Tribe, Ivy League Brown debate law, morality

On Aug. 20 approximately 50 members of the Pokanoket nation, an indigenous group that claims ties to Colonial-era Wampanoag leader King Philip, or Metacom, occupied land in Bristol owned by Brown University.

They are restricting public access and insisting the university relinquish ownership of the 375-acre plot, home to Brown’s Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology.

The Pokanokets, who are not federally recognized, call the land Potumtuk and consider it their nation’s spiritual ground. For years the approximately 400-member tribe and Brown had a good relationship, according to Raymond “Two Hawks” Watson, Mashapaug Nahaganset chief and director general of the Federation of Aboriginal Nations of America, to which the Pokanokets belong.

But the relationship began to sour last fall when the university ordered a Pokanoket nation flag removed from the land, an act Watson called “a declaration of war.”

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Brown officials have met with tribal leaders to try to resolve the dispute. Watson insists, however, the nation is prepared to take the university to court under a state law he says allows indigents to do so without paying fees.

Does the tribe have a legal claim to the land?

Probably not, says Bristol native Bruce Kogan, a Roger Williams University law professor and Newport family court mediator. But that doesn’t mean its concerns should be dismissed, he added.

Citing an 1823 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, he said land vacated by indigenous people was considered empty and sold piecemeal, “disregarding the fact that they might have been forced from the property.”

While that precedent doesn’t apply to private entities, such as Brown, Kogan said the university is doing the right thing trying to address the legal and moral issues at play.

Legally, he believes arguing indigenous groups never sold the land is “harder” because of treaties that claim the groups “ceded” their land.

Conversely, he said, “If you go back 200 years, the land was not acquired morally or legally.”

While Kogan thinks Brown will retain ownership of the land, he’d prefer to see the case resolved through mediation and said he believes that “is the way Brown is headed.”

Brown’s administration has declined to discuss the ongoing talks.

But the university’s Native American and Indigenous Studies department in an Aug. 24 statement said the tribe’s lack of federal recognition means it can’t “access federal or state land protections nor place the land in a trust.”

The head of the Pokanokets, Sagamore Po Wauipi Neimpaug, replied in an Aug. 27 Facebook statement: “We refuse to be forced to justify our tribal status. … It is not up to any institution to tell indigenous people who are not federally recognized that they are not a tribe.”

Meanwhile, the tribe is crowdfunding its encampment through an online donation site that through Aug. 30 had raised $220 toward its $15,000 goal.