CHARLESTOWN, R.I. — Signs signs, everywhere a sign on Charlestown Beach Road. Attached to metal gates and wooden fences. Fastened to chains strung across sandy parking spots. No trespassing. Keep out. Private property. No beach access. No public access.
These testaments to historic theft — not by the current owners but by centuries of violence against this land’s Indigenous people — don’t escape the notice of Narragansett Indian Tribe members as they make their way down house-lined Charlestown Beach Road to the shores of Block Island Sound, a sacred ceremonial place for the tribe for thousands of years. It’s a place the tribe has used for generations to gain their spiritual bearing and to provide for their families.
But, as the years go by, more and more of their ancestral land is walled off. And tribal members progressively have to pay more to access their ancient spiritual grounds: the coast and the ocean.
“This is our church. Our place of worship. This was a very special place for our ancestors,” said Bella Noka, standing on Charlestown Breachway State Beach. “It’s been fenced off. Every bit of it taken from us.”
Her husband, Randy, noted that the Narragansett Indian Tribe owns no coastal property, despite many of the roads that lead to Rhode Island’s shore bearing names taken from his tribe’s language. Many of the state’s shoreline villages also have Indigenous names. One of the state’s most popular coastal communities and its popular town beach are actually named Narragansett. The state’s popular Polar Bear and Penguin plunges are knockoffs of a centuries-old tribal tradition.
“Regardless of what they call things, or what names they put upon places, this is ancestral lands of the Narragansett Tribe,” Randy Noka said. “And it always will be, regardless of the boundaries, regardless of the fences, regardless of who pays taxes, and what ownership concepts came with those from foreign lands. … You would think that the beach should be open totally. You should be able to walk from here to Florida, from here to Maine.”
In late October, standing a few feet away from boulders that make up the Charlestown Breachway, on a beach where her ancestors prayed, danced, hunted, fished and harvested seaweed, Bella Noka was quick to point out the number of empty homes, closed up for the winter, that line Charlestown Beach Road. There was both anger and sadness in her voice as she connected this local scene to the problem of homelessness.
“These are summer homes,” said Mishqi Waupi, which translates to Red Wind. “Their homes are built over our ancient burial grounds. They dig them up and without any respect they toss them to the side, and they continue to build.”
She noted the coast is where her people go to be healed. She said the ocean needs to be shared, and all people should have access to it.
On this day last fall, the cars outside several of the road’s occupied beachfront second homes and rentals were from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and Washington, D.C. One of the windswept homes featured two cars with Rhode Island license plates.
This scene is all too familiar up and down the Ocean State’s cramped coastal quarters. It’s particularly noticeable to the people whose ancestors called this area home long before it became a tourist destination and economic driver.
Even now, when 10 or so members of the tribe gather here and at other public beaches for spiritual ceremonies, they are stared at and given disapproving looks. Their ceremonies are often interrupted by nosy beachgoers, those who mistake the burning of sage for marijuana smoking and by overzealous environmental police. They’re asked a lot of questions.
“We’re asked what we’re doing and if we can do that on the beach,” said Bella Noka, one of the tribe’s less than 3,000 members. “What’s burning? What’s that smell? Is it OK for us to be there? Our ceremonial worship disrespected and interrupted.”
Fellow tribe member Wayne Everett noted that, while access to Rhode Island’s shoreline continues to be fenced off by private interests, the state’s coastal waters also suffer from pollution — from stormwater runoff, ineffective cesspools, failing septic systems and combined sewer overflows — and by a disrespect for nature’s needs.
“Access to this land is extremely important to our people,” said Quenikom Pau Muckquashim, which means Standing Wolf. “It’s a big part of our traditional way of life.”
Some 30,000 years ago, according to archaeological evidence, Narragansetts lived in the region that eventually became the state of Rhode Island. Many of the tribe’s ancestors inhabited the area along Narragansett Bay from present-day Warwick to South Kingstown. The Narragansetts were also the largest of a number of Indigenous tribes living in southern New England.
In an attempt to get some of its stolen land back, the Narragansett Indian Tribe, in 1975, filed suit for 3,200 acres of land in Charlestown, which it claimed had passed out of tribal ownership in 1880 in violation of the Trade and Intercourse Act of 1790. Until circa 1660, Charlestown was inhabited solely by Indigenous people.
Three years later, in 1978, under terms of the Rhode Island Indian Claims Settlement Act, the Narragansetts received 1,800 acres of land in Charlestown in return for the relinquishment of all their land claims.
The lengthy negotiations, which included the state of Rhode Island, private landowners and the Charlestown Town Council, produced an agreement whereby a tribe-controlled corporation got 900 acres of land from the state and bought another 900 acres in private ownership with $3.5 million the federal government provided.
Randy Noka, however, contends that this 43-year-old agreement needs to be renegotiated to better represent the land the Narragansett Indian Tribe held before it was stolen “by trickery, deception, and murder.”
“The ocean has been providing for our families for generations,” said Randy Noka, whose tribal name is Pappone Muskquoshim, which means Winter Wolf. “The tribe should have deeded rights to the coast. The 1978 agreement doesn’t mean this oversight can’t be corrected. It doesn’t take much to do the right thing.”
To make things a tad more fair and to return to the tribe a slice of its coastal land and a part of its heritage, Bella Noka proposed the state give a strip of land to the right of the Charlestown Breachway to the tribe. It would be a place tribal members could go without being harassed by a curious, sometimes rude, public. Coastal real estate they could call their own and could share with respectful visitors.
“Now we have fences around an ocean. Who does that? Who is that territorial that they feel as though they can own the rights to something so grand, something so huge, something so much bigger than themselves?” Bella Noka asked.
Then, she pointed to her left, across the Charlestown Breachway and in front of a camping area for self-contained recreational vehicles, to ampiece of waterfront property that would be a welcome addition to the tribe’s 1,800-acre reservation.
“That land over there I would like for it to be given to the Narragansett Indian Tribe so that we can … bring the balance back to our tribe and we can have our ceremonies without being disrespected, approached, and interrupted in any way.”