Land Acknowledgment

Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently asked questions provide information about Brown’s land acknowledgment, the process for developing it and resources to build further understanding of the University’s past.

While there is no single widely accepted definition of a land acknowledgment, the practice seeks to recognize, honor and create a meaningful acknowledgment of the Indigenous peoples and their connections to the land. It often is considered as a first step in a process of truth-telling and a commitment to building understanding and accountability to a history of dispossession.

At Brown, land acknowledgment is one element of developing and sustaining a deeper understanding of the relationship between the University, the Indigenous peoples of this region, and the land on which Brown is situated. Brown developed a land acknowledgment statement to recognize and honor the fact that the University is located in what is now known as Providence on lands that are within the ancestral homelands of the Narragansett Indian Tribe. Acknowledging that fact and taking action to help support the Narragansett Indian Tribe, educate our community (as well as the broader public), and support broader levels of engagement with Native American and Indigenous studies and students, are critical steps to understanding our shared history and developing strong relationships into the future.

President Christina H. Paxson formed and charged a Land Acknowledgment Working Group (LAWG) in March 2021 to develop recommendations for what “land acknowledgment” means for Brown University. The LAWG comprised Brown faculty, students and administrators, including members of the Narragansett Indian Tribe. The formation of the LAWG was announced to the Brown community, the Narragansett Indian Tribe, and to the leadership of other tribes and Indigenous peoples in Rhode Island and Southern New England. 

Over the course of a year, the members of the LAWG engaged in developing deeper understandings of the past history and relationships between Brown University, Indigenous peoples, and the land on which Brown now sits in Providence. The group’s work included conducting research, speaking with faculty experts in the field, and meeting with and learning from Narragansett Tribal Medicine Man and Historic Preservation Officer John B. Brown on the reservation of the tribe in Charlestown, Rhode Island. The recommendations of the LAWG were shared with the Narragansett Indian Tribe, with other Indigenous peoples in the region, and with the Brown community (in that order), beginning in February 2022. Following an extended opportunity for feedback and input over the course of the Spring 2022 semester, President Paxson responded to the recommendations on May 24, 2022, by outlining a set of commitments that Brown would make, including establishing the University’s formal land acknowledgment. The full list of actions appears on the Commitments page of this website.

The land acknowledgment statement adopted in the spring of 2022 relates to the Brown University campus in Providence and therefore would be used most often at the beginning of events held in Providence. So long as the statement is used and read in a manner that is respectful and in honor of the Narragansett Indian Tribe and other Indigenous peoples who have called Providence home for centuries and continue to do so today, there is no specific protocol or requirement for when it should be used. Departments, student organizations, and other groups holding events on the Brown campus are encouraged to engage with the statement and use it in a manner that is reflective of the intentions with which it is offered — acknowledging the history of this region and committing to understanding and responding to the legacy of the actions that led to the Narragansett Indian Tribe being dispossessed of most of their ancestral lands in Rhode Island.

There are no requirements for the use of the land acknowledgment statement at events, in materials, on course syllabi, or other University documents. When the option to use the land acknowledgment statement is exercised, it should be in a manner that is respectful of the Narragansett Indian Tribe and other Indigenous peoples.

A great deal of care, effort and research went into drafting the University’s formal land acknowledgment statement to ensure its accuracy, including consultation with faculty scholars and the Narragansett Indian Tribe and the community at large. Members of the Brown community are strongly encouraged to use the University’s land acknowledgment statement if they choose to make a land acknowledgment, and should be aware that editing and/or creating their own carries with it the risk of inaccurate information and unintentionally offending the people the statement is intended to honor and respect.

While the land acknowledgment statement is relatively brief and should generally be used in its entirety, the University recognizes that in some circumstances an even briefer statement might be preferable. In such circumstances the recommendation is to use the following portion of the statement:

“Brown University is located in Providence, Rhode Island, on lands that are within the ancestral homelands of the Narragansett Indian Tribe. The Narragansett Indian Tribe, whose ancestors stewarded these lands with great care, continues as a sovereign nation today. We commit to working together to honor our past and build our future with truth.”

