It’s About More Than Land: Raymond Two-Hawks Watson and Dr. Taino Palermo establish Center for Indigenous People’s Rights

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.” 

On the Cover: November 2022

Ripples and Reflections is an original painting by Rhode Island artist Joel Rosario Tapia – a segment of the work was restructured for our November issue, to acknowledge Indiginous People’s month. And because it looks amazing.

Tapia is a US veteran, author and Urban Aboriginal visual artist who has made it his mission to keep the Taino and Indian identities alive through his art. The topics of his art range from ideological, sociological, moral and family values. Each piece has a distinct story, often drawn from his culture in order to keep the true stories and true identities of his people and ancestors alive. He has spoken at schools like Brown University and at a wide variety of festivals and events all over the country. 

Tapia, who often goes simply by his last name, has become a staple in the city of Providence, presenting his ideas and giving platforms to other artists. He has a Bachelor’s degree in The Recording Arts and a Master of Entertainment Business Science from Full Sail University in Orlando, Florida. His career thus far has given him experiences in all realms of the arts from designing to performing and even teaching the youth how to work with steel at PVD’s The Steel Yard. “It’s important to use what you have to your advantage and to share all that you can with others,” says Tapia.

This piece for Motif holds special value to Tapia as both an artist and a spokesperson for the Cibuco Bayamon Taino Tribe. The flags of multiple Caribbean countries are found beneath the ripples of water and reflection. Above that, two blue macaws are symbolic to the Arawak culture. The feathers of these birds are often used on headdresses and symbolize a guide through the tough times and a way to persevere and share their story, the right way. Those very feathers create the ripples that carry change across the piece. “I’ve been working hard to get here for a minute now and I do this because I worked hard and because now, I can. Why wouldn’t I share what I’ve learned, so more people take from that? I’ve learned so much about my ancestors from really looking into their stories and the discrepancies in information we have been given,” Tapia says. “I want to help others do the same.”

Follow Tapia on Instagram @tapiauno1

Indigenous Diner: Sly Fox Den Too

While working on the November issue of Motif, we kept hearing about an indigenous restaurant called the Sly Fox Den Too. It’s a wonderful and quintessentially Rhode Island kind of diner: only open for breakfast and lunch, and packed full of locals. The food, however, ups the game, with an emphasis on fresh indigenous cuisine.

“Indigenous cuisine is the bounty of the season,” said Chef Sherry Pocknett. “Whatever’s in the woods, whatever you’re harvesting, that’s indigenous food.”

Venison, turkey, smoked salmon hash in the morning for breakfast… Is your mouth watering yet?

How about the Sly Fox Benedict, which are eggs over cornmeal pancakes filled with cranberries, scallions and whole kernel corn with two house-made venison sausages?

“That’s one of the most popular things on the breakfast menu,” Pocknett said. Then she laughed. “The hollandaise sauce, that’s not indigenous.”

There are vegan options too, including the delicious succotash soup made with corn, beans, squash and kale.

“I’m not a vegan,” Pocknett said, “but I love cooking for them, because I love exploring what I can make for a vegan. I make some serious stuff. I’m exploring the bounty. We have these wild mushrooms, Jerusalem artichokes, the sun chokes… dandelion greens and beets, cranberries and all the nuts. Right now we have black walnuts. I actually have two trees…”

The prices are reasonable, the food is fantastic, and the message is simple: eat local, and eat fresh.

“It’s our job to take care of this earth,” Pocknett said. “It’s our job to teach our young ones the old ways.”

Sly Fox Den Too, 4349 S County Trail, Charlestown, RI

News Analysis – William Blackstone: The First White Guy

Statue of William Blackstone, Pawtucket, Rhode Island, at the corner of Exchange Street and Roosevelt Avenue. Based upon historical accounts, the subject is portrayed holding a book while riding a bull. The sculptor is Peruko Ccopacatty.
(Photo: Michael Bilow) (License: CC BY-SA 4.0)

On Indigenous People’s Day, an alternative to the official Columbus Day holiday on October 11, 2021, a few dozen attendees at Veterans Memorial Park in Pawtucket protested the recently erected stainless steel statue of William Blackstone, who is primarily remembered because the Blackstone River and Blackstone Valley were named for him.

