Meet the Narragansett leader who is still going strong at 99
RICHMOND, R.I. — She was born in 1918, when Woodrow Wilson was in the White House and the Boston Red Sox vanquished the Chicago Cubs to win another World Series, a child of the Depression who would become a wife, mother, entrepreneur, beloved elder, and the keeper of a flame that remains sacred to her.
They called her “Pretty Flower.’’ But growing up, she was called other things, once taunted by a white kid at school, who — in post-World War I America — didn’t quite know what to make of her.
“I can faintly remember some kid saying something to me and another kid came up to him and said: ‘Leave her alone. She’s a Narragansett Indian,’ ’’ Eleanor Dove recalled the other day in the kitchen of her home here. “I must have been about 11 or 12. I wasn’t white, and I wasn’t black. I was Indian. It means everything to me.’’
Eleanor Dove is the oldest living Narragansett Indian on the tribal rolls.
When the tribe holds its 342nd annual meeting — or powwow — this weekend in Charlestown, there will be a church service, food vendors, arts and crafts, and closely held customs: the grand entry, the lighting of the sacred fire, the smoking of the peace pipe.
At the spiritual center of it all will be a stately old woman who, when she closes her eyes, can glimpse her tribal heritage as it flashes by in bright and proud vignettes that 10 decades have failed to obscure.
“They call you Pretty Flower?’’ I asked her on a recent warm summer afternoon.
“Faded Flower now,’’ she replied, flashing an impish smile.
Don’t believe it.
Her oldest daughter, Paulla Jennings, 77, remembers her childhood self, sitting silently on a staircase as her parents and grandparents sat with other tribal elders intensely discussing matters of great cultural importance and matters of the moment.
“They were always talking about tribal issues,’’ Jennings said, “the mistreatment of our people. The land stolen from us. My father and my mother raised my siblings and me to know: This road out here? That town over there? That city up there? It’s all on our land. We were to love it and respect it.’’
And so they did.
She was Eleanor Spears when she attended East Providence High School, but she left for a series of odd jobs, at first becoming a restaurant waitress. “It was just time to work and bring some money into the house,’’ she explained.
What followed were the tiles of a colorful mosaic that, as they slipped into place, helped shape a remarkable woman.
She once worked as a model at the Rhode Island School of Design, later posing for a sculptor whose work — a likeness of her — appeared at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.
That was around the time she met and fell in love with Ferris Babcock Dove, the man she built a family with, the man who would one day become the Narragansett war chief. It was an esteemed position that made him a central figure in the tribe’s effort to win federal recognition, an achievement that came just before his death in 1983.
Ferris Dove’s tribal name was Chief Roaring Bull. But instead of making war, he made friends. He fed those in need, anonymously dropping off bags of potatoes and fish. For elderly tribe members, he’d repair stone walls, fix broken screens, or mow overgrown lawns. He also served as a local postmaster, tax assessor, and elected town moderator.
By 1963, he and Eleanor were running a popular restaurant in nearby Exeter called Dovecrest, where their walk-in refrigerator sometimes served as a community kitchen. Meat intended for paying customers sometimes went out the back door destined instead for poor local families.
“That was just because he was a good man. If anybody needed anything, if he could possibly get it, he did,’’ his widow told me, before underlining the code she has lived by: “You just do what you can to help anybody.’’
Her door was always open. Once, a close relative who was going through some troubling times asked whether her son could stay with Dove for the weekend. Yes, she replied. He stayed for two years, graduating from the local high school. Old relatives, young cousins, friends of friends. Her home was theirs.
“She doesn’t even realize how amazing she is,’’ Paulla Jennings said.
The Dovecrest became a local institution of sorts. In 1981, The New York Times documented its menu of raccoon pies, johnnycakes, rabbit stew, and succotash.
“Mrs. Dove, a congenial woman with an easy, lingering smile, says that her customers easily overcame squeamishness about wild meats and began asking for them,’’ the Times story said.
After her husband’s death, Eleanor Dove closed the restaurant. Some 11 years later, the Dovecrest homestead became the site for the relocated Tomaquag Museum, dedicated to promoting indigenous history, culture, and arts.
As she sat on a bench there the other day under rafters from which hung an 1850s-era canoe fashioned from birch bark, root lacing, and pine pitch, she was accompanied by her granddaughter, Lorén Spears, the museum’s executive director.
“I’ve always been inspired by what she accomplished,’’ Spears said. “She did it by working hard and leading a team.’’
Her family expects her to live well into her 100s, and the family genes do not make that improbable. Her medication consists of not much more than a daily baby aspirin.
Still, she does not fear death.
“I expect when I leave this body, I’ll go somewhere and I’ll probably find my husband there,’’ she told me.
But not yet.
There’s a celebration coming up in Charlestown this weekend.
Just as there had been in May as spring promised to blossom into summer.
Then, Eleanor Dove stood in University of Rhode Island president David Dooley’s dining room on Upper College Road in Kingston.
It was a bright and warm Sunday afternoon, hours after the university’s 125th commencement.
Eleanor Dove watched as her relatives, accompanied by handheld drums, performed the traditional Narragansett Honor Song, the echoes of a tribe that, in pre-Colonial days, was the region’s most powerful. The majority of what is now Rhode Island had been Narragansett territory.
Lorén Spears had received an honorary doctorate, conferred by Dooley upon the former two-term tribal councilwoman for her work to “preserve the history, experience, and culture of the local Native American people.’’
Her grandmother beamed. “I was very, very emotionally touched and happy that my granddaughter could do this,’’ the oldest tribal member said. “And did it.’’
That afternoon at the president’s house, there were senior university officials, decorated faculty members, and accomplished alumni. But there was no one more dignified than Pretty Flower.
At age 99, Eleanor Dove wore a peaceful smile that signaled deep satisfaction in the knowledge that her tribal heritage is secure in the capable hands of the next generation, the newest keepers of the flame she’s tended for nearly a century.
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.