Mt. Hope is Pokanoket

by Students, Alumni for Po Metacom Camp & the Progressive Student Organization

Illustration by Pia Mileaf-Patel

published October 20, 2017

The Independent received this joint statement by Students and Alumni for Po Metacom Camp (SAPMC) and the Providence chapter of the Progressive Student Organization (PSO-PVD) and are reprinting an abridged version here. You can access the full, unedited statement here

content warning: genocide, colonial violence

Part I: Introduction and Background

On Sunday, August 20, members of the Pokanoket Nation established the Po Metacom Camp in order to hold and reclaim Potumtuk, their sacred land, also known as “Mt. Hope” or the “Mt. Hope lands.”  About a month later, on September 21, the Pokanoket and Brown University signed an agreement that led to the closing of the Po Metacom Camp.  

The agreement signed by the tribe and by Brown is not the conclusion of this struggle by any means; rather, it is just one step in a longer process. While the Pokanoket Tribe has now officially ended their encampment, many of the details of the transfer of land to them have been left ambiguous. The amount of land Brown is willing to repatriate is yet to be determined and no clear timeframe has been established.  While this agreement is a positive step in that it commits Brown to transfer some amount of land, we feel that the University’s requirement that the Pokanoket abandon their encampment is a clear expression of the University’s intention to continue business as usual.  We cannot allow Brown to dictate the direction of these negotiations.

We demand that Brown turn over all 375 acres of Potumtuk immediately. Mt. Hope is still Pokanoket land. As organizations that believe in the right for all oppressed nations to self determine their own future, PSO and SAPMC enthusiastically express our support for the Pokanoket Tribe of the Pokanoket Nation, who are fearlessly taking back what has always been theirs.  Our goal is to reignite support for the Pokanoket Tribe among students and alumni, cutting through the fog of misinformation and distortion that have pacified support for the encampment.

On the day the Po Metacom Camp was established, Brown University released a statement on their website commenting on the encampment. In it, the University states its support for the “right of individuals to assemble peaceably to express their views, provided that their actions do not infringe upon the rights of others… or interfere with the rights of others to take part in the activities of Brown’s academic community and campus life.” 

We categorically reject the University’s deceptive framing of this dispute as one between two parties with equally legitimate concerns. Brown University is an elite institution that rests on the exploitation of workers and nationally oppressed people. The Pokanoket Tribe is composed of dispossessed people who are taking back their land. These two interests are not equal and they should not be treated as such.  

The title that Brown claims to this land originates from a royal grant awarded by King Charles II of England to the Plymouth Colony following the massacre of Pokanoket and other indigenous people and the murder of Metacomet during King Phillip’s War by forces led by the British government. The land then passed through the hands of English loyalists, slaveholders, prominent politicians, and industrialists, before a portion of it was donated to Brown. These are the origins and the legacy that Brown University claims when it asserts a “clear legal title” to this land.

Brown’s hypocrisy in claiming to uphold “peaceful assembly” was exposed with its militarized response to the Pokanoket-led march on the university.  On September 5, 2017, members of the Pokanoket Tribe and their indigenous and non-indigenous allies marched to Brown University to demand for the repatriation of Potumtuk to the Pokanokets. Although both the tribal leaders and their allies declared that it would be a peaceful march, they were met with the intimidation of armed patrols from both the Brown Department of Public Safety and the Providence Police Department. President Christina Paxson gave a rosy convocation speech on the Main Green about the peaceful exchange of ideas while a band of cops with guns at their holsters lined the Van Wickle Gates preventing Black and brown Pokanoket members from entering. When veteran organizers from Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE) and elders with disabilities from the Pokanoket Tribe tried to enter the main campus to get water and use the bathroom, they were denied entry by the officers, causing one elder to faint and be rushed to the hospital. 

Part II: Debunking Brown’s “positive stewardship”

In its August 20 statement, Brown University justified its claim to Potumtuk by claiming that Brown is a “positive steward” of the land. Yet when the Pokanoket started the camp, they found that under Brown’s stewardship, the trees were not being taken care of, there was trash on the shoreline, and several graves had been desecrated. Brown has a long history of treating  this land as a disposable bargaining chip, with its tenure as a steward being marked by militarism, profiteering, environmental damage, and neglect. 

When the university received its first donation of Mount Hope property from the Haffenreffer family, much of it was quickly designated to be made into a housing development tentatively called “King Philip Farm.” By July of 1957, 15 housing units were ready for sale, and four to five hundred units were planned in total, each with a minimum sale price of $25,000. This translates to an expensive rate of roughly $200,000 per unit, accounting for inflation. 

In addition to Brown’s efforts to make a buck off of housing developments, the property was being used to facilitate US militarism during the Cold War. When Brown accepted the first donation from the Haffenreffer family in 1955, the land had already been selected by the US military as a site for a Nike Ajax missile installation, according to articles published by the Bristol Phoenix the following year. The US Army quickly moved into Bristol in 1956 to construct missile base PR-38. The Radar Control Area for this base was sited at the top of Mount Hope—a sacred site for the Pokanoket—on the property acquired by Brown University. Later, between 1959 and 1960, the missiles at PR-38 were upgraded to Hercules missiles, which were designed to carry nuclear warheads. This Cold War missile base was in operation until April 1974, when PR-38 was decommissioned and abandoned by the Army.