Children with the sign they made at the William Blackstone statue protest, Oct 11, 2021.
(Photo: Michael Bilow)

In a speaking program that lasted about two hours, many speakers expressed objections to the statue and demanded it be taken down. (Full audio available here: motifri.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/blackstone-audio.mp3)

Melissa DaRosa, Pawtucket City Council member, at the protest of the William Blackstone statue, Oct 11, 2021.
(Photo: Michael Bilow)

Melissa DaRosa, an at-large member of the Pawtucket City Council, attended the protest, she told me, “to stand with the Narragansett Indian tribe and to learn more about what this monument signifies… some people are saying this is capturing a beautiful history but for some that history is less beautiful.” I asked her, “What’s your objection specifically to the Blackstone statue?” She replied, “Would we put up a statue of Hitler?”

But Blackstone was far different from Hitler. As the marker at Blackstone Memorial Park near his burial site in Cumberland notes, he was “founder of the town of Boston, and the first white settler in Rhode Island.” He was otherwise unremarkable, even forgettable: an Anglican clergyman born in England in 1595, he sailed to North America in 1623 and settled what is now Boston. He had a falling out with the Puritans (who were anti-Anglican) that led him to relocate to what is now Cumberland, Rhode Island, in 1635, a year before Roger Williams settled in Providence. He had neither slaves nor servants, cultivated new species of fruits and vegetables, lived alone in the solitude of the woods with a large library of books until he married at the age of 64, had a son, and died at the age of 80 in 1675 – about a month before the outbreak of King Philip’s War that would mark the utter collapse of relations between the settlers and the indigenous Native Americans.

Bella Noka, member of the Narragansett Tribe of Native American Indians, speaking from the stage at the William Blackstone statue protest, Oct 11, 2021.
(Photo: Michael Bilow)

Bella Noka, a member of the Narragansett Tribe who organized the protest, said she wanted the statue taken down. “If I were to be raped, and I was to be violated in the worst way possible, do you think I want to walk by that same man every single day and look him in the face, and people praise and see a statue 14 feet high, looking down at me every day? No, I would not,” she said. “To think that they can even raise a voice on what this man has done, the atrocities that they have done. He’s not the only one: I’m not blaming just him. There were hundreds of them, there were thousands of William Blackstone… He’s just another face. But you think because somebody wears a collar he was a righteous person? Well, ask all the altar boys how great the priests were.”

Pawtucket resident Jax Adele Ventura holds a sign at William Blackstone statue protest, Oct 11, 2021.
(Photo: Michael Bilow)

In her view, Blackstone bore responsibility for the entire settler program. “Blackstone is the one who afforded that [mindset] that you can come in and take over our land. He died with 200 acres. How did he get those 200 acres? Did we just give it over to him because he’s a jolly good old friend? No, it was taken. We don’t give up land and we didn’t have a value on land, because land does not belong to people. It belongs to Mother Earth as the creator. We are to protect her. We are to give to her because she gives so much back to us. So, for them to come and have ownership and parcel things off, in the name of greed, or their right to do that is a shame on them.”

Historically, Blackstone had good personal relations with Narragansett chiefs Miantonomi and Canonchet and with Wampanoag chiefs Massasoit and Metacomet. Both Blackstone and Williams opposed the “doctrine of discovery,” the legal justification that European settlers could claim land without the consent of the indigenous aboriginal residents; both argued that proper title to land required treaties with and payments to Native Americans. (See “Providence Plantations: The Real History”, by Michael Bilow, Jul 13, 2020.)

Randy Noka, member of the Narragansett Tribe of Native American Indians, at William Blackstone statue protest, Oct 11, 2021.
(Photo: Michael Bilow)

It was Randy Noka, the husband of Bella Noka, who in a wide-ranging 40-minute interview asked what seemed the most resonant question: “Why put up a statue about him, if he was such a recluse then what the hell’s he doing being recognized like that for?” I answered, “My guess, and I don’t know this, I think the city was just totally blindsided by it, they figured the river is named after him, the valley is named after him, his name’s on everything.” Noka pointed out that these names replaced Indian names: “It was the Pawtucket River, Pawtucket Valley. Whoever changed the name… if he was such a weirdo out in the wilderness and kissing trees and whatever, then why the hell, why change the river? What did he do, even for his own kind?”

