PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) — Members of the Narragansett Indian Tribe and advocates gathered Monday in Pawtucket to not only to commemorate Indigenous Peoples’ Day, but also demand the city take down the recently erected statue of William Blackstone.
The statute was put up earlier this year, sparking outrage among tribal members, who argue Blackstone’s arrival in Rhode Island in the 1630s is tied to the beginning of widespread death among indigenous people.
“He should not be up,” said Bella Noka, an elder tribal member. “That manifest destiny came through here and said, ‘We could take this land from these people by hook, or by crook.'”
Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebrates the original inhabitants of North America, and it’s observed alongside or in lieu of Columbus Day by some people across the country.
While not as well-known as his contemporary, Roger Williams, who founded the Rhode Island colony, Blackstone is recognized as one of the first English settlers to arrive in the area. Today, many parts of the state still carry Blackstone’s name, including the Blackstone River and Blackstone Valley.
The 14-foot statue, which depicts Blackstone riding a bull while reading a book, was put together by a private group that has said they hoped it would spark conversation and help the public better understand the time period.
But the argument hasn’t sat well with Narragansett tribal members, who say they were never involved in the planning process that spanned years.
“I think that if they would have talked with the Narragansett Tribe a little bit more, they might have come up with some things and would say, ‘maybe we shouldn’t do this,'” said Jim Vincent, president of NAACP Providence.
Despite being privately owned, the statue is located at a prominent downtown intersection within eyesight of City Hall.
The city helped the effort by providing public funds, as Pawtucket allocated federal Community Development Block Grant money to fix up the surrounding area. City officials said that was allowable because it was technically done as an extension of the Blackstone River Bikeway.
But Noka said the statue wasn’t listed as part of the project.
“In the Community Development Block Grant, there was no mention of that statue,” she said.
Pawtucket resident Judith Tolnick Champa is siding with the tribe and questioning the transparency of city leadership.
“I was outraged that it was actually happening,” she said, adding that she was caught off-guard by the statue’s arrival. “Here it is without any kind of announcement from City Hall.”
Mayor Donald Grebien has said he hears the tribe’s concerns and has hired an outside attorney to assess the funds that were used to build the statue.
Eli Sherman contributed to this report.