Silvermoon Mars LaRose (second from left), a member of the Narragansett tribe and assistant director of the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, Rhode Island, visits Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division Newport with Chrystal G. Mars Baker (third from left), the museum’s empowerment education coordinator on Nov. 10, 2021. LaRose was the guest speaker for the command’s celebration of National American Indian Heritage Month and was greeted by Division Newport’s Executive Officer Cmdr. Mike Kendel (from left) and Peter N. Rogers, special emphasis program lead. (U.S. Navy photo by Dave Stoehr)
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE November 24, 2021
Release #2158 Point of Contact—Jeffrey Prater (401) 832-2039
National American Indian Heritage Month speaker shares Narragansett tribe’s history, resiliency
“Asco wequássunnúmmis — hello — Kunoopeam ut aûke ut Nahahiganseck — welcome to the lands of the Narragansett,” said Silvermoon Mars LaRose, assistant director of the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, Rhode Island, as she greeted Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Newport employees to a celebration for National American Indian Heritage Month held on Nov 10.
LaRose, a member of the Narragansett tribe, spoke to the “Traditions and Lifeways of Indigenous Southern New England” with an emphasis on the Narragansett tribe, based in Charlestown, Rhode Island.
“We have to remember that there is no U.S. history without Indigenous history,” LaRose said.
“We’ve been here since the start, we have engaged since day one. We are literally integral to everything that has happened in U.S. history. So we shouldn’t be separated. We’re not a caveat, we’re not something just for Native American Heritage Month, but we are a part of this country right from the start and we should include those stories and narratives into our history all the time.”
An important point for all to know, is the proper way to address native people.
“American Indian” is what the government uses to describe people of native ancestry, and culturally, people have used the term “native American,” to distinguish those who were indigenous to this land.
Those two terms have been interchangeably used, but they always put native people in the context of America.
“We were here previous to America, our identity is not tied into America as an established country. We had our own identities before that.”
Although a lot of tribe elders still use the term “Indian,” the younger generation is looking for identities that don’t tie them with the history of Colonialism, she said.
“They’re dropping the ‘American’ and just using the word ‘native.’ Or they’re using terms like ‘indigenous’ to describe someone who has been here from the beginning,” LaRose said. “Correctly, we’re distinct tribal communities. We are citizens of sovereign tribal nations. So instead of pooling us all into one group, call us by the tribes that we are citizens of. I am Narragansett. And that’s important because it honors the sovereignty of each tribal nation – that we are government systems with our own distinct cultures, languages, religions, traditions – instead of pooling all native people into one ethnicity.”
In order to capture the long history and culture of the Narragansett tribe, the Tomaquag Museum was founded in 1958.
“All of our educators are native people,” LaRose said. “You’ll get different perspectives as we speak from our own personal experiences, our own families and memories, and our own tribal communities. I will be speaking very Narragansett-heavy today, but many of the cultures and lifeways we share with our relatives in other Southern New England tribes.”
These include tribal communities originating in eastern Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, with a unifying term of “Wampanoag.” The Narragansett tribe was one of the leading tribes in New England, controlling much of present-day Rhode Island, including the southern part of Aquidneck Island. Narragansett, meaning “people of the small point,” is a coastal nation with inhabitants in this area for at least 30,000 years.
“We lived off the coast, off the water,” LaRose said. “Many of our natural resources come from that landscape and influence our culture and what we do.”
This included wampum, or the beads made from quahog and whelk shells. “The mix of the purple and the white from the shells was used to tell a story, to make record of historical events and things that were happening within our tribal communities, so the way the two were fashioned together had meaning,” LaRose said.
“Even though they say we didn’t have a written language, we did still have ways of keeping record – wampum was one of those ways.”
When area tribes conducted treaty agreements regarding land, wampum was exchanged, but not in the way that we use money today.
“American history has taught us, for years, that wampum was native money,” LaRose said. “But we didn’t have the concept of money, in that an object could hold worth in and of itself, and if you amassed much of that, you amassed wealth and you could buy what you wanted.”
Wampum was sacred to the Narragansett – to make it required a highly developed and time-consuming skill, and to obtain it, you had to earn the right to have it from your community.
“When you exchanged wampum it was the highest honor you could give to somebody else,” LaRose said.
“During trade and treaty agreements, they wanted to make sure that everybody meant what they were saying, that everyone will hold true to their word. Wampum was exchanged as a sign that all were in agreement, and the agreements were respected and all participants were honored.”
But with the arrival of Roger Williams in 1631, life and culture for the Narragansett tribe was to be altered forever.
After his banishment from Massachusetts because of his religious convictions, Williams established a relationship with the Narragansetts and asked for permission from them for land, for which he was granted land use.
“For tribal communities of Southern New England, taking care of people, strangers in your midst, was considered an obligation,” LaRose said. “Everybody was supposed to be welcomed and treated well. So we did welcome people in a beautiful manner, and maybe that’s why he decided he wanted to stay.”
“Often you will see in the history records ‘deeds’ for ‘sale of land,’” LaRose said. “They were signed by our chief sachems with a bow and arrow. So, did we fully understand the agreement that was being made, that was written in a language we did not read or write, that was interpreted to us by people who had a vested interest in getting what they want?”
The exchange that was made for these “land sales” was wampum — more specifically, 60 pieces of wampum for Aquidneck Island. LaRose said this exchange, from how her ancestors understood it, was an agreement to use the land not “own” it, as evidenced by the offering of wampum.
