PROVIDENCE — As Rhode Islanders settle in for Thanksgiving, the Tomaquag Museum executive director is urging us not to settle for mythologized versions of the “First Thanksgiving” between the Pilgrims and American Indians 400 years ago.
On the Rhode Island Report podcast, Lorén Spears said that as we dig into turkey and stuffing, we can also dig into the history that explains why, for Indigenous people, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning.
“They really need to dig in and come visit places like Tomaquag Museum,” she said. “Go to the Mashpee Museum, go to the Aquinnah Cultural Center, go to the Pequot Museum, and find out the real history.”
Spears, a former Narragansett Tribal Council member, said we often hear the “fantasy stories” of Indians “skipping merrily” to feast with the Pilgrims. “Telling that story version makes Americans as a whole feel good,” she said. “It doesn’t make Indigenous people feel good.”
Since 1970, Indigenous people and their allies have gathered in Plymouth, Mass., to commemorate a National Day of Mourning on the Thanksgiving holiday. “That’s looking at the historical and inter-generational trauma, the genocide, the conquest that took place here, that was attempting to eradicate Indigenous people,” Spears said.
Even if Indigenous people spend Thanksgiving with family and festivities, she said, “They still know that this isn’t always a happy time for us because it reminds us of all the trauma and loss that our communities have felt due to the conquest that took place here and how it still affects us today economically: Health disparities, educational disparities, the list goes on.”
Spears said she would like the Rhode Island Department of Education to take an active role in ensuring that history lessons include Indigenous history.
“There is no Rhode Island history without Narragansett, Niantic, and other Indigenous people’s history,” she said. “There’s no U.S. history without Indigenous people’s history.”
Spears talked about how her museum is hosting a new exhibit, “Away From Home: Native American Boarding School Stories,” through Jan. 7 on the University of Rhode Island campus in Kingston.
“Most people aren’t aware that the federal government literally put a boarding school system together to forcibly assimilate Indigenous people,” Spears said. “The idea was to literally strip us of our cultures, of our communities, and they forcibly took our children from our families and our homes.”
That included Narragansett Tribe children who were taken to a boarding school in Carlisle, Pa., she said.
Spears said children were severely punished if they dared to speak their Native languages at the boarding schools.
“I want people to know that this isn’t a long time ago,” she said. “I have an uncle who was from a different tribal nation, and he and his siblings were taken from their family and their home, and they were whipped if they spoke their language.”
The exhibit includes a pair of small handcuffs that were placed on Indigenous children.
“They were handcuffing children when they tried to run away,” Spears said. “When I look at it like that and I think of my own children and my 3-year-old grandson, and imagine the pain and the horror and the trauma of being taken from your family, that’s abuse just in and of itself.”
The Providence Board of Park Commissioners met earlier this week to weigh recommendations about what should be done with the Columbus statue that was removed from Columbus Square last year after being vandalized. As a museum leader, Spears said she believes that “statues from our history that are problematic should end up in museums.”
Spears said she would like to see a statue erected to honor Ellison “Tarzan” Brown, the Rhode Island-born Narragansett Indian whose impressive running career featured two Boston Marathon victories — including the 1936 race in which he pulled away from Johnny Kelley, giving rise to the name “Heartbreak Hill.”
Also, Spears said she is looking forward to opening a new Tomaquag Museum on 18 acres near the URI campus in Kingston. The site will include a museum building, an education center, an archives collections research center, and gardens, she said. If all goes well, ground-breaking will take place in fall 2022, and the ribbon-cutting for the first phase will take place in fall 2023, she said.