A Big Award for the Tomaquag Museum

Through preserving Native history and serving as a cultural center, the museum keeps indigenous traditions alive

So Rhode Island Magazine ·

Off the beaten path in Exeter is the Tomaquag Museum. Its humble walls house a rare wealth of Native American information, history and culture pertaining to Rhode Island and beyond. It’s also much more than a museum. It’s a community resource and anchor, and much of its purpose involves helping local tribal members share their voices through weekly arts and wellness programs.

Because of the great work they do, they recently received the 2016 National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the highest honor any museum can receive. Executive Director Lorén Spears traveled to Washington DC to accept the award from First Lady Michelle Obama. Mrs. Obama noted, “Day after day, year after year, our nation’s libraries and museums are here for our communities. And at the end of the day, you all don’t measure your impact by the number of books on your shelves or pieces in your exhibits, but by the young people you inspire, the lives you transform and the impact you have every single day on your communities.”

The Museum That Could
The museum itself was formed through an unlikely partnership. Anthropologist Eva Butler was a collector of Native American items. She joined forces with Princess Red Wing, a highly influential Narragansett/Wampanoag woman (she edited The Narragansett Dawn and served as a delegate to the United Nations, among other accomplishments). In 1958, the museum was created when Eva lent her land and her private Native American collection. Princess Red Wing served as its original educator. The location at the time was in the Tomaquag Valley, where the museum derived its name. After Butler passed away in the early 1960s, the museum was moved to its current location in Exeter. It’s adjacent to Arcadia Management Area, and makes great use of its surrounding grounds, woods and nearby brook to offer hands-on learning while providing an ability to interact with the natural world that is so central to Native American life.

Its structures house documents and artifacts, like canoes, clothing, signs, cultural art and photographs. A variety of guided tours are available, too, with the museum’s educators on hand to answer any questions guests might have about a particular display or facet of Native American culture, historical or contemporary.

Since 2003, Lorén Spears has been Tomaquag's executive director, and has an interesting affiliation with the museum. The museum is housed in a building that once belonged to her grandparents. They ran a restaurant on the property called Dovecrest, which served many items thought of as traditional New England fare but actually have Native American origins, like Johnny cakes which are traditionally called "journey cakes" and were taken on long trips. They even served more exotic fare like venison, moose, bear and raccoon pot pie, which visitors from all over the country would come to try.

Despite its modesty, the Tomaquag recently gained national acclaim when it won a 2016 National Medal for Museum and Library Service. The museum will be visited this month by StoryCorps – a national nonprofit that records, preserves and shares the stories of all Americans – to document its efforts.

The Fight For Federal Recognition
Many people are not aware that the RI Legislature voted to detribalize Native Americans during 1880-1884 (illegal under federal law). It effectively meant that the state no longer recognized them. This lasted an entire century until the Narragansett tribe petitioned for federal recognition and achieved it in 1983. In the meantime, the detribalization act had a devastating effect on local Native populations, compounding the trauma endured when early settlers waged war and decimated tribal populations during King Phillips War and other conflicts.

This story is not generally taught in schools, which Lorén feels is probably best for young children’s sensibilities and cognitive abilities. As they grow older, she feels it is important that this information be included in their education so that they can know the truth of what really happened and recognize the historical impacts that have lasted into the present and continues to affect tribes. The fact that Princess Red Wing and others founded the museum during a time when tribes were not recognized by the state makes their efforts particularly amazing. She and other early educators, like the beloved Princess Pine Needles, were “sharing Native culture in a time when it was very invisible,” says Lorén.

Empowering the Native Community
Being a community resource and anchor, they offer programming centered on spiritual, educational, financial and cultural topics, as well as some vocational guidance and training, and health. Arts activities vary each week, from drawing, painting, pottery, poetry writing and more. They provide a healthy, rewarding outlet for processing trauma and finding a way to express feelings that are long-held and often difficult to articulate.

The museum often partners with other groups for its programs. Partners include universities like Brown and RISD, other non-profits, state and social services, such as the Department of Labor and Training. Partnerships are deepened, or new ones are established to help create strategies for bringing Rhode Island's indigenous peoples out of poverty. Currently, 8,000 indigenous peoples still live in our state today (3,000 of which are Narragansett – with 39% below the poverty level, compared to 17% of the population overall).

