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Indigenous people and allies protest new Blackstone statue and Columbus Day in Pawtucket

“We are here today to celebrate Indigenous Day Rhode Island as well as demand that the statue across the street, William Blackstone, be taken down,” said Bella Noka, a Narragansett Tribal Elder.
Photo for Indigenous people and allies protest new Blackstone statue and Columbus Day in Pawtucket

Published on October 12, 2021
By Steve Ahlquist

The statue of William Blackstone, recently placed at the corner of Roosevelt Avenue and Exchange Street in Pawtucket has sparked controversy. At a time when the United States is coming to grips with its past in terms of slavery and genocide, a new statue commemorating the first white settler in Rhode Island, (predating the arrival of founder Roger Williams by about a year) has been met with disapproval from Narragansett Tribe members and others who see the statue as glorifying colonization and gentrification. The statue was done by Peruvian born artist and Providence resident Peruko Ccopacatty and paid for by restauranteur, realtor and businessperson Louis Yip of Pawtucket.

The erection of the statue seems to have been deliberately planned in a low key fashion, even some members of the Pawtucket City Council seemed surprised when it was revealed to be mere weeks away from completion. There was seemingly no public input sought, and federal HUD funds were used to mount the statue in place and beautify the surrounding area, funds, say critics, that should have been used to help alleviate the housing crisis in Rhode Island.

Although paid for by Louis Yip, for the reported price of $40k, the cost of maintaining and protecting the statue will fall on Pawtucket taxpayers.

In response to the statue a protest was held by Narragansett Tribal Elders Bella Noka and Randy Noka -alongside Indigenous Rhode Islanders, Pawtucket residents and allies – at Veterans Memorial Park, across the street from the statue on Indigenous People’s Day. Indigenous People’s Day is still celebrated by many as Columbus Day, a national holiday celebrating Christopher Columbus, the man who arrived in the East Indies and began the practice of of both slavery and genocide in the Americas. In Providence, a statue of Columbus was removed after being vandalized several times. Two other statues commemorating Columbus are still standing Rhode Island.

Below is all the video from the speakers at Monday’s event:

“We are here today to celebrate Indigenous Day Rhode Island as well as demand that the statue across the street, William Blackstone, be taken down,” said Bella Noka, a Narragansett Tribal Elder at Veterans Memorial Park in Pawtucket to the applause of the nearly 100 people in attendance. “We have people throughout Indian country who have written letters to have it taken down, churches that have written letters to have it taken down, we have met with the Mayor to have it taken down. And we ask the people of Pawtucket to stand with us and all residents of the State of Rhode Island to stand with us until this statue is taken down.”

The event was emceed by Cali, who described herself as a “resilient mother of five indigenous children,” as well as a survivor of and advocate against domestic abuse. Finally, Cali is also a housing advocate, who sees the use of HUD funds to build the William Blackstone statue as “another arrow in our backs and it’s an example of financial irresponsibility and another scar in history that we must not celebrate.

“Let’s end this abuse of power,” said Cali.

Speaking about the William Blackstone statue, Narragansett Tribal Elder Randy Noka said, “For those who see something in it, more power to you. I think it is an ugly piece of steel and should be taken down.”

Noka then spoke about the history of the Narragansett Tribe, and the centuries of efforts by European colonizers to exterminate them. Narragansett Bay, Narragansett the town – the stole our name. They stole our land and then they dignify it or whatever and call it Narragansett Bay or Narragansett Town.”

Noka noted that Biden being the first President to sign a proclamation acknowledging Indigenous People’s Day was a big thing.

“It’s unfortunate that when people don’t do their due diligence, and they don’t talk to the First People, and they don’t talk about what happened in history, mistakes are made. And across the street we see a mistake, honoring somebody that really doesn’t need to be honored,” said Jim Vincent, President of the NAACP Providence Branch. “And that just goes to show that when you don’t have respect, in terms of communications with certain groups of people, especially peoples of color, that’s why mistakes are made.”

