2010-12-02 / News

Island Lookout

By Stephen Heffner
At first glance, it was hard to imagine that there was a discouraging word to be spoken about the recent Veterans Day ceremony at East Ferry.

It was, after all, a gorgeous morning, as a brilliant sun beamed from an autumn-blue sky. A thicket of American flags surrounding Veterans Memorial Square danced in a northerly breeze that was just chilly enough to be invigorating without being really cold. A respectful audience heard speakers offer words of praise for America’s veterans, living and dead. Uniformed Cub Scouts from the island’s Pack One stood in youthful tribute. Former Marine Colonel Bruce Livingston recited “In Flanders Fields”, the World War I poem by John Mc- Crae, which begins:

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row...”

Later, the colonel concluded the festivities with a heartfelt farewell. “Thank you for coming,” he said. “It’s a beautiful sight.” And so it seemed as the crowd headed off, warmed by patriotic spirit. But as I lingered to look more closely at the square’s monuments, my own view unexpectedly changed.

It happened as I strolled over the patchwork of bricked rectangles set into the lawn. Amid the bricks, granite plaques bore the names of conflicts in which Jamestown’s veterans fought and sometimes died. Nearly all the names were familiar and unsurprising: “Revolutionary War,” “Spanish-American War,” “World War I,” “World War II,” “Korean War,” and others. But one I didn’t expect brought my leisurely meander to a halt: “Indian Wars.”

Momentarily confounded, I thought, this has to mean something other than the obvious. After all, the square is hardly a relic of an unenlightened time, having been dedicated in May, 1997 – long after historians had recognized the colonial influx and westward push for what they were, ruthless landgrabs waged at the expense of indigenous people. It was also long since the “Indians” mentioned on the plaque had come to be known as Native Americans. And though I recognize there’s no getting around the cold axiom that it’s the victor who gets to write the record, this plaque struck me as a gratuitous bit of rubbing it in.

Even more troubling was that, as the setting evoked the memories of our defenders, it also raised images of our enemies. I wondered, did the people who built the square really mean to lump Native Americans together with, say, German Nazis or North Korean Communists?

I learned that the person who might best answer those questions is gone. Ed Connelly, who died in 2001, was the main proponent of the square and the source of many, if not most, of the ideas included in it. So, I turned to Colonel Livingston, commander of the local VFW Post 9447, which, along with American Legion Post 22, played a major role in raising funds for the square. Livingston told me he thinks the “Indian Wars” plaque belongs in the memorial.

“Everything was not sweetness and cream with the Indians on this island you know,” he said. “We’re on good terms now, but they used to be the enemy.”

I heard similar opinions from other prominent islanders – and more than once I was informed that the fault lay with Native Americans, who agreed to sell the island to the colonists, took payment, and then refused to vacate the premises. When I brought those assertions to Rhode Island State Archaeologist Paul Robinson, he didn’t hesitate.

“Nonsense,” said Robinson. “They absolutely did not sell Jamestown to the colonists.”

Instead, Robinson noted, the Narragansett tribe wanted to share the land with the newcomers in return for the colonists help against the Mohegan leader, Uncas. They also wanted colonial support for tribal ceremonies. Robinson referenced a 1650s letter in which Roger Williams described those terms as having been proposed by the Narragansett leader, Scutop.

“That the island was legitimately bought by the colonists just doesn’t square with the history,” said Robinson. “I’m not trying to be politically correct. It’s just that people should know the facts.”

Doug Harris, the Narragansett Tribe’s Preservationist for Ceremonial Landscapes, is more emphatic. “The Europeans acquired land from indigenous people in two ways, by force or by fraud,” he told me. He said the latter strategy involved legal-sounding deeds “that allegedly have tribal people signing off on their land by making their mark” on pieces of paper they couldn’t read.

Moreover, said Harris, his ancestors “had no concept of selling the land. To them, the Earth was their mother, and they had no concept of anyone being able to own their mother.”

I contacted the Narragansett Tribe’s Historic Preservation Offi- cer, John Brown, who hadn’t seen the “Indian Wars” plaque, but said he was uneasy with the idea of early Narragansetts being mentioned in the same breath as, say, Adolf Hitler. “You’re not talking about enemies here,” he said. “You’re talking about people who were fighting for their homeland.”

As for the plaque itself, Brown isn’t opposed to reminding people of the past. But he objects when it is not properly explained, as he worries might be the case in Jamestown.

“You don’t want to erase history,” he said. “What happened has happened. The problem comes when the mistakes of the past are not corrected in the here and now. It’s a mistake to give people the sense that their former leaders went without a blemish on their record.”

He added, “We’re powerless to change the past, but not what happens now or in the future. You have the opportunity to do the right thing. The question is are you going to do it.”

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