Brown adopts land acknowledgment, additional commitments to Native and Indigenous communities

The acknowledgment is part of a set of commitments aimed at building a better understanding of the relationship between the University community, Indigenous peoples of the region and the land on which Brown is situated.

 Brown University has established an official land acknowledgment that recognizes and honors its location within the ancestral homelands of the Narragansett Indian Tribe. The acknowledgment is one of five commitments Brown is making to build understanding of the relationship between its campus community, Indigenous peoples of the region and the land on which Brown is situated.

University President Christina H. Paxson shared the land acknowledgment in a letter to the Brown community on Tuesday, May 24. The acknowledgment reads:

“Brown University is located in Providence, Rhode Island, on lands that are within the ancestral homelands of the Narragansett Indian Tribe. We acknowledge that beginning with colonization and continuing for centuries the Narragansett Indian Tribe have been dispossessed of most of their ancestral lands in Rhode Island by the actions of individuals and institutions. We acknowledge our responsibility to understand and respond to those actions. The Narragansett Indian Tribe, whose ancestors stewarded these lands with great care, continues as a sovereign nation today. We commit to working together to honor our past and build our future with truth.”

Paxson also outlined a set of commitments that arose from a year-long exploration by a Land Acknowledgment Working Group composed of University students, faculty and administrators, including members of the Narragansett Indian Tribe. She wrote that acknowledging the complex, painful history of the land on which Brown sits is an important first step in what will be a years-long process of reckoning with the past and building relationships with the Narragansett Indian Tribe and other Native and Indigenous communities.

“Committing to a set of actions to educate our community and support broader engagement with the tribe and other Indigenous peoples of the region is critical to understanding our shared history and developing strong relationships,” Paxson wrote. “The deep reflection and historical context that accompanied the LAWG recommendations laid the groundwork for the important work we’ll do as a community.”

“ [A land acknowledgment] needs to be more than a performative statement recited before an event or gathering. It needs to have meaning and depth. ”

RAE GOULD  Executive Director, Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative

The land acknowledgment, which is supported by the Narragansett Indian Tribe, is part of the following five actions the University will take as it strengthens relationships with local Native and Indigenous communities and peoples:

  • adopt the official land acknowledgment statement, as well as providing education and guidance for its optional use (while there are no requirements for its use, guidance is offered for those who choose to offer land acknowledgments at events and gatherings held in Providence);
  • commission and support new original scholarship regarding the origins and founding of Brown and its relationships to the Indigenous peoples in and around what is now southern New England;
  • establish a group to work closely with the Narragansett Indian Tribe to explore how Brown can honor and memorialize its College Hill location as part of the homeland of the Narragansett people;
  • support increased educational opportunities and access for youth of the Narragansett Indian Tribe and other tribal youth from New England;
  • and increase investment in the Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative and the Native Americans at Brown student organization.

The guidance for use of the land acknowledgment statement, as well as the full text of the five actions the University will take, appears on a new land acknowledgment website.

The working group’s recommendations included a brief history of the land where Brown’s Providence campus now sits, including Roger Williams’ storied initial encounter with the Narragansett people. That event is depicted on the City of Providence seal, which decorates one column of Brown’s Van Wickle Gates. Photo: Nick Dentamaro/Brown University

A community process

The commitments resulted from a year-long process that included research and exploration of Indigenous history and culture by the Land Acknowledgment Working Group, which Paxson formed in March 2021. The group’s work included delving into bodies of scholarship, knowledge-building with members of the University community and learning directly from the Narragansett Indian Tribe.

Rae Gould, executive director of Brown’s Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative, co-chaired the group. She said meetings began with conversations about what land acknowledgments can and should accomplish, encompassing discussion of existing land acknowledgment models from organizations and institutions of higher education across the country. The group also engaged in outreach, meeting with Narragansett Tribal Medicine Man and Historic Preservation Officer John Brown on the tribal reservation in Charlestown and engaging in regular dialogue with members of the Narragansett Tribe.

“I think this work enabled all of us to think more deeply about what ‘land acknowledgment’ can really mean,” Gould said, adding that it’s important that the University understands it is only a first step toward building greater understanding. “It needs to be more than a performative statement recited before an event or gathering. It needs to have meaning and depth. It needs to help respond to the history of dispossession in some way — and we can’t determine what that might mean in a few months or even a year. Figuring that out takes time, patience and layers of conversations.”