Following the decommissioning of the missile installation, the town of Bristol expressed interest in buying some of “Brown’s property” in order to convert it into recreational space. Brown pressed for the town to grant the university certain financial and political concessions, like paying for a sewer system covering the Mount Hope property and rezoning the entire property so that Brown would have the option to build condos on the land.

In July of 1995, Brown University was cited by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) for having a deficient septic system that was leading to sewage runoff into the soil and water. After they couldn’t get the town of Bristol to pay for sewage system coverage back in the 1980s, Brown neglected the issue. However, because Brown didn’t want to pay the $25,000 for the necessary renovations, they resorted to tearing down one of the property’s historical buildings and evicting a museum employee on short notice.

Following this incident, Brown announced that it was making plans to move the Haffenreffer Museum from Bristol to Providence starting in 1998. This initial plan was postponed and then abandoned for various reasons, including lack of funding. It wasn’t until 2007, after a new set of violations were uncovered (including the museum building’s noncompliance with the fire code, its poor environmental conditions, and Brown’s failure to bring it up to the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act) that Brown finally moved a portion of its collections to its Providence campus. 

Meanwhile, the tribe has been required to pay fees, get insurance waivers, and ask permission from Brown University through the Mount Hope Trust (an organization that Brown hired to manage the Mount Hope land) in order to use their land for sacred tribal ceremonies—a financial burden that has, for some members of the tribe, proven to be an insurmountable barrier. Even the executive director of the Trust Jennifer Bristol admitted that this policy was “awkward,” in a 2008 interview with the Bristol Phoenix. We would go further: to force indigenous people to pay fees, ask for permission, and go through regulations in order to access their own land and practice their religion has been an exploitative and racist practice designed to naturalize Brown’s unjust occupation.

Part III: On the Pokanoket being an “unrecognized tribe”

On August 24, 2017, members from the Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS) steering committee released a statement regarding the encampment, which was emailed to the entire Brown student body, faculty, and staff. In the statement, the Committee claimed not only that the Pokanoket are not recognized by the federal government, but also that they are not recognized by local “federally recognized tribes.” The next day, on August 25, Professor Adrienne Keene wrote an article on her blog, Native Appropriations, supporting the arguments by the NAIS steering committee against the legitimacy of the Pokanoket land claim.

We want to respond in some detail to various claims regarding the Pokanokets’ nationhood status and their claims to Potumtuk. In many ways, this is the crux of the university’s ideological assault against the Pokanoket Tribe. Nationhood cannot be dismissed as an entirely subjective construct or reduced to a legal definition. While one cannot simply quantify and neatly categorize a nation, we believe that there are elements of lived experience, such as language, culture, connection to land, and economy, that mark the development of a group of people into a historically constituted nation. 

On the other hand, the federal system of national recognition, both in the US and elsewhere in the world, ignores and excludes various peoples from the category of “nation” whose histories and political legacies give them a clear basis to claim nationhood, and globally, most indigenous peoples are not recognized by federal governments. 

Furthermore, it is very possible for people to have lineage to multiple nations of people. For example, Black Cherokee Indians are on one hand indigenous, but also, because they are descendants of runaway enslaved people, have access and connections to the Black nation in the US. Thus, it is conceivable for someone to have Mashpee ancestry and also claim Pokanoket nationhood. 

NAIS elided this nuance in their statement: “However, according to historical records used by Mashpee for their language revitalization, the Pokanoket families were taken in by Mashpee after the war, and became a part of their community.” It continues: “There is a delicate yet important technical difference between holding Native ancestry and holding nation status, and that is at the heart of the issue here.” This passage implies that the Pokanoket dissolved into the Mashpee and stopped being a distinct tribe, a description of assimilation which is ahistorical, to say the least. During King Phillip’s War, the Pokanoket Nation, under the leadership of Metacomet, waged a heroic struggle against settler encroachment. The colonial government defeated them in battle and instituted a generalized climate of repression against indigenous people across the region, even targeting tribes that had sided with the English during the war (for example, the Natick Praying Indians). However, the Pokanoket Nation, as the group that had made a final stand against the colonists, faced the most brutal repression, with Pokanoket being brutally slaughtered and enslaved en masse. In this context of genocidal warfare, and with the colonial state criminalizing the existence of Pokanoket male captives above the age of 14, many Pokanoket families dispersed throughout the Northeast. Even if some of the Pokanoket had in fact been taken in by the Mashpee, this does not mean that they lost their lineage or were eliminated as a distinct nation. 

These arguments were further elaborated in an article by Professor Adrienne Keene in her blog post. Unlike NAIS, Professor Keene does acknowledge the history of dispossession related to federal recognition. However, she argued: “I can’t collect up my similarly dispossessed family members and start our own new nation—even if we have historic and community ties to an existing nation… dispossession doesn’t mean that one can form their own nation.” We strongly disagree with this argument, and we believe that the Pokanokets’ history of dispossession and current lack of federal recognition do not negate the validity of their claims to hold Native title to Potumtuk. They are not “forming their own nation,” they are an existing nation with a historical and cultural genealogy.  

