It was during my first year of study at the University of Rhode Island that I first heard of “The Great Swamp Fight,” a historical event that my political science professor briefly told us happened just minutes from campus within this very town. At the time, this corner of Rhode Island was still an entirely unknown place to me, so I decided to do some research on my own and visit the place of the “Fight,” which my professor described. I had no idea the journey I was really embarking on.
I quickly learned that what went down in the Great Swamp, a large swath of land in southern Rhode Island, was no battle at all: it was a brutal massacre and a pre-emptive strike by the colonial forces of the day to put down the fearsome but peaceful Narragansett Indian Tribe before they could ever stand in the way of colonial expansion. Outside of a fleeting mention in class, this event seems to be practically unspoken of in Rhode Island, let alone other states, and is almost entirely unknown to young people.
Upon doing research online, I found that there is a memorial site to the Massacre (always officially referred to as a ‘fight’ by the state) deep within the Great Swamp, an area of land which is mostly inaccessible and uninhabitable– a stubborn enclave of nature which seems distinctly different from the rest of the largest developed towns in southern Rhode Island.
The Monument was difficult to enter and, apart from existing navigation systems, remains completely unmarked. The path to the Monument lies beyond a heavy gate on an unpaved road: it’s a long walk through forlorn swampland, which is both beautiful in its nature and shrouded in gloomy despair. After this long walk, the Monument stands in a distant clearing: a massive obelisk surrounded by smaller stone markers. It is sacred ground. From the first time I visited in February 2019, I knew I had to make a film at the Monument, and I had to tell the story of the forgotten Massacre, which was beginning to haunt my psyche.
Over the following months, I wrote drafts of a script about a young man of Native American descent discovering the Monument and reconnecting with his heritage. Although the beginnings of my story were there, it somehow felt disingenuous, false. Something was missing: writing truth.
In September of 2019, I visited the main office of the Narragansett Indian Reservation in southern Rhode Island. With the current copy of my script in hand, I introduced myself to the tribal Medicine Man, a spiritual and cultural leader of the Reservation, and pitched my ideas. He quickly informed me of the flaws and inaccuracies in my script. He gave me a pivotal criticism: the protagonist must be white. If I were to tell the story of someone disconnected from the tragic history of the Narragansett People, it must fundamentally be an outsider. He also warned me not to depict anything at the Monument which could be seen as offensive, especially to the ‘beings’ who he said are “alive and well in these areas.”
New ideas were beginning again, and the Medicine Man invited me to attend a tribal ceremony of remembrance at the Monument. It would be a somber occasion, he told me, and it would likely help me understand what the Massacre and the Monument site mean to the Narragansett People. My film student instinct prompted me to ask him if I could film the ceremony. “It might not be filmable,” he said. I dropped all pretenses of filming the ceremony and was exuberant at the prospect of experiencing the Narragansett culture and witnessing a Native American ceremony for the first time.
I was one of two whites in attendance. A group of maybe thirty Narragansetts and a couple of visiting leaders from neighboring tribes in New England were present. The Medicine Man led the ceremony along with the Chief Sachem. Three small fires were burned in front of the Monument: a fire of the past, a fire of the present, and a fire of the future. They gave speeches at each. Suddenly, the place took on a completely different feeling: gone was the desolate place of quiet despair I had visited in the winter by myself. The swamp was alive with energy. “The Europeans thought they were bringing order to chaos, though they only brought chaos to order,” the Medicine Man spoke at the fire of the past. “Though we lost many that day, they never left us. They are here with us, now, watching.”
The overwhelming emotion of it all was overbearing: the Medicine Man’s words, the weight of the Massacre, and the shock of standing amongst the People who had been there all along– the same who are so sidelined and betrayed by modern society that you wouldn’t even notice this culture without searching for it.
The ceremony reached the fire of the present. “I invite any young people to speak. This is your fire,” the Medicine Man said. No one was going up. The fire burned on its own, the quiet insect chirps of late summer hanging in the air. So much was going through me, and then, without thinking, I started walking towards the fire.
“We have a visitor,” the Medicine Man said.
I stood before the fire, before the Narragansetts. In a shuddering voice, I began: “I’m not from here. I’m from Connecticut. And I’m descended from colonials. I know what happened here.”
What was going through me at the time gives me goosebumps still. I broke down and wept before them all.
“I bear the guilt of my ancestors, and I’m so sorry for what they did. But I believe that, together, people of all nationalities can come together and make a better world.”
I continued to weep.
“Young man!” A voice called out to me. A Narragansett Man approached me and hugged me in a tight embrace. I embraced him. It was an embrace of forgiveness.
After that day, there was no shred of doubt in the story I had to tell. Though I could never have predicted how it would turn out, this project, Living Swamp, became a deeply personal story that not only comes from a deep place of protest, but from the overwhelming emotions I went through in discovering the Massacre, connecting with the Narragansett Tribe, and coming to terms with my ancestry. And just as is said in the film, I realize that it’s too late to rewrite history:
but it’s not too late to make reparations. Let us begin to understand the history and its implications on the modern-day so we can create a better world together.