I asked, “Are you saying that being the first white settler in the land, he doesn’t deserve a statute for that?” Noka answered, “Oh, he’s the first one, so we’ll put up an ugly – no disrespect to the artist – an ugly monument, rename a river, rename a valley, whatever, because he was the first white guy. How prejudiced is that? How about the first Black guy that came here? They don’t know that person because he was probably brought from Africa as a slave.” Eventually, Noka summarized his perspective: “He went over in the woods, lived by himself, but happened to be the first white guy, so let’s put up a statue, rename a valley and a river. Well, that’s even more insulting!”

The Price of Becoming Invisible: Family and Connection

As I put pen to paper or rather fingers to keys, I am reminded of the time, when on this land everyone was Indigenous, and everyone else who came to this land was an immigrant. Particularly, those people whose skin was white, fleeing a land where they were rejected, dismissed, excommunicated, or sailing across the sea with the assignment to conquer, pillage, and kill. 

Here is the point, there is something very special about being of this land called Rhode Island and the reinforcement of that bond — discussed and embodied in everything that you become as a person. That is my story and the relationship my family has with this particular place. It is not extraordinary.  Humans are all from places where our ancestors have deep connectivity to the land. I think the disconnect rises when people forget that relationship and become consumed with the “invisible” and use it as a weapon to seek power.  Ideas like imperialism, colonialism, capitalism and white supremacy — basically all of the “isms”.   These ideas do not serve humanity and if we are not careful, they will kill us and we will all become invisible permanently!

A few weeks ago, I went to lunch with my mother and our cousins at the Sly Fox Den Too. (hear me when I say you must go because the food is simply wonderful!) Here is what was great about that day. I walked through the door and I saw people to whom I am related. I do not know how, because I do not personally know the owner of the restaurant or her family, but I do know that I can look into the faces of certain people here in Rhode Island and know immediately if you are my “cousin”. My mom walked in behind me, and she knew two people; my cousin walked in and she knew at least five, and everyone knew my cousin’s mom, who is 98 years old. And here is the key: all these folks are my family. It is this particular experience that I love about being a Rhode Islander and what is most important about being Indigenous to this land. My family is here and has been here for 15 generations! 

After we ordered our food, I asked my family, “do you feel like your Indigeneity is invisible?” Let me first say, the women to whom I am related are whip smart, wise-cracking, have low tolerance of foolishness, and can be extraordinarily contrary! (We will need another article to get into that!)

–I cannot be invisible because I am here, said my 79-year old mother, and you see me right? 

(Lord, I knew this conversation was gonna be a journey.) I responded, incredulously, “Yes, ma’am.” 

My cousin Rachel (I am changing the names of folks to protect the guilty) said, –I understand your question, and began to tell a story:

When she was in college, (a prestigious university here in Providence) one of her classmates had the audacity (hear caucasity) to say to her face – “I thought all of the Indians in this country were dead.” Rachel’s response was similar to my mother’s – Can you see me? Then clearly, I am not dead. She added, you are not very smart, are you? Suffice to say, that person avoided my cousin for the rest of their tenure at school. (We pity the foolish and pray for them). Rachel continued saying, “In the family we knew who we were and it did not matter what anyone outside the family thought — it was not relevant.” 

My other cousin, Wanda (not her name) had a similar experience in a local school system with a fellow administrator. They were discussing the peculiarity of the name of a student, and how it was odd, and very difficult to pronounce. Wanda informed her coworker that the name was Narragansett, and had a very specific meaning in the culture. The woman expressed that the child did not “look” Narragansett. (Oh, why did she say that to my cousin?) 

My cousin Wanda said, –Well you do not look Italian but you are, are you not? (I will end the story here because it does not end well for this woman. And you would just feel sorry for her and the tongue-lashing she received). 