Neither the NAIS statement nor Professor Keene’s article actually engage with the Pokanokets’ own claims to nation status using their own methods. In a statement published on September 6, the Pokanoket Tribe re-asserted their distinct lineage—which has been passed down in their oral tradition—in order to refute the claims that they had fully integrated into the Mashpee after King Philip’s War. They have maintained a distinct political structure, an oral tradition, and cultural practices. 

In addition, they have joined the Federation of Aboriginal Nations of America (FANA), a confederation of pre-colonial American Aborigine tribes and nations that are ancestral inhabitants to the lands known as the US. As FANA states in its August 24 response to Brown University, "all FANA member nations are required to demonstrate lineage and heritage that predates the occupation of the US."  

NAIS’s claim that the Pokanoket are unrecognized by other tribes is also misleading and false. The Pocasset Tribe in southern Massachusetts wrote in support of the Pokanoket encampment on August 27. The Pocasset are part of the Alliance of Colonial Era Tribes, an intertribal league of historic Aboriginal nations of the eastern and southern seaboard of the continental United States. The Alliance has played an important role in defending the rights of non-federally recognized tribes to maintain voting rights in the National Congress of American Indians. Finally, even if recognition by colonial institutions were to be taken as a barometer of legitimacy, the case is not so simple: the Pokanoket have been recognized by various US municipalities, including the town of Bristol. 

By ignoring the process used by the Pokanoket and by FANA, Brown and its supporters erase and ignore the legitimacy of indigenous methods of self-recognition.

Part IV: On the Pokanokets’ supposed antagonism toward other tribes 

After the first round of negotiations between Brown University and the Pokanoket collapsed, Brown University released a statement on August 31 in which they recognize the Pokanoket as a tribe, but blame them for the stalling of negotiations. Brown writes in this statement that the Pokanoket "are not concerned about the claims of other tribes and [are saying] that such claims are ‘totally wrong.’” According to the statement, Brown has been attempting to balance multiple indigenous group’s claim to the land “for years” by ensuring that “any Native person, including Pokanoket, can use the land for spiritual ceremonies or community needs.” 

Contrary to what Brown has claimed about the Pokanoket being unwilling to entertain and discuss with other tribes claims in the area, the Pokanoket have in fact repeatedly requested for Brown University to facilitate a meeting between all tribes claiming an interest in Potumtuk, according to a statement released on the Po Metacom Camp Facebook page. As of now, the only public statement on the encampment published by another local tribe was the aforementioned statement of support from the Pocasset Tribe. 

The Pokanoket have always been open to meeting with other tribes; Brown’s accusation that they have been unwilling to do this is a strategic fabrication meant to discredit the Pokanoket. True and concrete intertribal unity can only happen when indigenous nations are able to control the future of their land without the colonial interference of institutions like Brown. 

Part V: Conclusion

Following the signing of an agreement between Brown University and the Pokanoket Tribe on September 21, Brown released a statement congratulating itself for its “productive working relationships” with local indigenous nations and its commitment to “conservation, preservation, and sustainable access” to the land. Although Brown’s stated concern for ensuring that multiple tribes have access to this land may seem progressive, it insidiously reframes the issues at stake—decolonization and indigenous sovereignty—as too difficult, something better managed by a friendly colonial power that benevolently grants “access” to its indigenous subjects. Brown has never addressed the question of why it should have any agency over Potumtuk in the first place. 

However, for many students who are interested in supporting indigenous rights and decolonization, the tension between the Pokanoket and the other tribes has been a source of confusion that has led many to take a stance of neutrality or passivity when it comes to the encampment. These community members often frame their lack of support as an acknowledgment of their status as non-indigenous people, particularly in light of two prominent indigenous faculty members—Professors Elizabeth Hoover and Adrienne Keene—publicly refusing to support the encampment. If this neutrality is an attempt on the part of non-indigenous people at Brown to respect indigenous voices, it is a misapplied one.  

We feel that this narrow focus on prominent academic indigenous voices ignores and invalidates the broad base of indigenous support and organizing that went into developing this encampment. These efforts include the organizing of the Pokanoket themselves, the support of various tribes like the Pocasset and the Rappahannock who visited the encampment, and expressions of solidarity from indigenous communities on social media and in organizations like FANG, DARE, and PrYSM. 

In the face of this concrete attempt by the Pokanoket to repatriate their land from Brown, passively waiting in hopes of a perfect resistance—in which all the interested tribes present a unified, joint declaration to Brown—is tantamount to complicity in the University’s oppression. The Pokanoket, in initiating the encampment, have made the question of land into a public debate, calling for broad support against Brown in the name of indigenous rights. This is a declaration that non-indigenous people should take a side. To choose neutrality or passivity is to choose the status quo, to choose Brown, to choose colonialism.  

SAPMC is building a movement to support the immediate repatriation of all 375 acres of Potumtuk, using a combination of education and direct action. Contact us through our Facebook page or email us at [email protected]