In the lore of the native Narragansett tribe, one tale -- a true one -- stands out. During the 1930s, one of the handsomest and swiftest boys fell in love with one of the kindest and prettiest girls. Deerfoot married Morningstar. The couple raised four children. He worked as a stonemason, chopped wood, fished and farmed. Deerfoot and Morningstar were together until August 1975. Then 61, Deerfoot was killed accidentally by a van in a parking lot in Misquamicut, a town a few miles to the east.
In the 10 years since, Morningstar, whose American name is Ethel Brown, has lived in obscurity. Now 67, she has worked as a cook in households and currently has a pension. She shares a small, immaculately kept home with a daughter, both of them coming and going on an unpaved road near this rural seacoast village.
A visit to this full-spirited woman is memorable for two reasons. She is an enchanting storyteller who knows as well as any of the medicine men the tribal culture and history of the Narragansetts. Deeper than that, she keeps sacred the memory of her husband, Ellison Brown, one of the 20th century's most heroic athletes.
Against the many grim news stories that regularly appear about the nation's 506 Indian tribes -- high unemployment, rampant alcoholism, land and water fights -- the Narragansetts and members like Ethel Brown offer a contrast that at times shines as bright as the morning star.
A word, first, about the legendary Brown. In 1936 at 22, he was the untrained, natural-talent distance runner who won the Boston Marathon. He repeated three years later, the first person ever to break 2:30. As a member of two Olympic teams, Brown was known to have run marathons on successive days after hitchhiking between sites. A Boston Globe sportswriter called him "possibly the greatest physical talent" who ever ran in the Boston. Brown retired from competition in the 1940s and lived until his death as another impoverished Indian in the white man's world. The only money he ever earned from running came when, for food and rent, he sold his Boston Marathon medals.
In a corner of the living room of her home, Mrs. Brown keeps her husband's trophies on display. What they symbolize, far beyond the past days of glory for Deerfoot, is the cultural pride of the Narragansetts. When Western European life was violently imposed on the natives three centuries ago in colonial America, the Narragansetts had both the numbers and unity to make them the most powerful tribe in New England. They numbered between 3,000 and 5,000. Wars, disease and out-migration in the next two centuries reduced the descendants to only several hundred. The state of Rhode Island bought the last of their lands in 1880.
At the tribal headquarters the other afternoon, three council members spoke of the Narragansetts' resurgence. The population is self-confident, personable and articulate, acknowledged that the tribe had the usual problems of any low-income minority group but that solutions were well within the Narragansetts' resolve. The tribe has begun a new social-services program meant to ease an unemployment rate that seasonally reaches 60 percent. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has contracted with the tribe to administer a $636,000 social-services program.
The three council members have not bought the grantsmanship ethic that pants after the federal dollar as the sole means of survial. It was only a few years ago that the tribe petitioned Washington to become "a federally recognized tribe." It could well have worked the other way: the Narragansetts have finally recognized the feds as worthy of trust.
The councilmen, who see their tribe as a healthy plant that will grow more by the sunshine of tradition and culture than by government money, are historians. The betrayals of the English settlers 350 years ago are spoken of as recent events. They reject as polite fictions the romanticized accounts of Roger Williams, the Rhode Island minister portrayed in the texts of America's schoolchildren as a leader of integrity. What the councilmen honor is the relationship of their ancestors to the local trees and waters: "We all go back."
Ethel Brown goes back, too. She speaks of her tribe's "trail of tears," the exodus that followed the Great Swamp Fight of 1675 when 1,000 Narragansetts were slain by land-grabbing Protestants. In her home, she calls on the spirit of her great-great-grandfather, as well as her husband's. On the wall is a tribal painting with the inscription, "All honorable men belong to the same tribe."