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William Blackstone statue rally planned for Indigenous Peoples Day in Pawtucket

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PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) — A group of advocates and Narragansett Indian tribal members are organizing a rally next week at the newly erected statue of William Blackstone in Pawtucket, with some demanding the controversial tribute to the English settler be taken down.

Multiple advocacy groups, including Native Green, NCAAP Providence and Black Lives Matter Rhode Island, are expected to gather from noon until 4 p.m. Monday in front of the statue at the intersection of Roosevelt and Exchange streets in Pawtucket to commemorate Indigenous Peoples Day.

The Blackstone statute was erected earlier this year, sparking outrage among members of the Narragansett Indian Tribe, who argue Blackstone’s arrival in Rhode Island in the 1630s is tied to the beginning of widespread death among indigenous people.

“A big Band-aid has been taken off of many things in this country and exposed things that were so ugly, so now is the time for healing,” said Bella Noka, an elder tribal member. “But you don’t try to put that dirty, nasty Band-aid back on the wound that’s healing, and that’s what they did with this statue.”

Indigenous Peoples Day celebrates the original inhabitants of North America, and it’s observed instead of Columbus Day be some people in communities 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 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, and multiple advocacy groups plan to join the tribe in solidarity Monday.

“It just goes to show you that they’re not connecting with their community,” said Brother Gary Dantzler, executive director of Black Lives Matter Rhode Island, who is expected to speak at the rally. “It’s an insult that these guys … not once confided with people of native descent. It doesn’t make sense. It really doesn’t.”

Jim Vincent, president of NAACP Providence, said he also plans to attend. The well-known Rhode Island activist has joined tribal members at various community meetings since Narragansett leadership first learned about the statute going up in August.

“At a time when we’re taking down statues, it seems odd that we’re putting together something that’s controversial and not embraced by all,” Vincent said.

Since he first heard about the statue, Vincent said he’s been trying to learn more about Blackstone and the historical role the settler played in the area known today as Rhode Island. Unlike Roger Williams, there’s less written in history books about Blackstone, who is often described as a peaceful priest of the Church of England.

Noka has pushed back on this narrative, however, pointing out that her people’s history isn’t written down, but that shouldn’t make it any less important.

“Our history is shared orally,” she said. “What makes them think so arrogantly that their history is right because they write it down?”

Vincent said the historical murkiness surrounding Blackstone is exactly why people need to learn more about the circumstances surrounding the man, especially if there’s a plan to erect a tribute to him. Vincent said he’s also had discussions with Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island Bishop W. Nicholas Knisley, who was likewise surprised to learn the Blackstone statue was erected in Pawtucket.

“It is regrettable that such a monument would be approved and given municipal funding without seeking more input from our Indigenous neighbors,” Knisley wrote in a Aug. 25 statement posted online.

While the Church of England was the precursor to the Episcopal Church in the United States, Knisley pointed out that the “Doctrine of Discovery,” which allowed English settlers to take land from inhabitants, “was repudiated by the Episcopal Church” in 2009.

“Colonizers like Blackstone are a troubling feature of our American history, and we would do well to reflect on the opinions of those who were on this land before us when considering public commemorations,” Knisley said. “We can only hope that this statue does indeed spark more conversation and a deeper look into the wrongdoing of the past, as the organizers of this effort say is their intent.”

Despite the private ownership of the Pawtucket statue, the statue is located at a prominent downtown intersection within eyesight of City Hall. And the city helped the effort with 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 Valley bike path.

Mayor Donald Grebien spokesperson Emily Rizzo told Target 12 the city has worked with Native Green to support the rally and “make sure their event … is successful.” Rizzo also said the mayor has met with the group to “connect with them and understand their demands,” and the city is hiring outside legal counsel to review the federal funds.

She did not respond to a question about whether he planned to attend.

“The mayor has heard their concerns and the city is in the final stages of bringing in an outside attorney to assess the documents and process related to the project to ensure transparency and create a trust that the process was followed,” Rizzo said in a statement.

Rizzo later clarified that the city is confident all federal rules related to the CDBG money were followed correctly, but the mayor wanted to go “above and beyond” to make sure all legal concerns raised by the advocacy groups were reviewed.

According to an announcement from organizers, speakers are expected to discuss the “true history of this land” from between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., and demand “immediate removal” of the statue.

With that said, Noka described the rally as a “friendly gathering.”

“Stand with us,” she said.

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

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

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