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The Narragansett People in the Rhode Island Folklife Project

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Women and girls in native dress dance in a circle indoors as others look on.
The Women’s Dance at the Narragansett Fall Festival, 1979 (detail). Photo by Thomas A. Burns. Rhode Island Folklife Project Collection, Library of Congress.

Folklorist Tom Burns, working as a fieldworker in the Rhode Island Folklife Project in 1979, sought out the Narragansett people, crossing the border into Connecticut to find tribal leaders with whom to talk. At that time the Narragansetts were somewhat spread out, as they had no lands. What they did have was a strong desire to remain a people, acquire land, and gain their status as a Federally-recognized Indian tribe. Like most Indian cultural groups in the Northeast, they had agreed to peaceful relations with the United States, and had had their traditional lands taken from them. The imposition of Euroamerican styles of education on Indians in the 19th century meant the loss of Narragansett as a living spoken language, but the people worked to maintain their customs as they could, even while fearing that these too would disappear.

A man stands in front of a stone wall.
Lloyd Wilcox standing in front of a wall he built. Photo by Thomas A. Burns, 1978. Rhode Island Folklife Project collection, Library of Congress.

In 1979, when folklorists showed up to document the folklife of Rhode Island, the Narragansetts had just recently settled a case with the state to regain some land, although they had not yet succeeded in their ongoing effort to gain Federal recognition (having been “de-tribalized” by the State of Rhode Island without federal sanction in the period of 1880-1884).

Tom Burns talked with Lloyd Wilcox, the Narragansett medicine man, and his wife, Alberta, who also grew up in a traditional Narragansett family and was a nurse. Lloyd built stone walls in traditional styles in the region, also documented in the collection. Both Lloyd and Alberta grew up with hunting, fishing, and traditional farming, and then continued these traditions in their own family.  In Part 1 of the interview in the player below, the couple talked about hunting and fishing, using every part of the animal, smoking fish, preparing and eating skunk, gathering wild foods, crops they raised, and family stories. This interview helps to show the extent that some of the Narragansett people had succeeded in maintaining their traditional ways in the 20th century. As Lloyd Wilcox says of passing on the traditions he grew up with, on side B below, “There is a lot more there if anybody wants it.” But, as he explains towards the end of side B, the strains of trying to succeed in life in modern America gave people little time to learn and practice their Native traditions. The desire of many Narragansetts to preserve and revitalize their heritage and their concern for future generations, as found in this discussion, were driving concerns behind their efforts to obtain status as a Federally recognized tribe and to obtain land.

Continue listening to the interview with Lloyd and Alberta Wilcox: Part Two and Part Three.

Burns talked with tribal leaders Eric Thomas and Ella Thomas about the Narragansett Annual Meeting and Annual Midsummer festival of Thanksgiving. They also discussed efforts to regain the Narragansett status as a recognized Indian nation within the state. This interview took place in the Longhouse, a center for tribal activities, and was interrupted by calls as the office needed to be kept open. It is clear from the interview that the Longhouse had an important community role at the time. Mr. and Mrs. Thomas talked about the issues of keeping a dispersed community connected, the importance of regaining land. There is some indication of how much land might be needed to support a community that hunts, fishes, and farms. The community they wish to build was far more than a group of houses. They expressed concerns about whether young people accustomed to working for a living in mainstream jobs might wish to live in the sort of community they wanted to create. In part 2 of this interview (at the link below the players), Mrs. Thomas talks about teaching children and her methods of conveying traditional knowledge and values to them. (Be aware that there are a few instances of strong language in these recordings.)

Continue listening to the interviews with Eric Thomas and Ella Thomas (part 2 of 2).

In 1983 the Narragansett won their effort to gain their status as a recognized tribe.  This was the beginning of a new era for them as an Indian Nation and their ongoing efforts to restore their community and reclaim their culture.

In the interview, Ella Thomas emphasized the need to use the language. She describes speaking an opening during the annual meeting; she wanted people in the community to hear some words of Narragansett, at least in ceremonial contexts. Today the Narragansett people are working to reclaim their language. There was not a large body of written Narragansett to draw upon, though all that can be found, together with what is remembered by the Narragansett, are the starting points.

Work has been done to restore the closely related language of the Wampanoag people in Massachusetts, called Wôpanâak. Wôpanâak has become a spoken language again through efforts spearheaded by Jesse Running Doe Baird, and it is once again being learned by children as they grow up, thanks to a community effort to see that it is passed on to future generations. The remarkable efforts by the Wampanoag people to reclaim their language were helped by a wealth of documents in the language together with linguistic documentation. Wôpanâak is an Algonquian dialect so closely related to Narragansett that speakers could once make themselves understood to one another. So the reclamation of this neighboring language was more than inspirational for the Narragansett Tribe, since information about Wôpanâak may be used in the reclamation of Narragansett. As with other reclaimed languages, the result will be different from historical Narragansett.  But bringing back a language so that it can be spoken again is an invaluable link to traditions and culture of both the past and the present. (For more on the effort to reclaim the Narragansett language, see Grammatical Studies in the Narragansett Language by Dr. Frank Waabu O’Brien [PDF]. For more on the Wampanoag people’s effort to reclaim their language see the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project.)

The interviews and photographs by Thomas Burns in 1979 in the Rhode Island Folklife Project collection capture a moment in the journey of the Narragansett to gain their Federal status as a tribe and to revitalize their community and culture. More information about the status of the Narragansett today in their own words may be found on their website, The Narragansett Indian Tribe.


Ancestral Voices Collection, Library of Congress.  Ancestral Voices is the successor to efforts to repatriate Native American recordings to their communities begun in 1976  and utilizes emerging digital technologies and innovative approaches to address issues in preservation, co-curation, cultural representation, and intellectual access that are of critical concern for both cultural communities and archival repositories. The project seeks to mutually benefit both tribal members and the Library of Congress. More information may be found at the link.

Ancestral Voices Roundtable, Library of Congress, 2018. (Video) This panel discussion highlights a collaborative initiative to digitally restore, provide access to and curate the oldest recordings in the Library of Congress collections, the 1890s wax cylinder recordings of the Passamaquoddy tribal nation of Maine. The collaboration involves the Passamaquoddy community, the American Folklife Center and university-based digital platforms — the Mukurtu content management system and Local Contexts, which develops Traditional Knowledge (TK) attribution labels for heritage materials based on indigenous cultural protocols. Passamaquoddy elders have been reviewing the sonically restored recordings, transcribing songs and stories in their language, adding enhanced metadata and generating TK labels to enrich the Library’s catalog records and the newly-launched collection website.

Montana Folklife Survey collection, Library of Congress. Includes documentation of events and activities at the Crow Agency and Flathead Reservation, 1979.

Omaha Indian Music, Library of Congress.

Peréz Báez, Gabriela, “Living Languages: Preservation & Reclamation of Indigenous Languages,” lecture at the Library of Congress, 2016. (Video)

Rhode Island Folklife Project collection, Library of Congress.

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