The February 2022 recommendations of the LAWG describe in detail the history of the lands in Providence that became the initial parcels of the campus on College Hill (and continue to be the heart of the Brown campus today). As can be read in that document, land was purchased in 1770 and 1771 that became the site of University Hall. The deeds documenting those transactions list the prior owners of those parcels back to the “original proprietor[s] after the Native Indians.” The “Native Indians” referenced in those deeds are the sachems, Canonicus and Miantonomi of the Narragansett, who allowed Roger Williams to establish a settlement in what came to be known as Providence in 1636. Later, in 1638, Williams executed a deed for the purchase of Providence to which Canonicus and Miantonomi affixed their marks. The land on which Roger Williams established the settlement that would in time become the City of Providence and Brown University's main campus was within Narragansett tribal homelands, as evidenced by his subsequent purchase of those lands from the Narragansett sachems. Accordingly, the University’s land acknowledgment statement reflects that historical fact.

The Land Acknowledgment Working Group that was convened in March 2021 was not charged with, and did not produce, a work of scholarship that would answer questions such as this one. Recognizing that a fuller understanding of the history in New England continues to develop and is impacted by whose writings and framing of that history received the most attention, the LAWG recommended that the University would benefit from a critical and rigorous study of the history of the University, as well as its early formative years as it relates to the Narragansett Tribe and the other Indigenous peoples who lived in what is now Southern New England and whose lives and communities were so severely and negatively impacted by the forces of settler colonialism. There is much to be learned and revealed about this history that would further contribute to the Brown community’s understanding of its collective institutional history and obligations and responsibilities today, including this particular question. The scope and focus of such a study will need to be developed by scholars and other keepers of knowledge interested in and able to undertake the work, in collaboration with the Narragansett Indian Tribe and other Indigenous peoples.

The LAWG intentionally limited its recommendation to a land acknowledgment of the campus in Providence. While the University also owns property in Bristol, Rhode Island, the vast majority of Brown activity takes place in Providence and most if not all opportunities where the land acknowledgment statement would be used occur in Providence. The University continues to engage in discussion and planning regarding the future of the land in Bristol.

The actions that Brown will undertake in support of members of local and Native tribes can be viewed on the Commitments page. These commitments will move forward through the University’s established governance processes and/or under the guidance of groups identified to act on their implementation.

As noted in the LAWG recommendations, the sites and signs of how the land on which Brown University sits in Providence came to the institution are present in many forms, from the deeds in the John Hay Library to the monument in Roger Williams Square, to the stone carving of Roger Williams’s arrival on the Van Wickle Gates, to the rivers that encircle the campus. Yet the truth of what took place in 1636 and the centuries following is largely invisible to many, collectively and conveniently forgotten. The efforts of the Land Acknowledgment Working Group and the further work that will follow is expected to shed additional light on the origin story of Brown’s campus and especially on the proud history and ongoing oppression of the Narragansett people in Rhode Island. The current belief is that altering the symbols of that history, whether or not it is accurate, would not serve the goal of greater education and awareness of the past and its implications for the present and future.

The land acknowledgment statement communicated in President Paxson’s acceptance of the recommendations of the LAWG on May 24, 2022, is the University’s statement and available for use by departments and student organizations. The other recommendations of the LAWG as accepted by President Paxson will be taken up through the University’s established governance processes and/or under the guidance of groups formed to act on their implementation. Timelines and updates will be communicated going forward as part of that work.

A number of departments and offices across campus are engaged with the Narragansett Indian Tribe and other Native and Indigenous community members both locally and nationally on an ongoing basis. The University’s Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative (NAISI) is an excellent and central source of information and expertise regarding these efforts.

The LAWG developed the bibliography below that includes all the sources of information in their recommendations document. Members of the Brown community are encouraged to make use of these and other resources to add to their own individual and collective understanding of the University’s past. The NAISI website also has additional resources that readers may find useful.

