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Tribe members decry new monument of William Blackstone erected in Pawtucket

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PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) — An effort to erect a new monument of The Rev. William Blackstone is causing consternation among members of the Narragansett Indian Tribe, who argue people shouldn’t be celebrating a 17th century settler associated with bringing terror and death to Rhode Island’s indigenous people.

Blackstone, one of the state’s first English settlers in the 1630s, isn’t as well-known as his contemporary, Roger Williams, who founded the Rhode Island colony. But many parts of the state still carry Blackstone’s name, including Blackstone River and Blackstone Valley.

In Pawtucket, a private group has been trying for years to stand up a Blackstone monument, which Target 12 has learned happened without announcement Tuesday at the downtown intersection of Exchange and Roosevelt streets. The organizers argue the 14-foot statue, which depicts Blackstone riding a bull while reading a book, will help spark conversations and a better public understanding of the time period.

“We’re not about putting lipstick on a pig,” said Bob Billington, president of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council Inc., who has been coordinating the effort. “We’re looking it square in the eye. It’s a great time to discuss this topic — civilly and in a good way.”

But Narragansett tribal members claim the organizers never officially reached out to them for any consultation — even after the project was paused earlier this year when a local historian raised concerns that Blackstone’s presence in the region coincided with a time period when indigenous people were “violently eliminated.”

And many expressed frustration with how the process played out, arguing Pawtucket should not put up statues of historical figures who played a role in oppressing others, especially when so many are being taken down across the country.

“Should I put up a statue of Hitler?” said Bella Noka, a Narragansett tribe elder. “I would never do that because it’s insulting to many people and I have respect for the Jewish people who went through such pain. That didn’t even happen on American soil, yet there’s more respect for them and their struggles than there is for indigenous people.”

The tribe’s medicine man, John Brown, said he didn’t know about the project until Target 12 and some members reached out Tuesday. He’d also checked with Chief Sachem Anthony Dean Stanton, saying the tribal government was never formally contacted by Pawtucket or project organizers who for years have been working on the statue, dubbed “Tolerance.”

“There are people who have done this to us in the past, so this is nothing new,” Brown said. “But we had thought that in this modern day and age, with communication the way that it is, that we had turned a corner.”

Who is William Blackstone?

William Blackstone’s story isn’t as well-documented as that of Roger Williams, according to local historian Richard Kazarian. But his arrival in Rhode Island is tied to the beginning of widespread death among Narragansett people.

Kazarian, a Pawtucket resident who holds a doctorate in American history from Brown University, characterized the decision to erect the monument as Pawtucket’s “own moment of reckoning.”

“The reality is that over the course of Blackstone’s lifetime, the native populations that resided in Rhode Island for millennia, were violently eliminated,” Kazarian wrote in an essay he penned at the request of Billington and others.

“English settlers came holding the belief that they were racially superior and that the indigenous people they encountered were sub-human,” he added. “From the start, what became stunningly clear, is that any form of resistance would not be tolerated. Blackstone and his fellow settlers viewed themselves as a chosen people, fully entitled to the land and to the resources that they desired.”

The issues raised in Kazarian’s essay resulted in a pause of the project earlier this year, as city officials including Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien said the city needed to take more time to reflect on whether to put up the statue. A website was subsequently created by the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, where Kazarian posted his essay, and the public was offered an opportunity to respond in writing online.

The responses to Kazarian’s essay included a few posts from people who expressed some support, along with several who offered criticism. The latter group included a critique from Barbara Zdravesky, president of the Preservation Society of Pawtucket.

“The essay does not describe Blackstone’s direct relations with Native Americans, it makes broad generalities about white Europeans, and his descriptions of historical events are all over the map,” Zdravesky wrote, a sentiment echoed by several others who responded.

Kazarian told Target 12 he has since walked away from the project, saying Tuesday he “raised a number of questions and they’ve never been answered.” He also responded to some of the criticism directed toward him, arguing any suggestion that Blackstone played a disinterested role in the decimation of indigenous people was “disingenuous.”

Kazarian also said he disagreed with the organizing group’s decision not to involve indigenous people in any serious way during the process. He argued Pawtucket has missed an opportunity to engage a group of Rhode Islanders in a way that could go a long way toward showing the city has reached a better understanding of its neighbors and history.

“The stage we’re in now is defending the indefensible,” he said.

‘They didn’t seek us out’

Billington, who talked on the phone with Target 12 while the statue was being erected, initially said the project had undergone some changes since the pause started earlier this year.

Asked for specifics, he said the only major change was that Kazarian was no longer involved.

Even with Kazarian out, however, the regional tourism leader insisted the statue would still carry accurate information about Blackstone and his legacy, along with a QR code that people can scan with their smart phones to learn more online.

