28 Nov 2023

Native American Heritage Month

Josh Pereira


During National Native American Heritage Month, Papitto Opportunity Connection (POC) recognizes and honors the Tribal Nations as stewards of our great lands. The Ocean State holds a rich history of Native American culture and heritage. In the 1500s, European settlers looking to claim already occupied land, encountered five indigenous groups living in Rhode Island: the Pequots, the Nipmucs, the Niantics, the Narrangansetts, and the Wampanoags – all tribes which had lived in the region for thousands of years.


Despite centuries of challenges, Native Americans in Rhode Island have worked to strengthen their communities, preserve their legacy, and maintain traditions. This month, we pause to acknowledge the resilienceand contributions that have shaped our country.

Supported by the POC, the Tomaquag Museum is dedicated to educating all people about Indigenous history, culture, and arts. We checked-in with Executive Director, an enrolled Narragansett Citizen, Lorén Spears as the museum welcomed the public to celebrate Cranberry Thanksgiving.

POC: The Tomaquag Museum recently welcomed the public to celebrate Cranberry Thanksgiving. What were some of the highlights of this gathering?

SPEARS: Cranberry Thanksgiving is one of our 13 traditional thanksgivings held during each moon or lunar cycle. Cranberry Thanksgiving celebrates the gift of “Sassamineash”, the cranberry. It is an important gift from the Creator as it provides large amounts of vitamin C and nutrients necessary to sustain us through the long winter. Cranberries are utilized in many traditional dishes, such as soups, stews, Jonnycakes, corn, bread, and Pemmican. We continue to celebrate many of our traditional thanksgivings throughout the year. Tomaquag Museum has been hosting public versions of these thanksgivings. That includes a blessing, a welcome song, storytelling, and arts market, short films, and demonstrations from traditional artists, traditional games, beading, traditional teas, and medicines, and a presentation regarding Cranberry Day at Aquinnah. There were children’s activities, art projects, and many made their very own eclipse box with our media coordinator Chloe, who is also a NASA ambassador.

POC: Could you tell us more about the Tomaquag’s Museum’s legacy, programming, and exhibits?

SPEARS: Tomaquag Museum was established in 1958 by Eva Butler, an anthropologist, and Princess Red Wing (Narragansett/Wampanoag).  It is Rhode Island’s only museum led by and about Indigenous people. Tomaquag, an Institute of Museum and Library Services 2016 National Medal winner, has a unique collection of thousands of cultural belongings along with hundreds of thousands of pieces of archival materials focusing on the Indigenous peoples of Southern New England and highlighting the federally recognized Narragansett Tribal Nation. This well-respected Museum is visited each year by researchers, students, and travelers from across the United States and throughout the world.

We serve over 15,000 people through our on-site tours and workshops and our offsite visiting museum educator program. Just in October we served nine k-12 schools and five colleges. In our museum, we have several exhibits. They focus on topics from Indigenous foodways, beadwork, basket, tree, pottery, powwow, indigenous leaders, athletes, murals, and traditional stone tools. We have guided tours for school groups, where they can learn about what it means to be Indigenous. You can invite our educators to come to you and provide a lecture or a visiting museum educator presentation with interactive opportunities for students. We also do large group presentations with storytelling Performances. Our team has given presentations across the Northeast from including Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, and beyond virtually. To book your group

POC: How is the Tomaquag Museum honoring traditions this Native American Heritage Month?

SPEARS: Tomaquag Museum, honors traditions of the indigenous community year-round. During Native American Heritage Month, we are presenting to schools, colleges, and other organizations regarding Native culture, history, traditional, ecological, knowledge, and contemporary issues. We are sharing the true story of Thanksgiving as well as doing professional development on Indigenous cultural competency. In September we hosted the Ribbon Cutting for the Honoring Indigenous Veterans Monument located at the RI Veterans Memorial Cemetery. This project brings to light the hidden history of Indigenous service in the US armed Forces, which per capita, Native Americans have the highest number of service members compared to any other ethnicity.

POC: Why is it important to educate and celebrate Native American culture its traditions, experiences, and perspectives?

SPEARS: It is important to educate and celebrate Native American culture, its traditions experiences, and perspectives, because there is no US history without Indigenous people’s history. The Indigenous population here has contributed in so many ways to the founding of this country, and to contemporary life. We educate people on the traditional ecological knowledge of our people through TEK walks, talks, and kayak tours. We teach the history through lectures, storytelling presentations, Indigenous author book clubs, children’s story time, and cultural events. It is important to share this history from a first-person perspective. Our museum tours allow for the public to engage in dialogue with our educators. It is important for the community to understand the impact and contributions of the Native community. Did you know the US Treasurer is a Mohegan Chief? We celebrated her life’s achievements at our annual Honoring event this past summer.

POC: What actions can we take to make sure we center history and stories on the appropriate perspectives of Native American culture?

SPEARS: There are many actions you can take to center the history and culture of Indigenous peoples. First, you can read books by native authors second, you can acknowledge who is lands you are on by creating a land acknowledgment statement for your organization. Check out our Guide to Land Acknowledgements in our Belongings Blog.

You can invite a Native artist or performer to share cultural arts at one of your community events. You can invite the Native community and build relationships to have representation in your organization, board of directors, and other leadership roles. You can invite an Indigenous educator to lead your organization in an Indigenous cultural competency training. People can advocate for Indigenous rights through the law and legislation. Everyone should advocate for the full inclusive history to be taught in K-12 public schools to ensure truths are told. Check out our Education News

POC: The museum is in the process of moving. Could you provide some insight on this transition and what the museum is looking forward to offering in its new space?

SPEARS: Tomaquag Museum has been busy working toward a new museum campus. We are finalizing the pre-construction work and hope to break ground next spring. We will be moving to the lower portion of the URI campus. This move will allow us to provide even more services to the community through, a new exhibit gallery, a contemporary, art gallery, artist and residency studio, education, classrooms, indigenous gardens, and outdoor classroom spaces, outdoor exhibit installations, archive library, and collections research center, the indigenous, empowerment center with workshop, spaces, a café and a museum store. We are looking forward to this exciting adventure and will keep people posted as we continue. If you want to learn more


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