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NARRAGANSETT—Handmade crafts, storytelling and lessons in eco-friendly living made Saturday’s Narragansett Indian Tribe Native Arts Festival at the Towers a hands-on celebration of Native American Heritage Month.
Leftover Thanksgiving turkey might bring to mind stories of the native Americans who taught the earliest European settlers how to live off the land in order to survive. But for some Narragansett tribal members, making the most of natural resources isn’t a relic of history—it’s a part of daily life.
Cassius Spears Sr. and his family hunt wildlife on the Narragansett tribe reservation in Charlestown, and no part of the animal goes to waste.
Antlers and bones make for tools such as awls or harpoons, hides are tanned for leather clothing, and hooves are made into glue. Even colored dyes are all-natural; black walnut makes a black dye, and a woodland perennial called golden thread makes yellow.
“Nowadays we tend to separate ourselves from the natural world, so what I try to do is reeducate people about the resources around them,” Spears said. “Most people don’t know, but the South County area is rich with natural resources.”
He still remembers his grandmother’s stories from the Great Depression, when unemployment peaked at 25 percent and Americans around the country waited in long bread lines. Spears said his grandmother didn’t know what depression everyone was talking about; she got by just fine living off natural resources.
“There’s no reason for anyone to go hungry,” Spears said.
Plants like hickory nuts, blueberries, walnuts and strawberries; wild fowl such as grouse and turkey; and of course seafood including fish, oysters and crabs are just some of the natural resources in Rhode Island, he added.
Harvesting from the natural environment is a part of traditional native culture, and today it’s become a tribal business. In 2003, the Narragansett tribe formed the Narragansett Tribal Seafood Co-op, which raffled off lobsters at Saturday’s event.
Not everyone adapts readily to the idea of hunting their own food, however. Four-year-old Lennon Meyer of Narragansett didn’t know what to make of the white-tail deer hide draped over Spears’ table.
“Was he a mean deer?” she asked.
This year’s Native Arts Festival was postponed a week after the death of Spears’ mother, Jean M. Spears, on November 14 at the age of 68. She left behind no fewer than 10 children, 26 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Her grandson Cassius Spears Jr. described her as a traditional Narragansett matriarch.
“She was one of the big, prominent members of the family, and everything sort of trickled down from her,” said Spears Jr. “She was every essence of what Narragansett is.”
The Narragansett tradition may be slowly vanishing—at least, the tradition of their language. Iona Vars, a tribal elder, is one of eight members of a singing group that puts music to the Narragansett language, hoping to teach the next generation simple words like colors and the names of animals. Not many Narragansett tribe members speak the tribe’s native language.
“Fractions of it, a lot of us do,” Vars said. “But not fluently.”
In time, they hope to gain support for a federal grant to hire a linguist to help preserve the language. Meanwhile, tribe members like Thawn Harris work to keep the language alive with retellings of Narragansett tales mixed with modernisms that appeal to children.
Other tribal customs are alive and well, such as the crafting of jewelry. Domingo “Talldog” Monroe handcrafts silver and wampum jewelry, everything from watches and bracelets to pendants and earrings and belts. Wampum, made from quahog shells, was traditionally used by East Coast Native Americans for ceremonies, adornment and as a means of exchange.
Monroe started crafting silver jewelry in the Central High School vocational program in Providence. In those days, he said, Rhode Island was known as the jewelry capital of the world.
“There was just no end to where you could go, and believe me, I miss those days,” he said with a laugh.
One of the more intricate pieces on display, a crafted silver watch inlaid with wampum, took him a week to make, working each day from 9 a.m. until midnight. Putting such tender care into each piece, signing each with his name, it’s no wonder his jewelry has won awards at tribal powwows around the country.
Pam Brightman of East Providence couldn’t resist buying one of Monroe’s silver and wampum necklaces.
“It was calling to me,” she said. As soon as she had the necklace, she brought it over to show her friend Essjay Foulkrod of Peacedale.
“We’ve both been going to powwows since long before we met each other,” Brightman added. “We feel a deep connection.”
“I think, growing up in New England, if you pay attention to the natural world, you can’t help but honor the life and organization that the Native Americans had,” Foulkrod said.