The erection of the William Blackstone statue caught recently elected Pawtucket City Councilmember Melissa DaRosa by surprise. When she researched the statue, she found nothing online talking about putting up such a controversial statue. She realized that nobody planning the statue had reached out to the Narragansett Tribe.

“This monument only goes to show that it seems like we [the Black, brown and Indigenous community] don’t count,” said Councilmember DaRosa. “We’re not included. We were not included in that communication. The Blackstone Travel Council did not reach out to the Narragansett Indian Council…

“Unfortunately, if we continue to allow these people to do this manipulation and then still vote for them next year, we will see no change,” said Councilmember DaRosa.

“Without any kind of public say-so, any kind of public hearing of any sort, this sculpture, which was purchased by Mr Louis Yip – who is the biggest realtor in Pawtucket as far as I can tell – for $40,000, was going to be mounted on some very expensive plinths that were being paid for by a HUD Grant that the City had acquired for making what the people on the Council thought was a bike path,” said Judith Tolnick Champa, a Pawtucket resident who lives in an apartment near the statute. Tolnick Champa was the first person to bring the statue up as an issue before the Pawtucket City Council. “All it said on the paperwork was, ‘New Bike Path.'”

“We should not be celebrating colonizers who came and took over land that was not theirs,” said activist Christina Cabrera. “All the people who were involved with the project say, ‘This is a project that’s been going on for two years’ and others even five years. In all those years, none of the residents of Pawtucket were reached out to. There was a community block grant overseen by HUD. Moneys were applied for and $1.8 million in infrastructure, beautification, bike path and canoe launch were an excuse to build around private property – Louis Yip’s private property – All these federal dollars were injected to beautify his land, his property and, by the way, there’s a statue that was erected.””

“If I were to be raped, and see my rapist on a statue, and you tell me, ‘It’s okay. Yeah he did some bad things but we’re going to discuss those things. We’re going to find out exactly what was good about him and what was bad about him, but we’re going to keep [the statue] there.’ That’s what you’re doing,” said Bella Noka. “Shame on you if you’re supporting that man.

“When Bella and Christina told me about that statue I was like, ‘I know that statue! That’s who that is?’ … His arrival marked mass murder of our indigenous people… You put up a 14 foot statue to look down on us,” said Duvionne Wilson, a Pawtucket resident.

“They need to take that statue down,” said Gary Dantzler of Black Lives Matter Rhode Island. “We need to start with City Hall and them respecting the community. Because this is a Black and brown community that’s always been overlooked. Always.”

“We know their history is drawn out, it’s long, and it’s a bloody history similar to mine, and that’s why I connect so much, spiritually, with my Native American brothers and sisters,” said Mark Fisher, of Black Lives Matter.

“Unlike the Columbus Day of the past, and Roger Williams and his pal, William Blackstone, the manifest destiny preacher across the street whose statue we protest today – Rather than celebrate genocide, use this day to learn about the indigenous peoples on whose land you stand on whose beaches you swim and in whose woods you hike,” said Narragansett Tribe member and lawyer Taylor Dumpson. “Rather than perpetuate revisionist histories, use this day to honor indigenous communities past, present and future.”

Rae Ana Monroe is a Narragansett Tribe member and Pawtucket resident planning to run for city council.

“One thing about this generation is that we’re done. We’ll put our bodies on the line to give this land back,” said gubernatorial candidate Luis Daniel Muñoz. “This statue needs to come down, but Brown University needs to stop gentrifying Providence. Brown University needs to give this land back. Roger Williams needs to acknowledge that its name, as a University, belongs to the greatest of all thieves that convinced the indigenous people that he was here to help.”.

“The new generation cares about everybody’s rights. Human rights. The new generation cares about what is truly moral,” said Pawtucket resident Cassidy Machado.

Closing

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