Recognizing the preliminary nature of the Land Acknowledgment Working Group’s findings, the new scholarship commissioned by the University will include collaboration between Indigenous peoples of the region and the John Carter Brown Library, the University’s Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative and other academic units at Brown.

The working group’s recommendations, shared first with the Narragansett Tribe and then with more than a dozen representatives from local tribal communities in the region, included a brief history of the land where Brown’s Providence campus now sits, from its Narragansett history to the 1636 arrival of Roger Williams, an English-born minister who founded what would come to be known as Providence. An illustration of Williams’ storied initial encounter with the Narragansett people is depicted on the City of Providence seal, which decorates one column of Brown’s Van Wickle Gates.

Executive Vice President for Planning and Policy Russell Carey co-chaired the group with Gould. He said the work offered a deeper understanding of history of the land on which Brown is located, and he hopes both the acknowledgment and the work to advance each of the commitments will offer that to the full community.

“I hope our work will serve to inspire members of the Brown community to learn more about the history of our region and to engage in efforts to strengthen our relationship with the Narragansett Indian Tribe and other Indigenous peoples throughout southern New England,” he said.

The history and lived experience of the Narragansett was a contribution that Sherenté Harris, a student enrolled in the Brown-RISD dual degree program, felt it was important to make to the University’s exploration of land acknowledgment. Harris is a member of the Narragansett Indian Tribe and was one of two students who served on the Land Acknowledgment Working Group.

Harris, who uses “they/them/their” pronouns, said the work of developing a land acknowledgment “began brewing in my heart and my mind when I first arrived at Brown” in 2018. They would often hear departments and groups at the University recite individually developed land acknowledgments — and while Harris appreciated those acknowledgments’ thoughtfulness, they also recognized that some of the statements were historically inaccurate.

“If land acknowledgments were to be given here at Brown, it was important to me that they be based on historical fact,” Harris said. “Colonial documents acknowledge that the Narragansett are the Indigenous people of Rhode Island. Our oral history speaks to stories of us in this place since time immemorial. And yet we’re often left out of the historical record. Being seen once more in our homelands is crucial — it is what will allow us to uphold our rights as a sovereign nation, to break free from intergenerational trauma and from the oppressive systems that hold us down.”

There are so many young, bright Narragansett people who have unfortunately not been offered the opportunity to reach their truest potential. I want them to feel welcome here…

SHERENTÉ HARRIS  Brown student and Narragansett Indian Tribe member

Harris said they and their cousin, Ph.D. student in history and fellow working group member Kimonee Burke, were able to act as liaisons between tribal dignitaries and the rest of the working group, strengthening the University’s relationship with the Narragansett Tribe. Harris’ hope is that the group’s work ultimately helps members of the tribe — and other Native and Indigenous communities — feel more at home at Brown and in other places where they have been historically underrepresented.

“There are so many young, bright Narragansett people who have unfortunately not been offered the opportunity to reach their truest potential,” Harris said. “I want them to feel welcome here, to see people and landmarks and events that send the message that they are accepted here.”

Ongoing learning

Following outreach to representatives from local tribal communities, the Brown campus community was provided an opportunity for feedback and input on the group’s recommendations over the course of the Spring 2022 semester. Paxson said that faculty, students and staff strongly supported the recommendations, especially endorsing the land acknowledgment, new investments in Native and Indigenous studies and Indigenous students, and further education of the Brown community.

That was no surprise to Gould, given the University’s past unflinching reckoning with its historical entanglements with the transatlantic slave trade, along with bold investigations of Indigenous slavery and dispossession in the Americas by Associate Professor of History Linford Fisher and by the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice.

“Brown has a history of engaging in difficult topics of social and historical injustice,” Gould said. “We’re not afraid to face this head-on — it’s one thing I admire about this University and value about working here.”

Paxson said that beyond Brown’s existing commitments of support and education, the new research and scholarship the University commissions may lead to new actions as Brown builds a deeper understanding of disparate and connecting histories.

“I am excited to begin efforts over the summer to establish a framework for advancing Brown’s commitments,” Paxson said. “I look forward to the work we’ll do together as a community in the months and years ahead.”