Recommended Primary Source Reading

Williams, Roger. A Key Into The Language of America. London: Printed by Gregory Dexter, 1643. [Also, Williams, Roger. A Key into the Language of America. New York: Cosimo Classics, 2009.]

Wood, William. New-England's Prospect. London: by Tho. Cotes for John Bellamie, 1634. 

Gatschet, Albert S. “Narragansett Vocabulary Collected in 1879.” Smithsonian National Anthropological Archives, 1896.

Winslow, Edward. Good Newes from New England. London: Printed by I. D. for W. Bladen and J. Bellamie, 1624.

Eliot, John. “The Light appearing more and more towards the perfect Day,” letter, 1650. As reprinted in Henry Whitfield, in Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Cambridge: Charles Folsom, 1834, 141. 

Gookin, Daniel, and Charles II. Historical Collections of the Indians in New England. Manuscript, 1674. Published in Boston: Apollo Press by Belknap and Hall, 1792. 

Josselyn, John. John Josselyn Colonial Traveler: A Critical Edition of Two Voyages to New England, Edited by Paul J. Lindholdt. Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1988 [1674].

Other Resources

Brooks, Lisa. The Common Pot: The Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Brooks, Lisa. Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018.

Cady, John Hutchins, Antoinette Forrester. Downing, and Richard B. Harrington. The Civic and Architectural Development of Providence, 1636-1950. Providence, R.I: The Book Shop, 1957.

Chapin, Howard M. Sachems of the Narragansetts. Providence: Rhode Island Historical Society, 1931.

DeLucia, Christine M. Memory Lands: King Philip’s War and the Place of Violence in the Northeast. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018.

Geake, Robert A. A History of the Narragansett Tribe of Rhode Island: Keepers of the Bay. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2011.

Fisher, Linford D., Lemons, Stanley J., and Mason-Brown, Lucas. Decoding Roger Williams: the Lost Essay of Rhode Island’s Founding Father. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2014.

Fisher, Julie A, and David J Silverman. Ninigret, Sachem of the Niantics and Narragansetts: Diplomacy, War, and the Balance of Power in Seventeenth-Century New England and Indian Country. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2014.

Hopkins, Charles Wyman. The Home Lots of the Early Settlers of the Providence Plantation: With Notes and Plats. Providence, R.I: Providence Press Co., Printers, 1886.

Keary, Anne. “Retelling the History of the Settlement of Providence: Speech, Writing, and Cultural Interaction on Narragansett Bay.” The New England Quarterly Inc., 69.2 (1996): 250–286.

O’Brien, Jean M. Dispossession by Degrees: Indian Land and Identity in Natick, Massachusetts, 1650-1790. University of Nebraska Press, 2003.

Potter, Elisha R. The Early History of Narragansett, 1811-1882./ n.p. S.S. Rider, 1886.

“Rhode Island Royal Charter of 1663.” American Governance 2016: n. pag.

Rider, Sidney S. The Lands of Rhode Island as they were known to Caunounicus and Miantunnomu when Roger Williams Came in 1636. An Indian Map of the Principal Locations known to the Nahigansets and Elaborate Historical Notes. Providence, R.I: Published by the author, 1904.

Rubertone, Patricia E. Grave Undertakings : an Archaeology of Roger Williams and the Narragansett Indians. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001.

Rubertone, Patricia E. Native Providence : Memory, Community, and Survivance in the Northeast. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2020.

Simmons, William Scranton. Spirit of the New England Tribes: Indian History and Folklore, 1620-1984. Hannover, [Germany] : University Press of New England, 1986.

Warren, James A. God, War, and Providence: the Epic Struggle of Roger Williams and the Narragansett Indians Against the Puritans of New England. New York: Scribner, 2018.

Williams, Roger et al. The Correspondence of Roger Williams, Volume 1, 1629–1653; Volume 2, 1654–1682. Edited by Glenn W. LaFantasie. Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1988.