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R.I. slow to recognize Ellison ‘Tarzan’ Brown, the Indigenous Boston Marathon runner who broke Johnny Kelley’s heart on ‘Heartbreak Hill’

Narragansett tribal elder Bella Noka says acknowledgment is long overdue for her great-uncle, who won the 1936 and 1939 Boston Marathon

Ellison 'Tarzan' Brown, a Rhode Island resident who won two Boston Marathons, in 1936 and 1939.

PROVIDENCE — In Newton, about a mile from “Heartbreak Hill,” a statue commemorates the long and impressive running career of Johnny Kelley, the Massachusetts-born runner who competed in a record 61 Boston Marathons, winning two of them.

But Rhode Island has never erected a statue or bestowed a similar honor on Ellison “Tarzan” Brown, the Rhode Island-born Narragansett Indian whose impressive running career featured two Boston Marathons victories — including the 1936 race in which he pulled away from Kelley, giving rise to the name “Heartbreak Hill.”

That lack of recognition was all the more noticeable on Monday when the Boston Marathon honored Brown and other Indigenous runners on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, said Bella Noka, a Narragansett tribal elder who is Brown’s grand-niece.


“Johnny Kelley should be acknowledged. Boston did their job,” Noka told the Globe. But, she said, “There is no mention of my great-uncle Tarzan here in Rhode Island, and he won the race.”

Rhode Island does not even host a road race to recognize Brown’s achievements, Noka said, noting that the Tarzan Brown Mystic River Run takes place in neighboring Connecticut. “Rhode Island does not acknowledge the Indigenous people or the tribe at all,” she said.

Ellison 'Tarzan' Brown, center, poses in Charlestown, R.I., in 1936, shortly after he won the Boston Marathon. The baby is Alyce Babcock Noka Brown Champlin Machado, mother of Narragansett tribal elder Bella Noka.Courtesy of Bella Noka

Noka said she would like to see a road race honoring Brown held in Narragansett in October to mark Indigenous Peoples’ Month. “How do you steal the name [Narragansett], steal the land, and not acknowledge someone who has won two Boston Marathons and was in the Olympics?” she said.

It would be particularly meaningful, Noka said, to hold the race by the ocean.

“In our tradition, we call it ‘Grandfather Ocean,’” she said. “My great-uncle would go there for his own peace. That is what sustained us. It was our way of life — living off the ocean and the land. Since time immemorial, we have held ceremonies and prayers by the ocean.”


But now, Noka said, the Narragansetts are being stripped of access to the ocean, with private landowners — including singer Taylor Swift — prohibiting entrance to shoreline property and governments demanding payment for access.

“How do you block the entrance to someone’s church, someone’s temple, someone’s mosque?” she said. “It’s our inherent right.”

Noka recounted the story of the 1936 Boston Marathon, noting that Brown led the race for nearly 20 miles until Kelley caught him on a Newton hill near Boston College, tapping him on the back as he passed.

“Johnny Kelley smacked my great-uncle Tarzan on his backside as if to say ‘I got this from here,’” she said. “And it was like sticking a pin in his butt — he ran like a bat out of hell and beat him.”

The two battled for the lead, but Brown emerged victorious, prompting a Boston Globe reporter to write that Brown had broken Kelley’s heart on that hill, which from then on was known as “Heartbreak Hill.”

The Boston Marathon usually takes place in mid-April, on the Patriots’ Day holiday. But the pandemic forced the 2020 marathon to be canceled, and this year it was pushed back from the spring to the fall.

Organizers of the Boston Marathon publicly apologized for running the race on Indigenous Peoples’ Day. And the Boston Athletic Association, which administers the marathon, vowed to “highlight the Indigenous tradition within the Boston Marathon,” recognizing past champions who were members of native groups such as Brown and 1907 champion Thomas Longboat, of the Onondaga First Nation.


“They were trying to do something in an honorable fashion,” Noka said of the Boston Athletic Association. “By recognizing my great-uncle, they didn’t take away from that day, they added to that day.”

Cristina Cabrera — a Pocasset Wampanoag and a steering committee member for Native Green, an Indigenous activism and organizing group — said the lack of recognition for Brown’s achievements reflects a “culture of erasure.” Too often, she said, “a veil of silence” falls over the achievements of Indigenous, Black, and Latino people.

And Cabrera said that lack of recognition “is part of the same narrative” behind the new statue of the Rev. William Blackstone, the first English settler in what is now Rhode Island.

On Monday, Cabrera, Noka, and other advocates called for the removal of the Blackstone statute, which stands on private property near Pawtucket City Hall. “That dominant culture is suffocating everything else, every other history, every other belief system, every other narrative,” she said.

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.