March 22, 2011

Narragansett official opposes Williams plaque

Narragansett Indians official against Roger Williams plaque

By Paul DavisJohn Brown, the director of historic preservation for the Narragansett Indians, has asked the state to rethink plans for a historic plaque dedicated to the relationship between Roger Williams and the tribe.

On Friday, Brown said he objects to the proposed content, which focuses on the sale of Native Americans into slavery at the end of King Philip’s War.

The focus should be on the tribe’s early peaceful relationship with Williams, who started the Providence colony in 1636 on tribal land, he said.

No matter what happened later, “those early dealings were honorable,” said Brown. “We’re not going to be involved in any character assassination.”
And:Brown said Friday that a first-ever plaque about the tribe and the Colonists should start at the beginning of the story, when the dealings between the two parties were “honorable,” he said.

“The tribe’s history should start from a point of strength, not weakness,” he said.

The tribe, he added, provided Williams—banished from Massachusetts—with land, and offered to protect the early Colonists.

“If there were ups and downs in that relationship, we will talk about that later.”
RIC professor sees another, less heroic Roger Williams

By Paul DavisSince he first trudged through the woods to found Providence, Roger Williams has been variously called an American statesman, a canny trader and a champion of religious freedom.

Julianne Jennings, a Native American, would like to add a few more labels to the list.

Indian fighter.

Slave trader.

“We have to stop the lying,” says Jennings, 48, an author and adjunct professor of anthropology at Rhode Island College.

In her Non-Western Worlds Native Americans class, Jennings offers what she says is a “more balanced” view of New England’s feel-good, Indian summer past. Her goal? “To decolonize America’s classrooms.”

As part of her effort, she’s urging the state Department of Transportation to erect a plaque on South Main Street, one designed to give Rhode Islanders a new––and darker––picture of the state’s founder.

Relying on 17th-century letters and town hall records, Jennings says that Williams sent Indian prisoners from King Philip’s War to the Caribbean, Portugal, Spain and Africa, where they were sold as slaves.

He was also a steely strategist during the bloody Pequot War, argues Jennings. At one point, she says, Williams told Massachusetts Gov. John Winthrop to attack a Pequot fort in Mystic, Conn., at night, so that the “English, being armed, may enter their houses and do what execution they please.”

In May 1637, a band of New England Colonists did just that. They set Pequot dwellings on fire and shot the natives as they fled from their homes, killing hundreds of Indian men, women and children.

Not everyone is comfortable with the new picture.

“It’s certainly not the portrait we paint of Roger Williams,” says Mary A. Channing, president of the Roger Williams Family Association.

“To call Williams an Indian hater is just plain wrong,” adds Rhode Island author and historian J. Stanley Lemons. In fact, Williams was responsible for 40 years of peace with the Narragansett Indians and other tribes. “Rhode Island did not have an Indian problem” until a Colonial militia from Connecticut, Plymouth and Massachusetts attacked the Narragansetts during King Philip’s War, he said. “Until then, Rhode Island was neutral.”

Williams did participate in the sale of Indian captives, but the money was used by the Colonists to rebuild Providence, largely destroyed in the war. Although the Narragansetts did not harm Williams, they burned down his home, Lemons said. “He was a man of his time. There wasn’t anyone who didn’t believe in slavery” in the 1600s, he said. When he referred to Indians as “barbarians” and “savages,” he was only using the language of the time.

“I’ve had people scream at me, ’How dare you do this!’” says Jennings, who is a member of the Cheroenhaka Nottoway tribe from Virginia.
Comment:  I like the line about "the money was used by the Colonists to rebuild Providence." When Rhode Island sold human beings like cattle, they didn't blow the proceeds on opium or orgies. They used it productively. Well, that explains everything!

So Williams believed in slavery and considered blacks and Indians subhumans. In short, he was a racist. But other than that, he was a great guy? Thanks for clearing that up.

Plaques should tell truth

So this would be the first plaque telling the history of Williams and the Narragansetts? And the Indians want it to be positive? This has nothing to do with the Narragansetts' desire to placate Rhode Island officials so the officials will let them open a casino, right?

If you're not a Williams family member or apologist, who cares whether the first plaque is positive or negative? That's a trivial detail--if not a stalling technique or an underhanded dodge. People aren't going to read the plaques in chronological order and learn history that way. A plaque is a reminder of a particular event in a particular time and place, not a beginning-to-end textbook.

The only question that matters is whether the plaque is historically accurate. If it is, then post it. If people can't handle the truth, too bad. With thousands of statues, monuments, and pageants reminding us how the Indians helped the colonists conquer them, we don't need more Pollyanna plaques.

For more on the subject, see Roger Williams, Slave Trader and Fun 4th of July Facts.

Below:  "Julianne Jennings at Prospect Park in Providence, where a statue of Roger Williams overlooks the city." (Bob Thayer/The Providence Journal)

1 comment:

marco said...

I like "So Williams believed in slavery and considered blacks and Indians subhumans. In short, he was a racist. But other than that, he was a great guy? Thanks for clearing that up." Best. :)