Visiting Tomaquag: The feel of wampum between your fingers

Lela Kulkarni

1 December 2019

Lela Kulkarni learns how to make a wampum shine at the Tomaquag Museum.

Go to the Rhode Island Visitor’s Center in downtown Providence, Rhode Island. It’s conveniently located in the Dunkin’ Donuts convention center, which is across from the Providence Public Library. Go inside, away from the brewhouse, the youth art center, the restaurants, the parking lots, and the Peter Pan bus stop. Look inside on the rack of pamphlets meant for tourists, and grab the pamphlet that is colored differently than the others. It’s a bright mustard yellow and a royal purple. The brochure is for the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, Rhode Island. On the cover you see moccasins that are embellished with glass beads, and below them are the words, “The only Indigenous museum in Rhode Island.” Now pause. Pause for a while, and ask yourself: what does that mean? To me, it has many meanings.

On July 30, 2019, I learned the first aspect of what that meant from a phone conversation with the museum’s executive director Lorén Spears. I told her I was interested in the crafts at the museum. In my mind, I can hear her say the word “wait” as if she was telling me to pause and think about what I was saying, but she never actually said, “Wait.” The word “craft” was an obstruction, but I wasn’t sure why.

“Art can have utility,” she said.

In my biased subconscious, art was a framed painting that sat on a wall. My schema was highly inaccurate and, shamefully, reflective of much more. Thankfully, the “wait” was over. She told me about ash split baskets, sewing done with needles made from porcupine quills, bear tufting (which in her words, “look like miniature pom-poms,”), pottery, leg guarders, and finger-weaving. From her discussion on art that is harvested from nature, I realized the process of gathering these resources too involved artistic talent. Her careful wording made me see there’s no difference between art and craft though the term “art” has more privilege. Going to the only indigenous museum in Rhode Island would change how I look at art.

On August 21, 2019, I visited the museum and met its executive director in person. I stood in an informal group of museum-goers, and within ten minutes or so, Director Spears intuitively began talking about the objects we were looking at. Director Spears looked out when she spoke as if her true story was redeveloping in the air, and she could see its materials. Like the museum’s basket with flowers stamped into it by carved potatoes, her dress had geometric designs where small, evenly-spaced shapes combined to make a larger image. As equally as she looked outwards, she looked into the eyes of her audience. This too gave her balance which pertained to the geometry of what I (and other museum-goers) wanted to learn and what her story had to teach. Her feet were wrapped in practical sandals, and her hair was tucked back, but as her ornate earrings dangled near her eyes, it was clear she had the tallness that came from being a leader. This was not just a museum for seeing. It was a museum for listening.


Wampum belt

Upon entering I got a lesson on how wampum gets its shine. Wampum is a disk that is slightly smaller than my palm and comes from quahog shells and whelk shells. My suspicion, having lived in Rhode Island long enough, is that the particular wampum that I was looking at was made from a quahog shell. Looking at the wampum itself, it barely resembled a shell. It caught the light from different angles so that it changed colors: pink, gray, brown, blue, and white. The disk was deceptively thick-looking as if it were made from sturdy plastic and could withstand a few falls. Wampum shards that were scattered around the bottom of the display case revealed the truth. The wampum shards and the handful of completed wampum disk were from a workshop. The workshop was taught by a wampum artist and attended by Director Spears and people from the Narragansett community. At the end of the workshop, the successful wampum were attached to a belt, and to complete the belt, beaded glass disks were placed in between the wampum. The “between” disks were of scenes that are significant to the workshop attendees and the Narragansett community. The disks also bridge the past with the present because they were made from glass beads and wampum were one of the earliest beads to exist.

Director Spears’ wampum rested to the side of the belt. She rubbed her fingers together as if she was still in the workshop and sanding the wampum.

“Wampum artists,” she told me, “carry wampum in their pockets. They are constantly sanding the wampum in their pockets. I sanded mine for three hours, but as you can see, it’s still dull.” In the past, some wampum artists might also have been messengers. They would carry the wampum in their pockets and sand it as part of their foot-journey. This was how wampum got its shine.