Last to speak was  the eldest cousin at the luncheon, Wanda’s mother, Liza (also not her name). She said we all have a time when we feel invisible. It is a very human feeling. Wanda began to tell a story I remembered from my childhood story, about the sun and the moon. Here is the abridged version:

The Great Creator decided that the nothingness (the in-between time) needed light in order to see. The Great Creator blinked, and the sun came out for the very first time and daylight manifested. The Sun shined for a great many days as that was what she was created to do. 

One day the Sun became lonely and cried out to the Great Creator, she cried so hard that dark spots began to form on her face. 

The Great Creator asked the sun why do you have spots on your face? 

The Sun responded, I am lonely, and it is painful. 

The Great Creator could not abide by this and reached out and pulled down a piece of the nothingness and asked the Sun to shine upon it. She did as she was instructed, the spots began to disappear and her sister the Moon was formed. 

The Moon and the Sun became great friends. In fact, they played together two times a day, at dawn and again at dusk; the time when it is still. 

The Moon was most powerful at night, the time before the nothingness. The Moon shined differently than the Sun: her light was a reflection of the Sun’s, and her light depended on how many times the Sun spun around the Moon. 

One time, before the nothingness appeared the Moon called out to her sister, because she wanted to play. The Sun did not respond. The Moon became hurt and very angry because she thought her sister was ignoring her. 

In fact, the Sun was sleeping. The Moon called out to the Great Creator, I do not want to play with my sister any more. She does not love me.

The Moon began to cry, and deep scars began to form on her face. The Great Creator listened as the moon continued, She does not come when I call her! 

The Great Creator explained to the Moon that when she is shining the Sun is asleep, and that when the Sun is out the Moon becomes a part of the nothingness, which is like sleeping. The Great Creator further explained that they had a specific time to play and see each other – which was dusk and dawn – the time when it is still. 

This calmed the Moon, and she eagerly awaited the dawn, because she knew that she would see her sister, the Sun and they would play.

Now I am not sure if this story explains my point about invisibility, but let me try…

Another word for visible is self-evident. Or self-aware. 

If you can see yourself for who you are and understand yourself for who you see, then it does not matter what anyone else sees or understands. That is our individual life journey — to have the ability to see who you are, name it, claim it, and tell it. 

But if we understand ourselves in the reverse e.g. “I can only see myself through someone else’s eyes and claim that as the truth,” then surely that is madness. 

I am aware that this is a VERY simplified way of understanding the concept of Indigeneity or self-evident, but can I tell you, I do not care. This is how I understand it and really that is all that matters. Besides I am contrary — like the women I am related to, who are much smarter than me and very much aware of who they are and how they see the world.

Creepy Cabaret For A Cause: Healing Arrows at Askew

Healing Arrows has teamed up with Askew to host a “Creepy Cabaret” on Thursday, October 28th at 8 pm. The event features Boston comedian Kendra Dawsey, Queer Drag Bobby Fresh-King, Indigenous guitarist The Real Chris Kaz, and several other acts.

Healing Arrows for Indigenous Social Justice and Wellness is a Rhode Island grassroots group dedicated to advocacy, promotion, and education on issues of social justice for Indigenous Peoples. 

The event serves as a fundraiser for the Native Clemency Star Quilt Tour. The National Council of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls- a Massachusetts-based organization- is assembling a clemency quilt, with the many names of incarcerated women in America woven into its fabric. Once created, the quilt will tour the country, bringing awareness about the conditions of prisons and advocating for the release of incarcerated women convicted of nonviolent crimes. Healing Arrows’ quilt contribution will feature the names of incarcerated Indigenous women in particular. 

Aleticia Kyle Tijerina, Executive Director and Co-founder of Healing Arrows, suggested that the vast majority of Indigenous women are often incarcerated because they are at the wrong place at the wrong time, or because their partners enlist their help in abetting their own criminal activity. As a result, Kyle Tijerina explained, there is a serious impact on women, their children, and the Indigenous community at large. Healing Arrows believes women can be better nurtured and brought into balance outside of prison walls.