Raymond Two Hawks Watson is an activist, educator, musician and community leader who is a leading voice in understanding southern New England Indigenous people’s history and culture. During a recent interview, Watson and I discussed RI’s ‘warped’ historical timeline, which, when presented in most contemporary settings, often fails to recognize the size and scope of the advanced societies that were present in the region long before European exploration. In some cases, ideas that are often deemed novel and European are in fact entirely traceable to Indigenous concepts.
Bill Bartholomew: Tell me about Indigenous people’s relationship with Rhode Island, and where do you fit into that?
Raymond Watson (Two Hawks): I think in general there’s more of an interest to learn about the state’s Indigenous history. Because, I like to say, it’s part of RI’s history. It’s not something separate and apart. It was the beginning, and further than that, it’s part of the world’s history. When you look at the things that Roger Williams is kind of lauded for, like freedom of speech and freedom of religion, he literally learned that from my people. He was going through troubles in Massachusetts [Bay colony] and they kicked him out. They were chasing him. He came over here and he finds a bunch of people who, while everyone else is calling them savages, they are conducting themselves in a respectful manner to each other that allows others to believe what they want. They don’t back down from what they believe, but, you know, you can believe what you want and everyone has the right to an opinion.
So these were novel ideas from the society that he was dealing with and then he’d just taken them, applied them and lo’ and behold, we have the US today. So I think in general, especially because of the Internet, I think people are realizing that, wow, there are Indians around them every single day and we’re not necessarily in our wigwams. We live in houses, we drive cars. I think that is just becoming more of a reality to people. And, of course, when something’s a reality, you want to learn more about it.
In particular, my tribe is the Mashpee tribe. I get a lot of interest from people because most people, when they think about Indians of RI, immediately they go down to the Narragansett Indian tribe. My family was a part of that, one of the main families that were down on the reservation. My fourth great grandfather, Bristol Michael, was one of the chiefs in 1881 when the state illegally detribalized them. He was the last chief to hold out on signing away the land. And then my great grandfather, George Red Fox Watson, was chief of the tribe in ’83 when they got federal recognition. So my ties go way back with that tribe.
But that was not with the majority of Narragansetts in particular. That’s more Niantic territory down there [in Charlestown]. After the King Philip’s War, especially the Great Swamp Massacre, a bunch of Narragansetts moved down into Niantic territory because they’re distant cousins anyway. And then collectively they started to be called the Narragansetts. Most of the Narragansetts were north of Charlestown, in the Coventry and Providence area.
And not a lot of people know that. I can show you a map of one of the main villages, which was right in Coventry, where the main chief had over 1,000 people. I’m willing to bet more, but, you know, the colonial records say about 1,000, of course, but I’m gonna say much more than that. Then, when you look at my tribe in particular, when you look at the original boundaries that were given for the settlement of Providence, where Pawtuxet Village comes from in Cranston. And then it was to the oak outside of the town of Mashpee. So now I’m saying to myself, “Okay, so they’re just settling in the area, but they’re calling this village a town. There had to have been a bunch of Indians.”
At the time, the pond itself was a lot bigger than it is right now. It was fresh water so you could fish and you had everything that you needed. So, of course there’ll be lots of Indians living around it. So, that’s all part of this city in particular, but the state’s history, and I think that people are just realizing in general, you know, okay, a lot of our history, not only has it not been told to us, but it’s been mistold to us.
So, right now I think that this state is in a good place to actually want to engage more with its Indigenous history.
Listen to this episode of The Bartholomewtown Podcast on the apps, RIpodcast.com or Bartholomewtown.com | follow @billbartholomew Also, watch for Bill Bartholomew’s upcoming podcast series, Real Rhode Island History, which will discuss the notion that our oft-presented historical timeline is flawed and not fully representative.