In 2006, Raymond Two-Hawks Watson’s grandma passed away. She had raised him in PVD and been his principal connection to his Narragansett Indian heritage. Before that, Watson says, he was just tenuously connected to his Indigenous culture, attending an occasional powwow on special days; after her passing, he decided to take his grandma’s example more seriously.
Since then, after a successful few years running a community organization and advocating for Indigenous peoples’ rights in RI, Watson and his colleague in community building, Dr. Taino Palermo, recognized that they would have to invest in themselves if they wanted to be more effective advocates. They attended Roger Williams University School of Law together.
“Having had the opportunity to travel around, the general consensus is that the US is behind the ball when it comes to working with its Indigenous community,” Watson told Motif. Watson related a story about how the very first class he had on property law highlighted a landmark case in which two parties laid claim to Indigenous land.
“Indigenous law is foundational to American law. If you can understand the relationship between the United States and the Indians, then you understand how the United States operates more generally,” Watson said.
“We live in a time where we talk a lot about BIPOC. Our culture is really interested in lifting up BIPOC communities and diversity — but what we rarely see is the emphasis on the ‘I’ in BIPOC,” said Palermo. “We talk about Native Americans and Indians in a folkloric way — especially on the East coast.”
While at RWU, Watson and Palermo advocated for structural university changes that better centered the Indigenous legal perspective, including adding classes on Indigenous property rights. This year, the pair established the Center for Indigenous Peoples Rights, to continue the work they started at RWU.
“If no one is aware of Indigenous law, the narrative stays as it has been,” Watson said. “There’s been a growing interest in the narrative and experiences of the native populations of the northeast. Predominantly — if not exclusively — those experiences have been the result of the weaponization of law against us.”
Palermo mentioned that aside from sometimes hearing about Foxwoods and Mohegan casinos, Indigenous legal issues almost never enter the awareness of a majority of people. “There is not one pro-bono legal aid center east of the Mississippi for Indigenous people,” he said.
The Center for Indigenous Peoples Rights, Watson explained, will meet Indigenous people where they are. He explained that while some tribes are federally recognized and are eligible for resources and “legitimacy,” others have no interest in being federally recognized. “The Center will support you independent of your relationship with the US,” he said. “We can provide that support.”
Palermo discussed the advantages of federal tribal recognition that too often are out of reach for Indigenous communities: “Federal recognition boils down to two big things — one, entitlements that show up in the form of access to funding for nation building. Nation building refers to building out a tribal court system, law enforcement agency, and resources from the bureau of Indian Affairs and Homeland Security.Funds for economic development opportunities too are critical for the sustainability of tribal nations.
“The second part allows for a process called ‘taking land into trust.’ By having documented ties to the land, the legal process converts land into a federal reservation, with legal protections similar to those of a national park – with the exception that the Indian community has some autonomy over the land.”
Watson lamented that a lot of the conversation around Indigenous rights revolve around land. “What it’s really about is the Indigenous relationship with the state, and how the state interacts with us. We have to shift the conversation away from land and focus more on jurisdiction.” Watson elaborated that while land is a flashpoint issue, it’s a finite resource, and discussions about reallocation can be adversarial; Watson hopes that by focusing more on Indigenous jurisdictions — which can overlap spatially with state jurisdictions — that the relationship with the state can be more collaborative, and the advocacy emphasis can move toward more general tribal respect.
“Anything you see a state doing, a tribe has a right to do,” Watson explained. Some tribes have independent court systems — Watson thinks a reasonable goal would be to allow Indigenous courts to exist and function in state courthouses.
While headquartered in RI, the Center aims to elevate conversations about Indigenous legal perspectives and rights universally, supporting tribes not only across the US, but in Canada and Mexico as well. Palermo and Watson are both well connected to tribal communities, and have begun the process of connecting with a myriad of relevant community partners.
Palermo explained that the center’s short-term goals include securing funding for staff attorneys and a litigation fund, publishing briefs and articles on Indigenous law, and developing a pipeline of Indigenous legal talent by partnering with URI. For the long-term, he’d like to recruit fellows, establish scholarships, and see the center serve as an anchor institution on the east coast for serving tribal community needs.
“I hope people will start to see Indigenous law as a regular part of everyday life, something they should be knowledgeable of and respectful of,” Watson said. “If the center could be part of that, I’d be humbled and blessed.”