Though they must be handled gently, the wampum were tough. The stoic wampum were unphased by kids, who played Hubbub (a stone-tossing game) near its display case. Besides the present wampum from the workshop, there were also wampum that were four thousand years old in the museum. Had I seen wampum in any other environment, I wouldn’t have noticed the time-consuming richness behind the wampum’s multicolored shine.

Corn husk mat

Though I was at an art museum, the next exhibit I saw made me reevaluate history. Specifically, it made me reconsider something as ordinary as corn and its relationship to Thanksgiving. In this part of the museum, an old corn husk mat sat not far from modern corn husk dolls made by the artist and beader Betty Brown Driver. They both had a probing quality because I wasn’t used to seeing corn as anything but a substance, which gets tossed into a pot of boiling water and disappears after it’s eaten. Sadly, I am not the only one who has seen corn this way. Most corn husks in Rhode Island get thrown in the trash, which can cause the emission of methane in an airtight landfill. To use this corn husk for something practical and artistic, to me, seemed revolutionary, green, and poetic. The mat, though, wasn’t at the Narragansett museum as a protest statement. The sturdy and intricately woven mat existed because the mat was needed, and the art of weaving corn husks was the perfect way to make it.

Corn was a means for survival for the Narragansett people. It was stored in caches during the winter and planted in the spring. All types of corn were grown, even hard flint corn. Corn was stored in multiple ways such as in a clay seed pot. Seed pots (which are at the museum) had a narrow opening just big enough for one seed to go in at a time but far too small for any critter to intrude. Corn was also stored by being made into a type of cornmeal, which would later be made into corn dumplings. Not only was every part of the crop saved and used, but the crop was also given respect. Corn pollen, for instance, was sprinkled by an infant’s crib as a fertility blessing for all Narragansetts and as an offering that they may continue to sustain their people. In the Narragansett community, there are thirteen Thanksgivings a year and two of those thirteen are for corn. Once the colonists discovered the corn caches were vital for the Narragansetts’ survival, the colonists raided the caches and burnt them.

“They burned the caches as an act of war,” Director Spears told me. The Bank-Holiday Thanksgiving, celebrated in the mainstream United States in November, countlessly differs from the thirteen Thanksgivings of the Narragansett. Take, for example, Cranberry Thanksgiving in October, which involves the careful picking of cranberries, ceremony, and brings the whole Narragansett community together. Perhaps there is a metaphor in the failed acknowledgment of the colonialists’ history of causing massacres, their devaluing nature, and the harmful gas made by corn husks in the landfill.

If the past is seen fully, it teaches us about the strength of compassion, the weakness of greed, and that living artfully in harmony with the surrounding environment has secret strengths, which finger-woven cordage metaphorically represents. The third lesson I learned was on the strength of finger weaving. Finger weaving is a term whose description is in its name. What might not be obvious when you hear the descriptive term is how complicated finger-weaving is. Spears, who is an expert at finger-weaving, teaches finger-weaving classes in the Tomaquag museum, where students risk getting overwhelmed.

“Just picture having fifty separate pieces of yarn and trying to bring them together,” she said as we looked at regalia and finger-woven items on display.

Because the process of finger-weaving itself is so difficult, Spears gives the beginners a bit of a “cheat.” She doesn’t teach the class with traditional material. She lets them use fluffy yarn which folds and bends easily.

“They can make a nice scarf or hat,” she said and smiled as if laughing about how the beginners might feel about starting off with a traditional finger-weaving. Many necessary items can be finger-woven such as armbands, leg guarders, belts, and bags. Sashes, even for the regalia the Narragansett wear today, must be finger-woven form traditional material. Since regalia has no buttons or zippers, the winding and tying of the sash is what holds the regalia on the body. A yarn sash is not strong enough to do this.

