R.I. Museum Plays Chief Role in Native American Life

The Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, R.I., was one of 10 institutions to receive the 2016 National Medal for Museum and Library Service. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News photos)

The Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, R.I., was one of 10 institutions to receive the 2016 National Medal for Museum and Library Service. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News photos)

By SAM LIN-SOMMER/ecoRI News contributor
Video by JOANNA DETZ/ecoRI News staff

EXETER, R.I. — The Tomaquag Museum, Rhode Island’s only Native American-run museum, sits in a remote corner of a town that is 96 percent white.

On the way to the museum, one drives on a country road lined by small Colonial homes. Some of them are bursting with American flags and memorabilia. At the end of the road, is an open, hilly plain on which the museum, another Colonial-style home, sits. But the museum’s perhaps-unconventional location shouldn’t come as a surprise, because, as Lorén Spears, the museum’s executive director, said, no matter where we are in the United States we are all living on Indian lands.

Anyone who walks through the Tomaquag Museum’s entrance will quickly learn that the museum is the antithesis of a white-centric, Colonial-New England narrative. It tells the story not of the houses that cluster the Northeast, but of the people on whose land those houses were built. And while its Native American staff take up the difficult task of educating people largely taught to believe that indigenous people no longer exist, it also functions as a community center for many native peoples.

All this happens in a facility comprised of several buildings. “We’re a small museum in a small place,” said Spears, a member of the Narragansett tribe.

This small place won a huge honor in June, when Spears and Christian Hopkins, a 26-year-old college graduate and Narragansett tribe member whose growth has been shaped by the museum, traveled to Washington, D.C., to receive the 2016 National Medal for Museum and Library Service from First Lady Michelle Obama.

The Tomaquag Museum was one of 10 winners, and beat out larger, more prestigious museums such as the Chicago History Museum and the Whitney Museum in New York. The medal, which came with a $5,000 grant, is awarded to institutions that “demonstrate extraordinary and innovative approaches to public service, exceeding the expected levels of community outreach.”

The museum was founded more than 50 years ago by Princess Red Wing of the Narragansett and Wampanoag tribes, and Eva Butler, an anthropologist. It features exhibits on many facets of Native American life, centering on indigenous peoples of Rhode Island. Its contents run the gamut, from displays of contemporary Narragansett finger weaving to a collection of newspaper articles claiming anti-native police brutality to a diorama of an old Narragansett church.

The museum, which provides a multifaceted view of Native Americans, past and present, welcomes visitors from around the country.

The museum, which provides a multifaceted view of Native Americans, past and present, welcomes visitors from around the country.

Giving voice to silenced history
On Wednesdays and Saturdays, the museum holds open visiting hours. The main collection is housed in a large room with exposed wooden ceilings and an adjacent, smaller room. Visitors are greeted by museum staff who offer tours of the museum’s collections.

Narragansett tribe member Lindsay Montanari, a current museum intern who grew up connected to the facility, leads visitors gracefully from the beautiful to the ugly, from an exhibit on Ellison “Tarzan” Brown, a Narragansett long-distance runner famous for winning the Boston Marathon twice, to news clips of the 2003 State Police raid on a Narragansett tribe smoke shop.

Visitors need to see indigenous people’s representations of themselves, because the media usually gives just one side of the story, Montanari said. In that story, she said, Native Americans are often “blacked out or whited out,” erased by a discourse that focuses on white and black people with little mention of the original inhabitants of the area now known as the United States.

According to 2015 surveys by the U.S. Census Bureau, about 1 percent of people in Rhode Island indicated that they are “American Indian and Alaska Native alone.”

Museum staffers say Native Americans are often portrayed as if they live only in history books and not in the contemporary world.

Rhode Island public school curriculum only perpetuates these misconceptions, according to Spears. Public schools aren’t mandated to teach the history of indigenous peoples, and when they do, they often teach narratives that perpetuate negative stereotypes, she said.

“It’s unfortunate that we still do not have a cohesive curriculum that is mandatory where the history of first peoples is a part of the story,” Spears said.

The Rhode Island Grade Span Expectations (GSEs) for Social Studies, which establishes learning standards for students in grades K-12, makes little mention of indigenous history. The Expectations include proscriptions on economics, government and geography, but in the 56-page document Native Americans are only mentioned a handful of times as one of many possible examples to be used for fleshing out a particular social-studies concept.