“Nothing is being buried,” he said.

“We don’t want to upset anybody, that’s not the point,” Billing added when asked about some of the concerns raised by the Narragansett tribe. “The point is: let’s use this as a jumping-off point.”

Billington also pushed back on the idea that there was no outreach to the Narragansett tribe, saying he’d contacted Lorén Spears at the Tomaquag Museum before the project got underway. His memory of the meeting is that they left “on absolutely good terms.”

Spears could not be reached before deadline in part because a phone line for the museum was disconnected due to Tropical Storm Henri. But in an interview later she said her memory of that meeting was distinctly different, and that she made it clear to the organizers that she did not support the monument.

“Some people ask for advice and we’ll give it to them,” she said, highlighting that her job is to help educate people. “But my record shows that I have served on many committees against monuments memorializing and hero-worshiping quote-on-quote ‘founding fathers’ of this country.”

Spears also underscored that she does not speak for the political structure of the Narragansett Tribal Nation, and that she recommended the organizers to reach out to the tribe directly.

When relaying Billington’s explanation for how he tried to reach out to the tribe, Brown also highlighted that the museum doesn’t speak for the tribe and offered an analogy.

“That’s like me going to the the Haffenreffer Museum and saying those people can speak on behalf of Rhode Island because it’s an institute within the state,” he said. “They didn’t seek us out and we had no discussions with them regarding what this man represented.”

Asked what he would have said if he had been approached about putting up the statute, Brown said he didn’t know much about Blackstone because the issue had only just been brought up. But he said the tribe would have engaged in any serious discussion about a project.

“It sounds like to me that this day and age that it’s again the provincial-minded — the European-minded — way of thinking that they know what’s best for us, with or without our consideration,” he added.

‘It’s mind-boggling’

In Pawtucket, the effort to stand up the monument has happened relatively quietly, without much community involvement outside the online public forum.

The statue is technically being erected on private property owned by the real estate company Pui-O Inc., which belongs to Louis Yip and Sunny Ng. The local businessmen own several pieces of downtown property in the area, according to the local assessor’s office.

Despite the private ownership, the city helped the effort using taxpayer money. 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 Valley bike path.

“The sculpture and art piece are on private property, but it was funded as an extension of the bikeway,” city spokesperson Emily Rizzo said, adding that the city has also put some of the funds toward water access and a boat launch “that are still in the conceptual stages.”

The city shared a copy of the finalized CDBG proposal, showing the initial cost of the project would total $560,000, with the finalized amount costing nearly $2 million. But the initial proposal from 2020 appears to conflict with what actually happened, as it detailed a plan to acquire the vacant land and create a “pocket park.”

Rizzo said the city has since decided not to acquire the property and instead enter into a licensing agreement with the landowners. Target 12 has requested a copy of the licensing agreement.

“This does not include the monument because the city hasn’t had any relation with that,” Rizzo said. “That all the private funder. This was for the specific area around that and getting down to the river.”

Pawtucket resident Cristina Cabrera, who opposes the statue, learned about the project shortly before the statue was erected and scrambled to find out what happened. She said the effort involved repeatedly calling different town agencies to figure out how it happened and who was responsible for allowing it.

“It’s mind-boggling,” she said. “It’s quite alarming how the city of Pawtucket is functioning.”

Grebien, who encouraged the pause earlier this year, doesn’t appear to have discussed the issue publicly since. He did not respond to a multiple requests for comment, and Rizzo said Wednesday he was out of town.

Cabrera expressed frustration that the city didn’t hold any public forums or City Council meetings for people to discuss and learn more about the monument before it was erected Tuesday.

“If I put a statue here that stands for the killings of indigenous people, it’s OK because it’s going to be educational?” she asked. “It’s horrific because it means the city of Pawtucket stands behind the killing and slaughtering and the displacement of indigenous people.”

The artist, Peruko Ccopacatty of Exeter, immigrated to the United States from the Peruvian Andes. He’s done other notable work around the state, including multiple pieces in Burnside Park in Providence.

On the tourism website about the Blackstone project, Ccopacatty is cited for being hopeful that the statue would celebrate Pawtucket’s history that’s been filled with “centuries of immigrant skill and energy jointed with the founding and wise welcoming native peoples of this valley, this earth, named Blackstone and earlier in the language of the Narragansett tribe named Sceachteeconnet, meaning rocks in or along the river.”

For Noka, the words rang hollow.

“You simply took away the indigenous name for the river and named it after a man that’s not even worthy,” she said. “The statue is an insult. An insult to my ancestors and to the generations to come.”

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is an investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.

This story has been updated to include comments from Lorén Spears.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the timing of when Cristina Cabrera found out about the project.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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