Project: Amplifying Narragansett Voices on Survivance, Land and Lifeways

“We, the Narragansett people, continue to exist on this land, the land the Creator set aside for us.” – Elder Dawn Dove

Centuries have passed since the beginning of colonization in the Americas, but the process is ongoing. In Rhode Island, ecological warfare and continued displacement of the Narragansett Nation from their ancestral lands has disrupted their cultural practices. The dominant historical narrative of Rhode Island fails to recognize the centrality of land to Narragansett lifeways, resulting in disproportionate access to vital natural resources. Despite these traumas, the Narragansett maintain a relationship with their land.

For Native communities, access to clean earth, air, and water is not just about survival but also identity and spirituality. To address environmental issues, we must first understand how colonial structures like land ownership, pollution, and resource commodification harm Native communities and Earth. This can happen through Indigenous-centered community activism both in Rhode Island and across the nation.

The curators of this exhibit are Brown University students who took a course called “Pursuit of Happiness,” co-taught by Visiting Professor Lorén Spears, Director of Tomaquag Museum, and Ron Potvin, Assistant Director at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage. The course examined the interconnectedness between Indigenous Rights and Environmental Justice, and it explored Indigenous survivance in the face of ecological exploitation, a facet of colonization. Prevalent themes included colonial violence and intergenerational trauma, as well as healing, remembrance, and self-determination.

In this exhibit, the students hoped to demonstrate that Indigenous rights and sovereignty entail fighting for access to land and resources, ensuring environmental health, and preserving Indigenous lifeways. While much of the course was grounded in the Narragansett Nation, their story is part of a larger struggle to address historical and ongoing injustices against Indigenous people around the United States.

As students who are not from the area, they determined that it was not their role to decide how the past should be memorialized. However, they claimed responsibility to learn and keep learning about the narrative of the land on which they lived. They also hope that visitors will continue this work and engage in local struggles for decolonization, environmental justice, and Indigenous rights.

Tomaquag Museum’s mission is to educate the public, promote thoughtful dialogue regarding Indigenous history, culture, arts, and Mother Earth, and to connect to Native issues of today. Through its Indigenous Empowerment Network (IEN), they strive to eradicate poverty in the Rhode Island Indigenous community through education, cultural competency, job training, small business incubation, and addressing social justice issues.

Tomaquag Museum’s collaboration with Brown University and the Humanities Action Lab helped fulfill their educational mission while empowering the Native community. It accomplished an IEN goal to create opportunity for Indigenous voice and perspective in college courses with Executive Director Lorén Spears co-teaching. As a Narragansett, Lorén has a first-person perspective on the culture, history, and social justice issues of her community. She serves as a mentor to all students but also a role model for Indigenous youth. The partnership allowed Tomaquag Museum to amplify the work they do by providing educational opportunities, sharing perspectives, engaging in dialogue, and creating experiences that impact life-long learning. Through this work, Tomaquag Museum empowered students to understand the interrelationship of the Indigenous people, (all humanity) and the land. We are the land and what is done to the land is done to ourselves. Social justice and Indigenous Rights are synonymous.

Students: Aya Bisbee, Jackson Brook, Sarah Clapp, Stefany Garcia, Alejandra Gonzalez, Marguerite Kemp-Sherman, Ruth Miller, Daven McQueen, Jayleen Paula, Brenna Pisanelli, Ryan Saglio, Sharad Wertheimer, Lauren Yamaguchi

Instructors: Ron Potvin, Lorén Spears