For example, in one of the most explicit references to indigenous peoples in the document, the GSEs for grades 3 and 4 reads: “Students chronicle events and conditions by describing, defining, and illustrating by example Rhode Island historical individuals, groups and events (e.g., Roger Williams, Native Americans, immigrant groups) and how they relate to the context …”

Public schools often teach Native American history in a way that is incorrect. Spears, who taught in Newport public elementary schools for more than 10 years before assuming her position as director of the Tomaquag Museum, still frequently runs classes and workshops in Rhode Island public schools.

She visits classrooms to speak to students about indigenous history and culture. Once there, she often finds pictures of teepees and buffalo, which are relevant to certain Plains Native Americans, but not to any of Rhode Island’s indigenous peoples. This inaccuracy is part of a wider phenomenon in which the indigenous peoples of the United States, constituting a variety of sovereign nations and cultures — as distinct as “Spain, Portugal and Italy,” Spears said — are viewed as a monolith.

Although some teachers in Rhode Island are better informed about indigenous peoples, Spears said most pass along the skewed information about Native Americans that they themselves had been taught.

“What they tend to know is limited to a Colonial perspective of indigenous people,” she said.

The teaching materials that educators use often contain the same misinformation, helping to perpetuate the cycle of inaccuracy.

Spears said students should learn about the indigenous peoples who live near them before they study those living in the rest of the United States.

Hopkins is a proud product of the museum’s education and internship programs, but he spent the beginning of his academic life confounded by the inaccuracies and stereotypes prevalent in the limited teaching about Native Americans in the public schools he attended. He recalled getting a 64 out of a 100 on a sixth-grade test on Native American literature, because he corrected the information on the worksheet given to him.

“I was like this is all wrong, this is incorrect,” he said. “So I put in all the correct answers and I got a 64.”

Breaking stereotypes
The museum, which provides a multifaceted view of Native Americans in the state, past and present, stands in direct contrast to the stereotypes held by so many. One section of the museum displays the work of multimedia artist Dawn Spears, whose work includes acrylic painting, doll-making, photography and sneaker design. Among the goals of the museum is to break stereotypes of what indigenous art is supposed to look like.

Another section, “Pursuit of Happiness: An Indigenous View,” showcases two separate documents titled “Happiness Denied” and “Happiness Pursued.” These essays reflect indigenous views on the Declaration of Independence — how rights have been “denied” in the past and how they are “pursued” today.

A glass case in the other end of the chamber holds wampum shell beads in several forms, including a belt made collaboratively by Narragansett tribe members, adornments on a T-shirt and a 40,000-year-old necklace.

One of the museum’s most poignant sections is filled with photos and news clippings depicting the 2003 Narragansett smoke-shop raid, during which State Police arrested Native Americans for selling tax-free cigarettes. Most media outlets at the time didn’t sympathize with the Narragansetts, who viewed the raid as unjustified, overly aggressive and racially motivated, especially since they claimed that the state had given them permission to open a smoke shop.

Telling these histories helps Native Americans involved with the museum embrace a past that is at once full of suffering and achievement. In speaking about what history means to native peoples in Rhode Island, Spears rattled off a devastating list of injustices: “colonization, genocide, displacement, enslavement.”

As painful as they are, she said, “These stories help us heal and understand ourselves.”

A display at the Tomaquag Museum of Native American craftsmanship.

A display at the Tomaquag Museum of Native American craftsmanship.

Nuweetooun School
Up until seventh grade, Hopkins, who is a member of the Narragansett tribe and the Micmac and Nova Scotia Magma tribes, bounced around from school to school. Part of the problem, he said, lay in his teachers’ attitudes toward Native Americans. In one school, he presented a science fair project on the question, “Does smallpox affect different people differently?”

“(My teacher) didn’t like the way I talked about smallpox and how it was introduced to Native Americans,” Hopkins recalled. “He offered me a better grade if I left out information about smallpox and Native Americans and how it was introduced to our people ... I just kept it. I’ve had my share of teachers that were a little on the prejudiced side.”

Then, he enrolled at the Nuweetooun School. The Tomaquag Museum, lead by Spears, founded the school in 2003. Hopkins was in the school’s first graduating class. In a separate building on the museum’s grounds, two teachers and two teachers’ aids taught anywhere from nine to 19 students in grades K-8.

