Tomaquag Museum Celebrates Strawberry Thanksgiving

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To the Narragansett people of Rhode Island, the humble strawberry carries an importance that goes beyond the confines of everyday convention. In the Narragansett language, wuttáhminneash translates as heart berry, and on June 23, the the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter will be hosting one of Rhode Island’s oldest celebrations of friendship and harvest.

“Strawberry Thanksgiving is one of the traditional 13 thanksgivings celebrated historically among the Narragansett people,” explains Silvermoon LaRose, assistant director at the museum. “We remember the Creator’s gift of the strawberry, a symbol of love and friendship.”

It is in the spirit of that symbol of unity that the Narragansett welcome both the Native and non-Native communities to eat, dance and exchange stories, while acknowledging a shared responsibility of respect and stewardship to the earth. There will be storytelling by Paulla Jennings, author of the book Strawberry Thanksgiving, as well as traditional dance narrated by tribal scholars who will explain the symbolism behind the performances.

“Since each song, dance and story has special meaning and purpose,” explains Lorén Spears, museum executive director, “we will share the history, culture and meaning as each is introduced so that everyone can understand the meaning behind what they are experiencing.”

It’s not a one-way street either. There will be interactive elements throughout the event, including open access to the museum, and visitors will even be invited to participate in a number of social dances led by tribal educators and artists. Guests also will be invited to make their own friendship bracelets (for a small fee), while children will be able to participate in a range of free craft projects. And the creativity doesn’t stop there. Visitors with an interest in how-tos will be able to attend a painting demonstration with indigenous artist Nayana Glazier, while athletic sorts will have an opportunity to compete in the traditional game of ring and pin.

However, these activities are not simply creative pursuits for the enjoyment of the crowds. Under the protection of the museum’s Indigenous Empowerment Network (IEN), the artistic attractions at Strawberry Thanksgiving hold a deeper meaning: to protect the Native community against artistic theft and cultural appropriation. The organization achieves this in two ways. One, by ensuring that only Native vendors are permitted to sell art at tribal events, and two, that they are fairly compensated for their work.

Because the struggle is real.

According to Indian Country Today, as much as 80% of all Native art sold in the United States is fake, meaning that indigenous artists frequently lose out on the meager funds that they depend on for survival. The impact can be catastrophic. According to a 2013 report published by the American Community Survey, Native Americans have a median income of $36,252; a $22,018 deficit compared to their white counterparts. To compound the issue, in 2016 the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the unemployment rate among indigenous communities at 8.9%, compared with 4.9% for the country as a whole. To redress the balance, many Native people need to create and sell art work just to make ends meet. Yet, all too often, the consumer doesn’t seem to know (or care) about the situation. But it is an important consideration to make. By failing to support indigenous artists, the consumer actively takes funds away from some of the most impoverished – and systematically abused – communities on the continent.

The situation is even more acute in Rhode Island. According to recent statistics released by the Rhode Island Department of Health, the median household income for Native Americans living in the Ocean State is $21,476, roughly $34,000 less than the state median. Just under 19% of Native Americans own their housing unit, compared to almost 65% among the white population. Perhaps the most shocking statistic of all is that the median age for the Native American population in Rhode Island is just 37.

“As an individual with a disability, I’ve been able to help bring income into my family through my arts and crafts. Tomaquag Museum offers a free venue to local native artists to sell our creations, thereby supporting small businesses and artists like myself. My family and I are blessed to have this opportunity!”

This brings the endeavors of the Tomaquag Museum into a much sharper focus. A Native led non-profit, they are Rhode Island’s only museum entirely dedicated to telling the story of indigenous people from a first-person perspective. This year marks their 60th anniversary, and with the vigor of Spears at the wheel and the support of the community behind her, the museum is currently deep in a concerted effort to raise $20,000 in order to receive the matching donation of $20,000 from an anonymous donor. Funds will be invested in growth of the museum, the care of collections and archives, and the development of new exhibits and educational programs. Behind the scenes, the museum is in the process of finding a new location and is planning to build a new facility to better serve the Rhode Island community and tourists who visit the homeland of the Narragansett people.

“Thank you to all who have donated thus far; we are just $6,000 away from our goal. With your help we can reach it by the June 30 deadline and empower Native artists and the Indigenous community, and share our culture, history and arts,” stated Spears.

“Our mission is to provide public education,” she continues, “and Tomaquag serves as a cultural bridge between the past, present and future, as well as a facilitator between the Indigenous communities and the diverse world.”

And they have achieved their mission. In 2016, the Tomaquag Museum was a recipient of the National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the nation’s highest honor given to museums and libraries for service to the community. Not bad for a seven-person museum that was almost obliterated by flooding as recently as 2010.

Yet, despite all their efforts, this small yet incredibly powerful and focused institution is one of the unsung heroes of Rhode Island. Located in a far-flung corner of Washington County with limited funds and resources, the museum and the Narragansett community as a whole need your support. Which is exactly why you should be in Exeter on June 23 between 10am and 2pm. Entrance is included with general admission to the museum, meaning that you will not only experience moe than four hours of traditional celebrations, but also will go home with the the knowledge that you are supporting a much larger cause.

The cause of humanity.

Strawberry Thanksgiving takes place on Jun 23 from 10am – 3pm at the Tomaquag Museum, 390 Summit Rd, Exeter; tomaquagmuseum.org

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