There are roughly 30 or more partners, both Native and non-Native, that connect as part of the Indigenous Empowerment Network Initiative to form a "complex web of connection utilizing Tomaquag as the hub," says Lorén. The RI State Council on the Arts held its first Native gallery show a few years ago, which served to empower many Native artists and was so popular that it is now a repeating exhibit.

The Tomaquag also won a $99,000 USDA grant this year, which it will use to hire a part-time archivist, two yearlong part-time interns and one yearlong part-time apprentice. The interns will learn about the museum in its totality, working and learning under different department leaders, whereas the apprentice will already have a particular department focus in mind.

"The more the museum grows, the more we can empower the Native community to share their own stories and become cultural educators," says Lorén. She also notes that museums are an excellent place for professional development because they have so many different components and types of jobs required to keep everything running smoothly. She believes that expansion and development will naturally create more opportunities for jobs. The Tomaquag also offers external educator consulting/guidance and methods for school teachers who wish to learn how to present sensitive material accurately and effectively.

Correcting How Native Cultures Are Viewed
"Often, non-Natives writing about our way of life choose to make it either very generic or else disproportionately magical, which is not in fact reflective of our culture," says Lorén. "People were surprised by a book that featured a Native American grandmother who drove a car. They imagined Native grandmothers perpetually sitting calmly outside their teepees (which we actually didn’t live in), beading. We very much exist in the modern world but continue to practice our traditions, although they have evolved with the times, of course. Alternately, just because I might be wearing typical American clothing at the moment doesn't mean I'm not still connected to and practicing our traditions."

The largest event that the Narragansett Tribe holds each year is the August Meeting Powwow at the Narragansett Indian Church grounds in Charlestown. It’s the earliest Colonially-recorded Native American gathering in the country, which started 341 years ago in 1675. Settlers have actually misconstrued the term Powwow. The Pauwau was the medicine person or spiritual leader of the tribe, rather than an event. Name aside, it is the largest local tribal event that allows the public to join in, watch the ceremonial aspects and partake of the feast (with non-tribal members purchasing their "feasts" from on-site food trucks).

Similarly, the modern American concept of Thanksgiving commonly misunderstands the Native celebration. Thanksgiving is a core tribal event that took place – and still does – 13 times a year. It falls on the full moon of each lunar cycle. Each Thanksgiving celebrates something different and specific to the harvest of that particular month: there is a Strawberry Thanksgiving and Green Corn Thanksgiving, for instance. Because different regions and climates produce different harvests, each tribe might be giving thanks for a completely different item, although there is often regional overlap. Both the Narragansetts and neighboring Wampanoags celebrated Cranberry Thanksgiving this fall, for instance. Not unlike the misinterpreted American Thanksgiving, Native American Thanksgivings are a time for family and friends to gather together and give thanks for the harvest, the seasons of the year, feasting and then celebrating, relaxing and having fun through music, dance and other activities.

The version of Thanksgiving widely celebrated across America, and recorded in history books, occurred when early settlers befriended the Wampanoag tribe. The tribe helped them learn how to survive the harsh New England winters by sharing food and knowledge of the area with them. Unfortunately, for many Native populations across the US, the last Thursday of November is a day of mourning for the historical and cultural traumas that still pervade. The traditional American Thanksgiving marks an enforced version of history to Native populations since it does not allow other voices with their own experiences to contribute to the celebration. It also omits the tribal genocide that occurred in that time period.

A Greater Perspective
In response, the Tomaquag offers programming with modern social justice issues framed from a Native American perspective, and current events are discussed such as the Dakota Access Pipeline. They also offer children’s programming, book signings and art classes with artisan educators.

It would benefit anyone interested in hearing more sides of the story to visit the museum and meet with the Native people who still live, work and uphold traditions right in our own state. Much of this knowledge would cease to exist were it not for the Tomaquag's efforts, which is why the museum is such a treasure for researchers. Its collections are extensive, and the USDA grant will be used to properly catalogue it and make portions of the archival collections available online. Already, the museum receives visits from countless artists, researchers, students and information-seekers from across the nation and beyond. Museum educators also happily travel to other organizations to offer educational programs and lead discussions.

“The point of the museum is to broaden understanding and increase curiosity,” Lorén says. “Mainstream media does not provide all of the information, and we fill in those gaps. We have our ups and downs of course, and success comes in waves." Happily, 2016 has been largely a year of recognition and blessings.

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