By Zeke Wright | Mercury | Posted: Wednesday, November 26, 2014 7:00 am
The state's only museum operated by and wholly dedicated to the indigenous peoples of Rhode Island, the Tomaquag Museum boasts a collection of over 20,000 cultural objects of significance to the Narragansett and Wampanoag tribes. So far this year, the museum has welcomed visitors from 20 states and eight foreign countries, says its executive director Loren Spears. Originally started in Hopkinton's Tomaquag Valley, the museum moved in the early 1970s to its present location in Exeter, where Spears' grandparents once operated an American Indian restaurant, the Dovecrest. The nonprofit survived the historic floods of 2010 and is in the midst of new home development.
Means beaver in the Narragansett language. We were founded in 1958 in Tomaquag Valley. Sometimes people will also say the place of the beavers. Our formal legal name is Tomaquag Indian Memorial Museum, although we've rebranded and just use Tomaquag Museum. Part of the reason is, if you take four words, and you're a graphic designer, you'll take two words and two words. And then people think there's such a thing as a Tomaquag Indian. There is not. Memorial is an old-fashioned word and kind of implies “all dead.” For years we used the beaver as sort of a logo, or mascot. Pre-digital age, it didn't really matter. Post-digital age, it totally matters. People were really confused with the beaver.
They thought we were a beaver museum. They thought we were an animal place, they didn't get the connection.
The museum is in the beginning phase of new home development. What’s happening?
We received a grant last December from the Forrest and Frances Lattner Foundation and the goal was to do master planning with the architects from Oyster Works, a firm out of Charlestown that has been really known for its green energy practices. If we're going to be building something new, we want to make it as energy efficient and green as possible. Where we currently are has a lot of sentimental value, because it used to be the Dovecrest. It has that history of the Narragansett community members owning that restaurant, and it certainly is a wonderful place to be in this woodland area. But we are at capacity. We need more space to do what we do best. And we need a facility that will care for the collections better.
What locations are you looking at?
We're looking at a few sites in Westerly. Then we also have other sites — in the town of Exeter, the city of Warwick has reached out to us, and even a couple of people in Hopkinton have looked at us and said, “Hey, that's where you were to begin with, would you think about going back?” But what we're looking for is a partner who has the land, that's either willing to give it to us or willing to do one of those 100 years for a dollar cooperative agreements.
What's the time frame to be in that new home?
I like to say 10 years, then it doesn't get me too worked up about time. Our architects say it can be five, it sort of depends on how fast things fall into place. But this first phase that we've just completed is really an over two-year phase already, from the beginning preliminary relationship building and getting the ideas and creating the master plan. The goal for us isn't necessarily to do it fast, the goal is to do it well.
What is your final event this year, the Nikommo Thanksgiving, all about?
Our last big event is Dec. 6, which is the Nikommo Thanksgiving, which is one of our traditional 13 thanksgivings. We often refer to it as the giveaway, with the notion that in our history our ancestors only kept what they absolutely needed, and often gave away to others within their own community, whether that's newlyweds starting their own home, or elders who maybe couldn't do as much as they once used to. Our communities always took care of each other and took care of the people in the community. And in this modern era we still do that, as an organization we do the Nikommo, and we don't charge an admission fee for that. We ask people to bring a bagged gift. We usually give our gifts to the Narragansett social services department to help indigenous families in need this holiday season.
What do visitors do at the Nikommo Thanksgiving?
They come and have tours of the museum, there's some storytelling and a ceremony around the thanksgiving. There might be nibbles but there's no feast. This year we're having a book talk at one o'clock around “Dawnland Voices,” (2014 University of Nebraska Press) a new anthology of indigenous writing from New England. And we're going to have five of the Narragansett authors from this anthology that has 10 indigenous groups from New England that will be talking, sharing, and doing a book signing.
What are you thankful for?
We celebrate Thanksgiving 13 times a year, and so I'm always thankful throughout the year. But I do, if you will, celebrate the modern American version of Thanksgiving so I can spend time with my family and friends at home. Although there are many indigenous people who go down to Plymouth, Massachusetts, and do a day of mourning to bring to light the historic wrongs that have befallen our people. I think I'm always thankful as any mother would be for her children and their health, and for my husband and my family. But I'm also thankful that I have the kind of opportunity to work in a place where I can be surrounded by things that are from my own culture and my own history, and I'm thankful I get the opportunity to share my perspective with many folks about indigenous culture and the arts and how that impacts the environment and today's history, the history that we're making at this moment.
What is the state of education today about indigenous peoples in Rhode Island?
There's no mandate really to teach about the indigenous peoples of this space. That's what it means to be indigenous – we're indigenous to this space, and it makes us, I say us, because I'm Narragansett. The Narragansett, the only federally recognized tribe in the state, and the Niantic merged after King Philip's War in 1675. On the East Bay side in sort of that Bristol area, you can also include Wampanoag in what we consider Rhode Island today. Everything about who we are as an indigenous people is based off of this landscape. And that includes our historic context, if you will, about what clothes we traditionally wear, what food we traditionally eat, what homes we traditionally lived in, our traditional means of travel — but it also translates to who we are in the 21st century, and those things that we're still connected to which are many. I'm not traveling down the river in a canoe today to get to work, however. I live in the 21st century, so I got into my Toyota Corolla and I drove to work.
What was the menu like at your grandparents restaurant, Dovecrest?
It had succotash and johnnycakes and of course chowder, which Rhode Island people think of as typical, but of course it's indigenous food. All the seafoods are indigenous to this area. But then you could also have venison, bear, moose, elk, to name just a few. My grandmother was written up in the congressional record for raccoon pot pie.