Native Species

 

The region in which I grew up is rich in Native American history. I waded in the waters at Conimicut Point. I balanced across plank bridges in the Great Swamp. Everyday, I passed places with names like Narragansett, Miantonomo, Apponaug, and Pawtuxet. Along the way, I learned the history and interaction of my colonial ancestors and the indigenous peoples, but the place names became commonplace and part of the fabric of my everyday life that blended into the background.

When my own burgeoning family outgrew our home a few neighborhoods over from the one in which I grew up, we moved deeper into the state; where native history remained vibrantly alive, resisting the squash of suburban sprawl. With signs marking the Narragansett watershed and roads transiting Shumunkanuc Hill, my desire to understand this new land meshed with a desire to better understand the native history and tradition that shaped it.

In an effort to do so, my girls and I visited Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, RI, our state’s only museum dedicated to preserving and celebrating the rich cultural heritage of its native peoples. We had a wonderful time, viewing historical exhibits, examples of artwork, basketry, and artifacts. I read the words of Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas in one glossy display detailing the meaning of and pursuit of happiness for modern native peoples. While their home culture and tradition teaches them to be in tune with nature, stewards of the earth with utmost thanks for the gift it is, upholding generational, tribal, and oral traditions, public education counters Native American values and history, forcing an incongruous duality of individuals, students, youngsters.

As I read the poetic description of the aspiration to a higher good we all possess, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to society as a whole. While not all populations in modern society deal with an environment hostile to their ways of life, we all suffer from a sort of disconnect.

We are totally disconnected from the earth, the land.

We can go to the grocery store and buy apples any day, any season of the year – not just during fall harvest. We go to the farmers’ market in spring and balk when we can’t find the main ingredient for our peach pie. We are conditioned like a spoiled child to have an endless supply of food placed before us whenever we want it, with no thought of the hand that put it there.

We are totally removed from nature’s rhythms, its cycles.

We look down the road waiting for a rush of cars when it is the rush of the wind through tree boughs.

We condition our air, we shut our windows tight. We notice not the storm clouds or fog rolling in until the weather report tells us to.

We miss the signal of the birds squawking in the trees or their sweet songs rejoicing in the spring.

We don’t find the hidden places on the back roads because we’re speeding down the highway. We don’t discover the interconnectedness of us all, regardless of background because we’re too busy to talk.

We forget how to, the benefit of, interacting with the world, the people right in front of us, because we’re so intent on interfacing with those halfway around the world through the computer screen.

The sacredness of simplicity is lost.

The elemental forces of the universe are covered over by the noise we humans have created, covering over ourselves.

But on days when we stop to hear a song, shake a rattle, smell the sweet grass, the stories become part of us and there is an elemental shift within – perhaps drawing us all closer to ourselves and each other.

tomaquag

 

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4 Comments

  1. So beautifully written, Jennifer – and I feel real sadness at the things you mention. I’m no guru at taking notice of the natural world around me, but I do try. Claudia helps me do so even more. I’m guessing you make notice of your surroundings as much as you can as well.

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    • Jennifer Butler Basile

       /  July 10, 2014

      It is sad when people don’t stop to contemplate them, but kudos to those who do – like you and Claudia! And to people like the Narragansett who keep them at the center of their lives.

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  2. It is truly a balancing act to be Indigenous today, stay connected to the land and its resources, be spiritually connected and balance the demands of modern society. Elders often tell Native youth, “You must have one foot in each canoe.” A feat which requires tremendous balance. Thank you for visiting and mentioning Tomaquag Museum!

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • Jennifer Butler Basile

       /  July 12, 2014

      What a poetic and accurate way to describe that balance. Thank you for your insight and sharing so much in our visit.

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