Since there was a moratorium on charter schools at the time, the Nuweetooun School was founded as a private school supported by grants and private donations. The school’s curriculum integrated conventional, core subjects with the cultures of Native American tribes in the lands in and around Rhode Island, including the Wamponaug, the Mashentucket Pequot and the Narragansett.

The school was forced to close in 2010, because of a combination of devastating floods and the nation’s lingering economic woes. Still, the school produced a generation of students with a strong connection to their heritage. While, as Spears said, “American public schools were meant to homogenize” diverse groups of students, the Nuweetooun School did the opposite.

The school interwove cultural education with English, math, science and social studies. When studying environmental science, for example, students worked in a garden containing the “Three Sisters” — corn, beans and squash, the three main agricultural crops of Native Americans in the Northeast.

“There is science behind why our ancestors grew them together,” Spears said.

The school also offered a language-immersion classroom, an important feature given that many members of East Coast tribes don’t speak their tribe’s language.

Through subjects ranging from dance to pottery to musical instrumentation, students in the school studied the arts and cultural performances of various Native American tribes. Hopkins, an aspiring master’s of business administration student, attributes much of his success to the skills and cultural knowledge he learned both as a student at the Nuweetooan School and, later, as an intern at the museum.

He described the music classes at Nuweetooan as key to his growth. Though he was at first embarrassed by the dances that had been taught to him when he was young, he eventually became a “champion eastern war dancer.” The experience instilled in him a willingness to take risks and a confidence in his ability to achieve success through hard work.

Empowerment network
Both Spears and Hopkins emphasized that the Narragansett value of working for the betterment of future generations is central to the museum’s work.

Paula Dove Jennings, the former curator of the Tomaquag Museum and a professional storyteller, said the museum aims to give youth the skills to preserve their heritage.

“They’re learning what needs to be done in order to make sure that it’s here for the next seven generations,” she said.

Although the Nuweetooan School no longer exists, the Tomaquag Museum pursues the mission to empower Native American youth through internships, community events and educational programs.

Children gather weekly at the museum for an hour of educational activities, and the museum regularly partners with schools to run educational workshops. The museum also offers internships through high schools, colleges and the Exeter Job Corps, a vocational training program for disadvantaged youth.

Through hands-on volunteer and internship positions, young people learn skills from photography to finance. Hopkins called his internship at the museum, which took place while he was attending a public high school after graduating from Nuweetooun, an opportunity to both learn from and give back to his community.

He learned about his culture and history when he helped build two museum exhibits: a life-size replica of a fishing camp; and a diorama of the Great Swamp Fort, a fort built during the Great Swamp Massacre, a moment of genocide against eastern Native Americans that Hopkins said is “hidden in the history books.”

Hopkins also taught the younger Nuweetooan students in math and science, the subjects in which he had excelled at the school years earlier.

As the only Native American-operated museum in the region, the Tomaquag also serves as a community center for Native Americans from all over southern New England. The museum holds large celebrations of Thanksgivings, which, unlike the nationally recognized holiday, occurs on each of the 13 new moons. The celebrations draw indigenous people from many different walks of life, including storytellers and musicians, traveling from places as far as Maine.

In fact, much of the museum’s service to indigenous peoples in and around Rhode Island comes from the connections it creates between young and old, students and professionals. Spears described the museum as an “indigenous empowerment network,” and is proud of the many partnerships the museum boasts with other organizations and institutions, including the University of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Indian council and the Johnnycake Center.

Native Americans who have built successful careers in various fields often return to the museum as demonstrators and lecturers. This connection provides career opportunities for native artists, writers and entrepreneurs, all while presenting role models for Native American youth.

When Hopkins wanted to try his hand at entrepreneurship, the museum allowed him to use its events and networks to sell food. Now hoping to attend business school, he credits the museum with his management skills.

After he graduates, Hopkins hopes to give back to the community that has supported him. Like the museum, his goal is to educate both native peoples and the wider southern New England community. Since Native peoples represent sovereign nations, he is pursuing a degree in international business. He hopes to help the U.S. business world understand the diversity of native peoples, who he said are too often treated with a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

Furthermore, the skills that he learned from both business school and the Tomaquag Museum are not his alone to benefit from. He said he wants to empower indigenous people, teach them financial literacy, and how to market and how to run a business.

“I want our kids to find their way of living in the 21st century without losing who they are as cultural communities,” Hopkins said.