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Narragansett Indians:
Life Along the Bay

Excerpted from "Narragansett Indians and Narragansett Bay," by Ella W.T. Sekatau, Ethno-Historian and Elder Medicine Woman, and John B. Brown III, Understudy to Medicine Man. This essay appears in What a Difference a Bay Makes, published in 1993 as part of a project by the Rhode Island Historical Society and the Rhode Island Department of State Library Services.

Rhode Island and parts of other New England States were once the far-reaching lands of the Narragansett. Prior to the European invasion of the 17th century, there existed a near-perfect state of well-being. People lived in concert with their environmental surroundings. The ancestors in their utilization of all true materials did little to disrupt. Conditions were dependable and unique and predictable—ever-constant with known variables.

Summers were spent closer to the great salt ponds [along the southern shore] and sea in small one- or two-family dwellings for the sole purpose of preparing for the survival through the six months of late fall, winter, and early spring. In the vicinities of the small summer homes made from reed mats of bark of chestnut, pine, and cedar, great areas were cleared for horticultural practices. Varieties of maize, squashes, pumpkins, and beans, were planted along with cucumbers, sunflowers, and tobacco. The care of the gardens was the females' responsibility, except for the tobacco. Ample supplies of natural wild foods in the form of roots, tubers, nuts, berries, fruits, and both land and aquatic varieties of leafy plants were used by the Archaic Narragansett, many of which are still there for the taking. All varieties were eaten daily when in season and some of all varieties were sliced and dried for storage to save space. Winter dwellings or longhouses were in fact the permanent homes of the Narragansett Peoples. Matriarchal clans shared the buildings housing up to 30 families in one building. The larger families had several bark-covered longhouses within an 18- to 24-foot palisade made from small trees inserted closely together and bound together as well. Many observers mistook these palisades for protection against other humans. However, these palisades were built to protect humans and their belongings from weather and animal depredations. Summer home locations changed every few years, and permanent homes changed only if a natural disaster deemed its relocation.

The contact and colonization periods of New England opened the doorway to cultural conflict as well as to the environment which includes the land and water resources. Customarily the Narragansett People used summer camp for three to four years; they would then pick another favored spot for three to four years, and rotate the areas. This process allowed for regeneration of all natural resources in a given place and prevented "wipe out" of species. Some of the Native history has been swallowed by attrition, and the imperfect contributions, observed by outsiders regarding the Native Populations, have persisted and exist in the worst forms today. There has been the wearing down and the weakening, almost to exhaustion, by the constant demands and harrassments on the base rocks, the Waters, and the Earth Mother, since the influx of another culture has overwhelmed the native population with their towns and cities which stay in one place. This practice of the newcomers taxed all of the environment.

The ecological transformations for the last 300 years of Narragansett Bay and the land it surrounds are inexcusable today. The colonists were ignorant of the ecological practices of the Indigenous People. They could not understand the undergrowth burning, the practices of planting crops, or the benefits of not defiling the waters. The colonists did not understand that the moving of habitats periodically placed minimum demands on the ecosystems.

Narragansett Indians made sure no species became overused and this insured perpetual natural wealth. Much of what Narragansett People did and how they lived was a love for the labors knowing the benefits would be enough to survive. In case of shortages due to natural causes, areas would not be touched.

The colonists had a different understanding of labor and wealth, based on profit and greed to acquire material wealth. Their ideas were to conquer what they interpreted as wilderness. The goal was to make the areas look like what they had left behind in Europe. Clear the great tress, fence the land for their cattle, put up buildings. Rip and tear out the natural.

The bay was always there, however, to assure constant sources for food and clothing, and making parts of the tools, utensils, and weapons by using bones, shells, scales, skins, and bladders.

For more information see the Economy page.