“We had no understanding of ‘sale of land,’” she said. “There was a sense of belonging within that land, but you couldn’t keep it. Land isn’t something that you can pack up and take with you when you go somewhere else. It’s not something that you own, but that you care for. There’s a responsibility to it, and we took that responsibility seriously. So there’s a sense of ownership, but in a different way. It’s more around responsibility than control.”
Europeans then proceeded to make laws that made living on the land unhospitable to natives. For example, on Aquidneck Island, for two years after the “sale of land,’” laws were written to prohibit native people from stripping the bark on trees.
“Why would that be significant?” LaRose asked. “Many of our cultural materials are made from bark, traditional medicines that are within the bark, but most importantly, the bark of trees is what was used for coverings for our homes. You literally could not make your house if you could not strip the bark of trees. So they made it impossible for us to build our homes here.”
The creation of laws continued — laws that Narragansett sachems couldn’t read, yet continued to agree to by signing with bow and arrow.
“Over time, these changes and exchanges started to build issues between Europeans and native people,” LaRose said. “Because the understanding of what was expected was different.”
Williams founded Providence Plantations and in 1663, King Charles II granted the Rhode Island Royal Charter, establishing Rhode Island as a European colony.
“This is where we enter a period of European rule within our community, and everything changes.”
Disease impacted the Narragansett population, trade relations were strained, and religion was pushed on native communities, LaRose said. More and more laws were being written that reduced territory, including restrictions on hunting on tribal ancestral lands.
Metacom, sachem of the Wampanoag, also known as King Philip, led a rebellion against the colonists in 1675.
“They made the place uninhabitable, and the conflicts began to grow and grow and led to the King Philips War,” said LaRose.
In December 1675, the Narragansetts suffered much loss during the Great Swamp Massacre, where hundreds of tribal members were killed or captured.
“Well, we lost the King Philips War, and as a result, it was actually Roger Williams who came up with the idea that [natives] should be taken as indentured servants as part of reparations for our actions in the war.”
Many Southern New England native people were sold into slavery and taken to the Azores, Barbados, Bermuda and Caribbean. Their identities were also changed with records listing them as mulatto, Black, or other races.
Today, the Narragansett nation has around 4,000 enrolled tribal members. The present-day reservation includes members of both Narragansett and Niantic descent, has been reduced to 1,800 acres in Charlestown, much of which is uninhabitable swamp land. On a map, LaRose specifically pointed out the lack of coastal access.
“We are a coastal people. Our entire culture is built off of the waterways, and we have no coastal property,” she said. “What does that mean as a community when we’re trying to continue certain practices and teach future generations if we don’t have access?”
“But we are a resilient people. And this is where I really want to share some of the culture and lifeways.”
LaRose explain the 13 thanksgivings, or “13 Moons on Turtle’s Back,” and that giving thanks is a daily virtue for the Narragansett tribe.
“For each of the 13 squares on the turtle’s back, which follow the moon cycles, we have ceremony,” said LaRose. “We reflect on our local ecosystem, we give thanks for all of the gifts from land and waters. These are practices that we still hold dear today. It’s the way we continue our culture.”
She encouraged the workforce to educate themselves on Indigenous life by reading books, listening to music and listening to podcasts by native people. The Tomaquag Museum website features a page for Educational Resources at: https://www.tomaquagmuseum.org/resources
One recommendation is a recently published Scholastic book, “If You Lived During the Plimoth Thanksgiving” by Chris Newell.
“It gives a native perspective on Thanksgiving, that history, and how we celebrate it today,” LaRose said. “It’s how you can celebrate it honoring true history.”
“We have always celebrated a harvest time where we’re thankful for all of the gifts that we have farmed and foraged,” she said. “There are always games, music, celebration, and ceremony around that – that is part of our native tradition anyway. So the Thanksgiving we celebrate now is really just a marriage of those old traditions and this myth that people wanted to drag out from an obscure event that happened in 1621 that for two centuries, nobody even thought about. Many native people are still eating their Thanksgiving dinner but it is in no relation to that 1621 event and the history and commercialization that goes with it.”
Peter Rogers, recruiting and staffing specialist in Division Newport’s Corporate Operations Department, and special emphasis program lead for this month’s theme, noted that the museum has a tribute to natives who served in the military and asked LaRose to address that.
“Per capita, native people have served more in the armed forces than any other nationality of people,” she said. “Native people are proud of their service, and we have generations of people who have served in every conflict since the Revolutionary War. So we have a long military history and a lot of veterans within our community.”
Museum staff have identified many native people buried at the Veterans Cemetery in Exeter and the museum has a fundraising effort to commission a Native American Veterans Monument in the cemetery. To learn more about this effort, click here. [link: https://www.tomaquagmuseum.org/honoring-indigenous-vets]
NUWC Division Newport is a shore command of the U.S. Navy within the Naval Sea Systems Command, which engineers, builds and supports America’s fleet of ships and combat systems. NUWC Newport provides research, development, test and evaluation, engineering and fleet support for submarines, autonomous underwater systems, undersea offensive and defensive weapons systems, and countermeasures associated with undersea warfare.
NUWC Newport is the oldest warfare center in the country, tracing its heritage to the Naval Torpedo Station established on Goat Island in Newport Harbor in 1869. Commanded by Capt. Chad Hennings, NUWC Newport maintains major detachments in West Palm Beach, Florida, and Andros Island in the Bahamas, as well as test facilities at Seneca Lake and Fisher's Island, New York, Leesburg, Florida, and Dodge Pond, Connecticut.