The traditional material is called cordage. It’s known for its strength, and it’s a year-long process to make. (On Director Spears’ bucket list is to make cordage before she dies.) It can be harvested from milkweed, dogvein, the inner bark of cedar, or even metal. The raw material is then dried (with the obvious exception of metal) and woven into cordage. Though the Narragansett have looms and do some weaving on these, the strongest weaving is done with hands that yank sturdy cordage.

Ultimately, what I realized is these art-objects at the Tomaquag museum aren’t separated from their original identity. This leads to authentic stories some of which are painful and caused me to question the so-called “truth” about what the history pageant I have been taught. How the art was used in the long-ago past and how it was made is not a mystery. It is the opposite of the often-told case (you know, the one where a Victorian lad who lives in Cambridge “finds” an idol in his travel and “gives” it to a museum where he’s from). This is an art, museum, and teaching space where the objects are at home and serve purpose into the present.

Through the ongoing workshops taught at the Tomaquag Museum, people discover the technical details behind the intricate artistic process. When the story of “making” is part of the museum experience, museum-goers can understand why high-art objects are part of the Narragansett daily life. In the words of Executive Director Lorén Spears, “I didn’t learn how to be an artist. I learned how to be a Narraganset. I have been finger-weaving and basket-making my whole life. Basically, if you need something, you make it. That’s how it is to be a Narragansett,” she said this to me inside the museum, where there were earrings, a dance stick, baskets, blankets, and so much more made by men and women who needed them.

Having seen people buy paint, canvases, and then use these manufactured items to make “art” of perhaps a sailboat on the water, Spears noticed that these people had privilege when they called their creation “art.” Surrounded by Narragansett people and therefore artists, Spears encouraged people in her community to take on the specific title of artist, artist-presenter, and art-educator.

Overtime, Spears’ title has only grown within and outside the Narragansett community. Last summer she was a consultant to the city of Providence who wanted to do a mural, which represented the Narragansett. The city hired an international street artist named Gaia, who painted a mural of Lynsea Montanari, who is holding up a picture of Princess Redwing. As written inside the Tomaquag Museum, Princess Redwing was an activist that was born shortly after Rhode Island legally tried to make native peoples invisible for a century with detribalization. She fought hard to make herself and the community known, to share Narragansett history, and founded the Tomaquag museum. Born in 1996 and one hundred years after Princess Redwing’s birth, Ms. Montanari continues the work of Princess Redwing at the Tomaquag Museum today. In Providence, the mural is at home. It tells so much: the ties in the Narragansett community, between generations, and with nature. To me, it is also a metaphor for the Narragansett oral tradition of passing history from generation to generation or a way to preserve meaning beyond the mainstream (and often inaccurate) narrative.

Speaking of the mainstream narrative, there is still the question of the narrative around the word “craft.” Some “craft,” even in the mainstream sense, was vital for survival. It took hands to build homes, make clothes, and shape bowls. Other crafts such as colorful beaded earrings, just like paintings, were how beauty survived. Both types are called craft because beauty and survival are represented in each. Now in 2019, the word “craft” might produce a search result of a plastic, art-and-crafts station for children. As society steps away from needing handmade clothes to survive, it is as if it treats the idea of “craft” (and even art) as a toy but simultaneously it as if it fears losing an ability that sustained people. Whether braiding hair or rewiring a cable, today the hands are still used daily to create. It is a myth to devalue craft just as it is a myth to devalue art. “I like to finger-weave while watching Netflix,” Director Spears said at the end of my visit. Subconsciously, there is this need to skillfully create by hand, which is probably what makes it possible to do something as complex as finger-weaving while staring at the latest drama.

All images except the mural are courtesy of the Tomaquag Museum


My background is in creative writing. I just graduated from Brown University in 2019 and have a degree in Literary Arts. I often sew objects for my stories in lieu of illustrating them. I am currently writing a non-fiction piece about a power outage that leads to a candle-lit dinner in Pune, India. I am also hoping to begin writing for the Center of Women and Entrepreneurship, a local non-profit that offers business courses and scholarships.


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