a study investigating the oral history, geography and archeological and historical significance of the land. The plan rested on the condition that the encampment is broken up.

University researchers from the Steering Committee of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative at the University released a statement to the encampment Aug. 24 casting doubt on the indigenous ancestry and status of the Pokanoket Tribe.

In a Sept. 6 post on the Po Metacom Camp Facebook page, Sagamore Po Wauipi Neimpaug noted that communications from Brown to its students “are forcing the Pokanoket Tribe to reassess Brown University’s good faith commitment.”


The sagamore of the Pokanoket spoke about his ancestry in a video posted to the camp’s Facebook page Sept. 25, stating that his ninth-generation grandfather was King Philip, or Metacom, the leader of the Pokanoket. King Philip, for whom King Philip’s War was named, was murdered on the contested land.

The NAISI Steering Committee’s statement acknowledges that members of the tribe may have native ancestry, but notes that records used by the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe — a federally recognized nation — indicate that the Pokanoket Tribe became part of the Mashpee community following King Philip’s War.

In a statement released Sept. 25 on behalf of the Council of the Pokanoket Tribe, Sagamore Po Wauipi Neimpaug recounted the Pokanoket Tribe’s lineage through “rigidly kept oral tradition” passed along through generations of his family. He stated that after King Philip’s War, members of the Pokanoket Tribe became recognized as Shetucket Indians and part of the Seekonk Indian Tribe. “The Pokanoket Tribe has very few bloodline ties to the Mashpee,” he wrote. “This is who we are as a people.”

Neesu Wushuwunoag, director general of the Federation of Aboriginal Nations of America and Ponham Sachem of the Mashapaug Nahaganset Tribe, felt insulted by the NIASI Steering Committee’s statement. “That’s a very colonial mindstate to have that you get to decide who the Indians are or are not when our bloodlines speak for themselves,” he said. “You’re not going to tell me I’m not who I am.”

The tribe belongs to an association that requires evidence of aboriginal ancestry. In a letter to the general public and Brown community, Wushuwunoag wrote on behalf of FANA that member nations of the organization must “demonstrate a lineage and heritage that predates the occupation of the United States government in their ancestral lands.”

Despite these contentions, the Pokanoket have not received recognition from the state. A resolution introduced in the Rhode Island General Assembly’s January 2007 session stated that “This General Assembly of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations hereby formally recognizes the Pokanoket Tribe of the Wampanoag Nation.” The resolution did not pass, but was held for further study.

Legal Action

Like the state of Rhode Island, the federal government does not recognize the Pokanoket Tribe. The NAISI Steering Committee’s statement noted that without federal recognition, the Pokanoket Tribe would not have the ability to place the contested land in a federal trust, a shift which allows for the operation of Native American reservations.

Other land claims have been made by indigenous groups in the area. In 2005, a case in Rhode Island District Court addressed a claim for land in the northern part of the state made by the Seaconke Wampanoag Tribe based on aboriginal title, according to court documents. The case was dismissed because of the Rhode Island Indian Claims Settlement Act. The Act extinguished all aboriginal titles to land in Rhode Island and approved previous transfers of state land “from, by, or on behalf of any Indian, Indian Nation, or Tribe of Indians” as lawful when it was signed by President Jimmy Carter in 1978.

The Pokanoket are not seeking federal recognition, or the establishment of a federal trust — the group created their own Tribal Trust under the guidelines of the International Hague Trust Convention, Wushuwunoag said. No parties rebutted the Tribe’s official notice, he added.

To Wushuwunoag, the relationship between the University and the Pokanoket Tribe is “an international relationship,” he said. “It’s an eye-to-eye, nation-to-nation relationship, and it all comes down to who was here first.”

The International Hague Trust Convention, which took place in 1985, addressed law applicable to trusts and how trusts are recognized. The United States is a signatory to the treaty, but has not ratified it, according to the Hague Conference on Private International Law website. The treaty has not entered into force in the United States.

The FANG Collective, which has publicized Po Metcom Camp since it began Aug. 20, responded to the NAISI Steering Committee’s message with its own statement Aug. 25. FANG voiced its support for the search for sovereignty on the part of indigenous groups regardless of federal recognition and noted the right to self-determination defined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Declaration was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 2007, at which time the United States was one of four votes against. The United States is now in support of the Declaration, according to the U.N. website, but the Declaration is not legally binding.

Standing Firm

The University has emphasized the importance of strong relationships with all indigenous communities in the area in its communications. The NAISI Steering Committee’s statement noted that organizations including the FANG Collective “jumped into supporting and orchestrating the cause without reaching out to Aquinnah, Mashpee, Assonet, Herring Pond Wampanoag or Narragansett” groups.

The FANG Collective said in a statement that it had reached out to several indigenous nations in the Northeast to discuss possible effects of infrastructure projects, but did not specifically address their communications surrounding this land claim by the Pokanoket Tribe.

The message from the NAISI Steering Committee asked students to refrain from sharing any materials from the FANG Collective on social media and encouraged that they reach out to NAISI faculty before sharing information.

In the University’s Aug. 31 statement, it reaffirmed its commitment to “work earnestly to engage the Pokanokets and local Native tribes” and noted its desire to reach an agreement without disrupting the University’s instruction and research.

The Pokanoket encampment will continue, Wushuwunoag said, until Brown “does the right thing.”



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