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Tomaquag Museum ready to teach its own curriculum

March 11, 2012


EXETER — Tomaquag Memorial Indian Museum recently announced the completion of a curriculum, geared for middle schools, to give the history and significance behind some of the Narragansett and Niantic tribes’ stories and legends.
The curriculum, available to public, private and even home schools, is based on the film “Places, Memories, Stories and Dreams: the Gifts of Inspiration,” and tells six traditional Native American stories by Paulla Dove Jennings, a nationally-known storyteller.
“Each story has its own moral and lesson. The [Schoolhouse Pond: Narragansett John Onion] teaches to not be boastful, but also about the uses of the land and the pond, not only in the past but through today,” said Lorén Spears, the director at Tomaquag.
The traditional story of John Onion takes place during the Indian schoolhouse time period in the middle of winter; John Onion is a great skater but is “so boastful” of his skills that he claims he could outskate the devil. In the end, he hangs up his skates forever, explained Spears.
“It’s a story where someone goes a little too far but there is so much more behind it,” she said, adding that “there is the history of the schoolhouse, the pond and the use of the land, which is what we are focused on in the curriculum.”
The curriculum tells six stories: “Narragansett Indian Church: The Nikkomo Piece,” “The Last Hunt: Woodchuck Inspirations,” “School house Pond: Narragansett John Onion,” “Deep Pond: The Boys Who Over Fish,” “August Meeting Grounds: Fancy Dance” and “Great Swamp: Spirit Voices.” According to Spears’ recollection, fact and fiction are woven into each of the traditional tales.
“Someone’s interpretation of John Onion may have had a real person in it at some point. Whether it’s a true story or not, I couldn’t tell you,” said Spears. However, they “all incorporate real history within them.”
For example, the first story tells the legend of the Nikkomo celebration Narragansett Indian Church. A brother and sister were both supposed to perform at the celebration and the sister continuously teased her brother, believing that she would do much better. Yet when she stood up, she got stage fright and her brother ended up telling his piece plus hers, explained Spears.
“The moral is not to tease but there is so much more, such as the history of the church and what is in the Nikkomo,” she said.
Students using the curriculum will first hear the stories and then participate in various activities to expand their understanding of native culture. Suggested activities include in-class discussions, creating a timeline or finding additional resources.
According to Spears, the curriculum complies with Rhode Island Grade Span Expectations (GSE) for civics and history.
Spears believes that, oftentimes, teachers “do not know how to connect the lessons [on native cultures] to the standards.”
Thus, what the curriculum does is bridge the gap to provide educators with the resources and understanding to teach their students not only about native cultures, but the cultures local to Rhode Island.
“In order for students to learn well, they should study a tribe that’s local because being indigenous has a lot to with the landscape that you’re from,” said Spears.
Resources such as food, forests and gardens were all used differently by different tribes, ranging from as different a climate as the Niantic from Rhode Island to the Navajo in the desert, she explained.
For this reason, Tomaquag’s curriculum studies the past and present cultures of the Narragansett, Niantic and other local tribes.
“There are a lot of people who don’t get that we are still living and amongst you,” said Spears, a Narragansett Indian herself. “If we’re not wearing the traditional clothes at the moment, [people] might not get that we’re still Native Americans.”
For example, one of the stories talks about the Fancy Dance and how a young dancer blossoms into a “butterfly in the end.” The story uses a dance to illustrate how a young girl transitions into adulthood, according to Spears. At Powwows today, they still do the dance.
“The dance is very beautiful and lots of kids in the communities don’t know what a powwow is,” she said. “In this unit… we talk about what a powwow is, the components and how it has changed over time.”
The curriculum is designed for middle schools although Spears explained that it can be adapted to fit a variety of other ages or groups. According to Spears, a teacher from the Gordon School in East Providence purchased the film and plans to use the curriculum in her classroom.
Various other teachers have expressed interest, she said.
The film can be borrowed from the library or purchased from Tomaquag for $18 and the curriculum can be downloaded from their website,
Tomaquag Indian Memorial Museum, located at 390 A Summit Road, Exeter, is a nonprofit organization established to educate the public about native history, culture and the arts.

Southern Rhode Island Newspapers
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