Charlie Smith is a Native American without a tribe. But that’s just technically, because the Wampanoags did not petition to be federally recognized in Rhode Island when they had that opportunity. The Narragansett Indians gained that federal recognition in 1983.
The Wampanoags lack that distinction, but there’s no disputing that descendants of the tribe that allied themselves with the Pilgrim settlers after arriving at Plymouth Rock in 1620 are a part of Rhode Island today. Smith who is a Wamponoag prefers not to get hung up on the tribes whose roots he can trace to Rhode Island. He names the Narragansetts, Seaconke, Nipmucs, Niantics and Pequot. Rather, he groups them as Native American in his effort to erect a monument in recognition of veterans of Native American ancestry buried at the Rhode Island Veterans Cemetery in Exeter.
Being the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving, Smith visited Beacon Communications recently to talk about his vision and why he thinks it important that Native Americans be given the same recognition afforded veterans of other ethnic groups.
“All races have had hardships and every race should have a place to be honored,” he said. Smith is not out to revise history nor is he suggesting reparations for what the settlers did to the Native Americans.
“History is history,” he said. He questions what is to be gained by tearing down statues and changing names. His point is, “that everybody has a shot to get recognition.”
Smith can trace his Native American roots back 11 generations. He knows his descendants played roles in this country including his great grandfather (born 1846, died 1883) – a Union sailor in the Civil War who is buried in a small cemetery with 25 members of the Smith and Lincoln families, all of Native American heritage.
Action saved cemetery
The cemetery off Sandy Lane in Warwick behind the Sandy Lane Condos would not be here today had it not been for Linda Elderkin Dagen, of Native American descent. She brought construction of the condominiums to a halt when she argued the development would encroach on the cemetery. Public Archeology Lab did a study, finding a number of unmarked graves. The plans were altered and the project later completed.
In the last two years, Smith has worked with the Warwick Historical Cemetery Commission and its chair, Pegee Malcolm, to repair headstones that have been toppled and broken in the Smith/Lincoln cemetery. Over the summer, Bob Chorney, Mike Lannigan and Mark Brown of the commission joined in locating as well as leveling the bases of grave markers and using epoxy of affix headstones. A number of headstones bearing no markings are in the cemetery.
Malcolm knows of no other historic cemetery in Warwick with the graves of Native American descendants.
Asked why she thought this is the case, Malcolm said, “Many did not want their cemeteries known.” Loren Spears, executive director of the Tomaquag Museum, doesn’t find it unusual that the connection to indigenous people is blurred as they became assimilated into the community. She pointed out that although buried at the veterans’ cemetery, her great uncle was not on a list of those belonging to a tribe. She believes that is not an isolated case and urged descendants of people with indigenous ancestors to contact her at the museum.
That’s not the case with the Smith/Lincoln cemetery. Malcolm helped Smith in procuring a granite marker identifying the connection to Native Americans and to members of the Seaconke Tribe.
Smith, 48, a resident of North Kingstown, works as a cemetery specialist at the Veterans Cemetery and until the pandemic was a shuttle bus driver at URI.
His father, Charles B. Smith, 1927-1999, with 22 years of service with the Navy, served as a First Class Bowen’s Mate aboard five aircraft carriers during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. He is buried at the Veterans Cemetery.
Smith’s proposal for a monument gained the endorsements of the Rhode Island Indian Council and his superiors at the cemetery.
A site alongside the Air Force memorial was selected. Planned for a triangular lot is an archway beneath which there would be monument bearing the names of the tribes indigenous to the region. Smith estimated the cost at $35,000 in addition to some donated materials and labor.
He said 87 veterans of Native American descent are buried at the Rhode Island Veterans Cemetery.
Spears said the committee chaired by Smith would start meeting soon and she is hopeful of having the funding in place by next fall. The monument at the center under an archway of fieldstones would contain the names of the tribes whose members are buried at the cemetery. Spears said the list could be expanded.
“We need to recognize the contributions indigenous people made to the armed forces,” she said adding it would be “remiss” not to honor them.
As chair of the state Historical Cemeteries Commission, Malcolm endorses the Veterans Cemetery monument.
She sees it as not only recognizing the role Native Americans have played but also heightening awareness and generating pride.
“I think there would be more people who would praise their ancestors and heritage, if there was something they could see,” she said.