By ALLIE LEWIS When Native American history and culture makes a brief appearance in school curriculums, usually around the time of Thanksgiving, it's often spoken of in the past tense, and fails to recognize active, vibrant communities and their
When Native American history and culture makes a brief appearance in school curriculums, usually around the time of Thanksgiving, it’s often spoken of in the past tense, and fails to recognize active, vibrant communities and their far-reaching impacts.
“There’s no Rhode Island history without Narragansett, Niantic and other First People’s history, and there’s no US history without indigenous people’s history,” according to Tomaquag Museum Executive Director Lorén Spears. “We were here prior to European contact and had diverse communities, and cultures and nations, with very complex societies, and we’ve continued to have those things as the European invasion came to be.”
The Tomaquag Museum, which has been educating the public and promoting thoughtful dialogue around Indigenous history, culture and art for more than 60 years, helps set the record straight when it comes to inaccuracies or gaps within curriculum. As the state’s only Indigenous museum, they provide exhibits, programs, and professional development to make sure that history is being taught accurately – which hasn’t always been the case.
“I think whether people are conscious of it or not, there is a bias within education that Native Culture’s not important as part of the curriculum,” Spears said, “and they’re just uplifting the American ‘fables,’ if you will, because the notion of the ‘first Thanksgiving’ is really not accurate either.”
While some may look at the inclusion and acknowledgement of Native American contributions within the curriculum as “rewriting history,” Spear stresses that this work is about recovering history.
“This history already happened – it’s truths that are already there,” she said. “But the information and the way it’s being taught has been inaccurate for many years. Part of that is to do with the victor telling the story and who gets uplifted, and who gets relegated to the past tense or erased.”
The Narragansett Tribe had been all written out of the history books in the 1880s when the state detribalized them in order to sell off land, according to Spears, but despite not existing on paper for over 101 years until the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the culture survived.
“Regardless of any acknowledgement by any governmental entity, we still existed,” Spears said. “Our people were still here.”
The culture survived thanks to oral history, traditions and gatherings – despite attempts to dehumanize and villainize Native Americans in the pursuit of Manifest Destiny, and despite government attempts beginning in the 1870s to assimilate thousands of indigenous children into “civilized culture.”
The Tomaquag Museum, in partnership with the University of Rhode Island, is hosting a special traveling exhibit on the Kingston Campus that looks at these boarding schools and attempts to “erase Indigenous identity.”
“Away from Home: Native American Boarding School Stories,” tells stories of both resiliency, and the human indignities many of these children were forced to endure, being cut off from their families and forbidden from speaking their native languages.
The large exhibit, currently on display at the University Club from now until Dec. 8, is much bigger than the museum's current space in Exeter, according to Spears, and is close by to the museum's future home. Their new home will be located on an 18-acre parcel of land owned by the university, allowing them the space to grow beyond the small, modest space they currently occupy off the beaten path in Exeter.
Inside their current space, artifacts like shards of pottery, weaved baskets and bead work that’s hundreds of years old are encased alongside more contemporary pieces – serving as a testament that these traditions are still alive. Historical pieces are mixed with contemporary to show “the continuation of culture and community.”
“These exhibits speak to our history, but they also speak to who we are today,” Spears said. “We speak to our history, the intergenerational trauma of that history, and also the resilience, the community and proactive actions of the native community to continue our culture going forward.”
The museum highlights the record numbers of Native Americans who’ve served in the Armed Forces dating back to the Revolutionary War, along with plenty of other accomplishments and contributions of Indigenous people that are oftentimes overlooked in the classroom.
The Tomaquag Museum serves as an incredible resource for both children and adults who might not have seen Native American history or culture accurately represented in their own classroom, and it doesn’t shy away from the darker sides of our nation’s history.
“We have to recognize that our history and the creation of this country is a history of genocide,” Spears said. “We have to recognize that our history and the creation of this country was violent.”
“It’s what actually happened, and we have to acknowledge that if we don’t want to repeat ourselves and keep doing the same things over and over,” she added. “We have to acknowledge what happened in history and then have reconciliation and healing from that.”
November is National Native American Heritage Month, and for Rhode Islanders looking to learn more about the Narragansett, Niantic and other First People’s history, the Tomaquag Museum is an excellent place to start.
The museum is open for drop-ins on Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
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