The man in this painting lived in the same era and region as some of colonists seen in this gallery. Dated to about 1700, this portrait depicts Ninigret, a sachem—or leader—of the Niantic/Narragansett peoples. His headpiece, necklace, and earrings are made of beads from quahog shells, known today as wampum. Ninigret is dressed in a breechcloth, leggings, shoes, and cape made of animal hides. High moccasins—from the Narragansett word mohkussunash—protect his legs from the underbrush. He carries a scepter and wears a sheath with a knife.
This painting is significant because it presents a colonial-era Eastern woodland coastal Indigenous leader largely as he was, without the biases and stereotypes seen in later portraits of American Indians. English and other European artists creating images from the “new world” did frequently take creative license, however. The background terrain does not represent the local landscape. Colonists wrongly equated sachems with European kings, so the artist presented Ninigret as royalty, with a draped cape and scepter, although it is highly unlikely he would have had either.
Ninigret (ca. 1610–1677), also known as Janemo, was born into a long line of Niantic and Narragansett leaders. His mother was sister to two Narragansett sachems, Miantanomi and Canonicus. At different points in his life, Ninigret served as a sachem for the Niantic and the Narragansett peoples. This was a tumultuous time, as the European colonists occupying the region brought disease and war and displaced Indigenous communities. These conflicts culminated in 1675–76 with King Philip’s War, which ended Indigenous control.
Today some academics believe this portrait depicts Pequot leader Robin Cassacinamon (d. 1692), but for more than 400 years the portrait has been identified as Ninigret, and to the Narragansett people it will remain as such. Regardless of the subject’s identity, this image offers an important portrayal of a sachem before westward expansion and the birth of the Plains stereotype of the American Indian.
Before European contact: Hundreds of thousands of Indigenous people lived in established, thriving communities across what is now known as New England. Indigenous people have lived in this region for tens of thousands of years.
1524: Giovanni da Verrazzano is the first European known to explore the east coast of North America.
About 1610: Ninigret is born
1636: Roger Williams founds a settlement at the headwaters of Narragansett Bay, naming it Providence
1663: A royal charter establishes Rhode Island as an English colony, claiming its lands and resources as the property of Charles II
1675–1676: To gain dominance in the region, colonists fight Indigenous nations in King Philip’s War, killing hundreds of Narragansett people in the Great Swamp Massacre
After 1676: The Narragansett and Niantic unite as one people. Indigenous people of New England suffer enslavement, displacement, and centuries of forced cultural assimilation
1677: Ninigret dies
1776: Narragansett and other Indigenous people fight in the Revolutionary War
1880–1882: The state of Rhode Island detribalizes the Narragansett and sells all but 2 1/2 acres of their homelands
1924: Indian Citizenship Act finally makes Indigenous people American citizens
1934: The Indian Reorganization Act allows Native American tribes greater self-governance
1936: Narragansett athlete Ellison Meyers “Tarzan” Brown wins the Boston Marathon and competes in the Berlin Olympics
1978: The Narragansett Tribe wins the Land Claim Settlement Act, receiving back 1,800 acres of their once vast territory. Today their lands total about 3,000 acres
1983: The Narragansett become the only federally recognized tribe in Rhode Island
Today: The Narragansett live in two worlds, as dual citizens of their tribal nation and of the United States, passing down traditional ecological and cultural knowledge to the next generations while advocating for equity and justice