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‘There is no US history without indigenous peoples’ history’: An old tribe finds a new home at URI

The new Tomaquag Museum will showcase the lives and legacy of the Narragansetts – the first people of Rhode Island

Loren Spears looks to preserve the Native American culture of an old Rhode Island tribe. She's on the land in South Kingston, R.I., where a new Tomaquag Museum will be built.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Just a few yards off Ministerial Road, as cars rush by in fading afternoon light, there are stands of scrub pine, some towering oaks — and scant evidence of big dreams hidden here deep in the thick woods.

But Loren Spears can see it. It’s part of her life’s work.

It’s part of her proud heritage. For a long time, it may have seemed like a vaporous mirage. But it’s about to come true.

“Yes, I can see it,” Spears tells me at the dawn of springtime’s season of renewal. “I can envision a long driveway that swoops around, and you can drop people at the door. The buses will park over there.

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“I’m just looking forward to the idea of having this place where everybody can come and tourists can come to Rhode Island and they can learn about the Narragansetts and other first peoples of Rhode Island.”

Yes, the first peoples of Rhode Island.

The native Americans who lived here in pre-Colonial days.

The people whose lives and legacy will be showcased and preserved in the new home of the Tomaquag Museum on 18 acres owned by the University of Rhode Island.

It’s really happening.

Designers are at work. Landscaping is being envisioned. A capital campaign to raise $4 million will begin in the fall. Groundbreaking is set for next year, with an opening planned in 2023.

“Practically everybody we mentioned it to said, ‘Wow! What a great idea,’ ” URI president David Dooley told me. “We think it’s another step that’s important for URI to recognize its history and heritage and its connection to the land that originally was the Narragansetts’ land.”

For a university, it’s an academic gold mine, a connection to pre-revolutionary New England, a chance for its students to learn history not from the dusty pages of dense classroom books, but from a brisk walk in the nearby woods.

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“You can see the culture and the history and the accomplishments — the pride of native peoples who were here,’' Dooley said. “You might even get an accurate story of the first Thanksgiving.’'

Yes, all of that will be on display at the sparkling new Tomaquag Museum, which will be the latest and shiny incarnation of a museum that opened more than 60 years ago, dedicated to promoting indigenous history, culture, and arts.

The new building itself will pay homage to the history it will enshrine. Windows will capture the natural energy of the sun. Walls will be thicker than usual. There will be solar panels on the roof.

“The whole idea is to fit in with the environment and to do something that is respectful to the environment,” said Laura Briggs, whose firm, BriggsKnowles Architecture + Design, is assisting the project’s design team.

That kind of careful construction will be mirrored by the exhibits inside, exhibits that will be true to the Native American story of New England, the story that Loren Spears, a citizen of the Narragansett Nation, grew up with — the story that she is now focused on preserving.

It hasn’t always been the stuff of Hallmark cards and gauzy made-for-TV movies.

When she was in the 4th grade, her mother worked at the Boston Children’s Museum, and they lived in Jamaica Plain. This was the mid-1970s, a turbulent period in Boston’s history, a time of busing and the indelible image of a Black man being attacked near Boston City Hall by a white man with a pole carrying the American flag.

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“There was no way not to feel the tension,” Spears said. “You were not accepted because you didn’t fit in. You didn’t have a side to be on because I wasn’t white and I wasn’t Black, either. So I didn’t really fit. I was the ‘other.’ ”

She returned to Rhode Island, graduating with a degree in elementary education from URI in 1989. And she never forgot the teachers, or the mentors, who helped her along the way. And she never forgot her ancestral history.

Or the time she cut her hair, then down to her waist, invoking a stern rebuke from a tribal elder.

“That stuck with me,” she recalled. “The importance of your hair as a symbol of your culture and your identity. People talk about it being part of your life’s blood and the strands of your life woven together. It doesn’t mean you’re not rebellious as a teenager and cut your hair. Because I did on a couple of occasions.”

But that rebellious teenager grew to become a keeper of her tribe’s heritage, a protector of its traditions, and now a driving force for a new home dedicated to the preservation of a storied history.

Exhibits are being planned. There will be an archive research center. A “mini-village’' will incorporate contemporary art and historical artifacts and knowledge.

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“Visitors will learn about native history, culture, the arts,” she said. “They can learn about environmental knowledge. They can learn about social justice — issues that are going on today. They can understand the educational disproportionality of indigenous people. They can learn about these things. And take action.”

It’s a moment of reflection and of celebration for a woman who once was that little girl who wondered about her place in this world. The young woman who sat in a classroom as a college freshman while her teacher gave her a D for an English paper she submitted.

“What I realized was that he didn’t want my perspective,” she said. “He wanted his perspective. So for the rest of the semester, I just took really good notes and regurgitated back what he said in my papers. Because my perspective wasn’t his world view.

“And so, because my perspective wasn’t his world view, it was wrong. That’s been a pattern throughout my educational experience.”

But no more.

Loren Spears’s perspective and the perspective of other tribal members will no longer be shaped by those who don’t know — can’t know — her history or the history of her tribe.

But now, they can learn all about it

It will be there among the arrow points and wampum beads, the birch-bark canoes and the oral histories, at a museum that will be alive, a healthy, breathing organism dedicated to indigenous culture and history.

And to setting the record straight.

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“The American myth,” Loren Spears said. “The only time native people are mentioned is when it’s Thanksgiving. The only time — if we’re mentioned at all — is during the westward expansion. We’re one paragraph. And then we’re gone.

“I’ll say it again: There is no US history without indigenous peoples’ history. There’s no Rhode Island history or any other state’s history without the first people on the land. We don’t teach it inclusively like that.”

And then the woman who knows her history — feels it in her bones — smiled a smile that said: All of that is about to change in the woods off Ministerial Road.


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.