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Narragansett Indian Tribe shares a look at history, customs at annual Native Arts Festival

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Silversmith, Preston Tone-Pah-Hote, pictured at left, displays his jewelry during the 11th annual Native Arts Festival held at the Towers in Narragansett last Sunday.

NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — When Thawn Harris relates his stories in the form of fables, he is keeping alive an oral tradition that dates back centuries to pre-European settlement in the Americas. Clad in traditional native dress, complete with a headdress and a muskrat hide hanging from his right hip, Harris related several fables to attendees at the 11th Annual Native Arts Festival, held Sunday at the Towers in Narragansett. One story involves a “sky daughter,” a turtle (“tunnapah”), and a muskrat. The three combined to help create “the people between the waters,” the Narragansett Indian Tribe.

“The oral tradition is how we passed along lessons through stories,” Harris said of the Narragansetts and other Native American tribes. “I try to modernize them, because we’re not just replicating the past. We want to grow and change while maintaining our culture and core traditions. We incorporate new songs, dances, and games that focus on being thankful for what has been bestowed on us as blessings. We want to take time to see the blessings around us.”

Harris connected the past to the present when he told of birds migrating south to see Disney World and west to see Disneyland. Allusions to social media and modern technology as well as pop culture also found their way into Harris’ colorful narratives.

Harris’ storytelling was just one attraction at the Native Arts Festival. Tribal artisans showcased for sale their original handicraft — everything from jewelry, to purses, clothes, paintings, greeting cards, wampum beads, traditional foods and more. The annual event also features raffles and a silent auction.

“The event is not just about selling. It’s also about raising awareness,” said Phyllis Cotto-Santiago, Treasurer of the Narragansett Tribe’s Economic Development Regulatory Commission. “Education is a key part of the festival. Each year we bring in an educator to share and engage the public with a cultural display explaining how life was years ago and how we are continuing these practices in the present day.”

Cassius Spears displayed some of the ways the Narragansetts lived pre-European contact. “We lived off the gifts of the land,” he said, as he demonstrated how the natives used deer not just for their meat. They used the bones and antlers to make awls, jewelry, scrapers, hoes, and needles, the hoof for glue and rattles, and the hide for clothing, quivers, blankets, and pouches. “A deer,” Spears said, “is a hardware store on hooves.”

Spears demonstrated how to make cordage using the dog bane plant, a natural fiber. The Narragansetts used dog bane cordage to fashion their fishing nets. They used pine, poplar, and maple trees to create canoes, and utensils. Spears displayed samples of those utensils that he crafted along with baskets and a water drum among other useful instruments. A wolf hide stretched from one end of Spears’ table to the next. Spears displayed a photo of a “Niswetu,” (“House of Two Fires”) and explained he has two such structures, made of Eastern White Cedar, in his backyard. The Eastern White Cedar is commonly found in swamps, which, according to Spears, are spiritual because of the resources they provide. “This is who we are as a people,” Spears said. “Our beliefs, songs, dances, and stories all come from the natural world. We have to know the characteristics of animals, plants; they provide food, medicine, and technology. A ‘super plant’ has all three of those characteristics. If you’re not connected to the land and food, how are you going to continue to express yourself?”

Annawon Weeden expressed himself while wearing a t-shirt that riffed on the late artist Prince while dissing the explorer Christopher Columbus. It reads, “Party like it’s 1491.” Weeden was selling replicas of the shirt as well as various wampum artifacts. Weeden explained that “It is insulting when somebody reduces wampum to money. You can literally hold beads that your great, great, great grandfather made. You cannot do that with the (U.S.) Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. I try to incorporate mind, body, and spirit meanings into my (art) work.”

Deborah Spears Moorehead, a descendant of Sachem Massasoit, showcased her paintings, she said, “focused on portraits of Eastern Woodland Native Americans.” She also had t-shirts and her book, Finding Balance: The Genealogy of Massasoit’s People and the Oral and Written History of the Seaconke Pokanoket Wampanoag Tribal Nation. Kristine Thomas-Jones displayed her herbs and spices; Dinalyn Spears exhibited her handcrafted jewelry, made of larimar stone, amethyst, and aquamarine, as well as her Lady Slipper (“Moccasin Flower”) drawing and a pair of canvas earrings depicting monarch butterflies. Mishki Thompson and Robert “Thunderhawk” Jones and many others also had their artistic talents on display and ready for sale.

Loren Spears, the executive director of the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, said that the museum collaborates with local and indiginous artists to support the individuals and small businesses. “Visitors can support the artists and businesses by buying authentic Native American artifacts,” she said.

According to Dawn Spears, Vice Chairperson of the Economic Development Regulatory Commission, the annual festival’s purpose is to “maintain and share our culture with the community.” The COVID-19 pandemic forced a cancellation of the 2020 festival but, according to Spears, “We’ll be back again with a fashion show next year. Our overarching goal is increasing visibility. We are still here.”

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