Wise Woman

Director of the Tomaquag Museum Lorén Spears helps Indigenous Rhode Islanders preserve their identity

Posted

“We’re one of those kinds of people who just do,” says Lorén Spears, director of the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter. “Do, do, do, do, do!

Lorén is describing Narragansett people in general, but she could as easily be talking about herself: animated, fast-talking, and drenched in historical knowledge, Lorén can tell you almost anything about Native American culture in Rhode Island. It’s easy to imagine her as an elementary school teacher, engaging young pupils for hours at a time.

But despite many happy years in Newport’s public school system, Lorén was critical of how Native American history and culture were taught, and she disliked how her own three kids were being groomed for the world.

“I love kids,” she says. “I love seeing kids succeed. I didn’t leave [public education] because I didn’t love teaching. I left because I have children, and I was seeing my children falling into the same stereotypes regarding education. There are institutional structures that are set up to help our children fail.”

Lorén’s grandparents, Ferris and Eleanor Dove, owned the renowned Dovecrest Restaurant. The Doves were acquainted with the Tomaquag Museum – which turned 61 this year – and when the museum was forced to leave its original location, the couple made room in their business. Later, Lorén’s mother became volunteer director.

In 2002, Lorén opened a school called Nuweetooun, which means “our place” in the Narragansett language. There are about 3,000 people in the state who identify as Narragansett, and 10,000 Rhode Islanders who identify as Native American. For several years, Nuweetooun helped educate children from an Indigenous perspective. Rhode Island “detribalized” the Narragansett for a century, and descendants have fought hard to maintain their culture. Lorén cites certain trailblazers, like folklorist Princess Red Wing and acclaimed athlete Ellison “Tarzan” Brown, as vital to maintaining Narragansett identity.

When heavy flooding ruined the Nuweetooun building, Lorén became full-time director of the museum, spearheaded the Indigenous Empowerment Network, and turned volunteer roles into salaried positions. The Tomaquag calendar is now robust with activity, and the museum staff is raising funds for a sizable new facility, which will be based much closer to the University of Rhode Island, a major partner.

“When you’re empowering indigenous people, part of that is getting the truth out,” says Lorén. “It’s having people understand that we don’t look like the stereotype. We never did, and never will.”