EXETER — With the Columbus Day weekend prompting reflection on the origins of our country, Native American educator, historian and museum director Lorén M. Spears urges individuals to learn the complete story of this place we call home.
It is, she asserts, a story that includes truths untold, truths distorted, and the marginalization and oppression of many people, including her own, that dates to the arrival of Europeans on the continent centuries ago.
“The Declaration of Independence here in this country calls us ‘merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions,”‘ Spears said. “Talk about dehumanizing and vilifying right in the founding doctrine.”
Spears spoke with The Journal on Sunday morning at the Tomaquag Museum, which is devoted to the celebration and history of Indigenous culture in Rhode Island and neighboring regions. Spears is executive director of the museum, founded in 1968 by the late Princess Red Wing, who was of Narragansett/Pokanoket-Wampanoag descent.
This weekend and indeed all year, she said, is an opportunity for people to learn more about Christopher Columbus, the 15th-century Italian explorer who happened upon the Americas on a voyage, sponsored by Spanish royalty, intended to find a western passage to Asia.
Columbus, Spears said, was “someone who brought conquest and genocide and land dispossession and disease and enslavement to the Americas.”
That story is not one traditionally taught in schools or discussed in the public forum, Spears said. Nor is the story of the many contributions that Native people have made, despite their historical mistreatment and current disparities, she said.
“We’ve been part of this history the whole entire time,” Spears said. “There is no Rhode Island history without Narragansett, Niantic and other Indigenous people’s history. There is no U.S. history without Indigenous people’s history.”
As but one example, she pointed to Tomaquag’s recently opened Warrior Women exhibit, part of a nationwide program that highlights the contributions Native women have made and are making today. Poet Laureate of the United States Joy Harjo and U.S. Representatives Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids are among those profiled.
Education holds a key to a full and truthful account, Spears said.
But what most students learn, she said, is from “these little pockets of ‘let’s tell a little something about Native people at Thanksgiving.’ Tell the fanciful story and if it’s mentioned again, it’s only in Westward Expansion – and we’re all gone because these wars happened and that’s the end of it. There’s no weaving of indigenous culture throughout the history.”
Regarding Rhode Island history, Spears cited King Philip’s War and the Great Swamp Massacre of 1675, the most violent incident on Rhode Island soil in which white colonists shot and burned alive hundreds of Narragansett and Niantic children, women and men – Spears’ ancestors – as two episodes that are rarely, if ever, taught to children in the state’s K-to12 system.
Spears said teachers have told her they do not have the resources to bring this history and all that followed to their students. Nor, she said, can many teach the full story of Columbus and what the arrival of Europeans really meant for Native Americans.
As for Columbus and the holiday in his name, Spears said: “I’ve been on several committees and been asked about this a lot and I feel that the Italian-American community should be honored and should be respected.
“But I think that they need to pick someone who was more meaningful in the actual experience here in the United States and/or a better figure from long ago that represents Italian culture that does not also represent all those negative ‘conquest frameworks’ of subjugation and enslavement and genocide.”
Listen to Spears’ full remarks: https://bit.ly/36TvmCw
On Twitter: @gwaynemiller