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R.I. Indians Get Confiscated Land Back From State After 105 Years

October 12, 1985

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) _ Lloyd G. Wilcox, who is known by his Indian name of Running Wolf as medicine man of the Narragansett Tribe, says his people have reversed the historical process of taking land from the Indians.

The remaining members of the tribe were given back 900 acres of their ancestors’ land Friday by official action of the state, 105 years after it was taken from them.

Gov. Edward D. DiPrete signed over the land at a Statehouse ceremony, ending a protracted legal fight that dates to 1975, when the tribe filed suit against the state seeking return of the land.

It was part of thousands of acres taken from the tribe in 1880 when the General Assembly abolished tribal authority and left members with a total of two acres.

Rogerlee Thompson, attorney for the tribe, said the Indians have been fighting to get back a piece of the land ever since.

″This is the first time in our history that we have gained anything back from whence it was taken. We have reversed a process,″ said Wilcox, a stonemason from Woodstock, Conn.

Tribal Secretary Lawrence Ollivierre was jubilant over the long-awaited land transfer, which was held up last year when legislation stalled.

″It’s like getting married,″ he said. ″It’s pretty difficult to be an Indian and not have your own land. It’s like being a people without a country.″

As the Narragansetts’ medicine man, Wilcox is charged with keeping intact the tribe’s traditional ceremonies, and he said the wooded land in Charlestown in southwestern Rhode Island was ″the heart of our last settlement.″

Ms. Thompson said Friday, ″It has a lot of emotional significance because you’re dealing with persons who used to completely control the state of Rhode Island, and for them to get back at least a small part of what they lost through the whole colonial process is very satisfying.″

The land is part of a settlement reached between the tribe and federal, state and local officials, Ms. Thompson said. Earlier this year, the federal government gave the tribe 900 acres worth $3.5 million.

Despite the victory and the chance to have the land declared a reservation by the federal government, members of the tribe expressed bitterness over the land that Wilcox said was ″erroneously and unlawfully″ taken from their forefathers.

When the first Europeans settled New England, there were about 50,000 Narragansetts throughout Rhode Island and parts of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire. There are now fewer than 4,000, said Ella Sekatu, the tribe genealogist.

Ms. Sekatu, Wilcox’s sister, characterized the remaining members of the tribe as independent and close to their ancestral roots.

″We are one of the most traditional tribes in the Northeast when it comes to the observances of ancient celebrations,″ said Ms. Sekatu, whose Narragansett name is Firefly Song of Wind.

″We are unique and we do have our own particular social structure,″ she said. ″And it’s not based on the white man and the black man structure. It is our own, and our own lifestyle.″

Under the agreement, the Narragansetts can develop 13 percent of the land, or about 250 of the combined 1,800 acres.

Ms. Sekatu said the tribe plans to build housing but declined to reveal details.

With the settlement complete, the tribe is eligible for a variety of federal programs and $200,000 a year in federal funding, Ms. Thompson said.

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