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Indigenous Landscapes

Indigenous Landscapes

Husband-and-wife educators endawnis Spears and Cassius Spears, Jr. kick off the Liberal Arts division’s spring lecture series.

Detail image of Indigenous beadwork

The Liberal Arts division kicked off its spring lecture series on Wednesday, March 10, with Indigenous Landscapes: Narragansett Homeland & History, a virtual talk led by Indigenous educators endawnis Spears and Cassius Spears, Jr. In introducing the husband-and-wife team, event organizer and History, Philosophy and the Social Sciences Department Head Lindsay French noted that RISD and the RISD Museum are committed to “amplifying voices and histories that have gone unacknowledged for far too long.”

A bend in the Pawcatuck River is the source of the Indigenous name for the town now known as Hopkinton, RI.

A member of the Narragansett tribe, Cassius began the lecture by pushing back on Western notions of history and time, reminding participants that Native peoples have been living on this land for 30,000 years. “And for us, time is not linear,” he adds. “It moves and changes direction like a river.”

“For us, time is not linear. It moves and changes direction like a river.”CASSIUS SPEARS, JR., NARRAGANSETT TRIBE

Cassius also notes that the histories and very identities of Native people are embedded in specific aspects of the landscape. Narragansett, for example, means people of the small point of land. He compared maps of southern New England made by settler/colonists and by Indigenous people, joking that the settler version calls to mind a segmented butcher’s diagram labeling cuts of beef. “Western maps are based on manmade elements—state lines and roads—while Indigenous maps are about kinship systems,” he says.

A map of southern New England calls out its countless waterways, “the blood of our Mother.”

The Indigenous map Cassius shared reveals countless rivers and streams running through the area. “Waterways are like the Earth’s circulatory system, the blood of our Mother,” he says, “which hopefully makes people think differently about the way they treat the waterways.” They also served historically as important transportation routes for Native peoples, he adds, especially for connecting various tribes in the region. The Providence neighborhood known as Federal Hill, for example, was once an important meeting place along the river for the Narragansett and Wampanoag tribes.

A map of Turtle Island, the Indigenous name for North America.

endawnis hails from Arizona and is of Diné/Ojibwe/Chickasaw/Choctaw descent. She is the director of outreach and programming and a founding member of the Akomawt Educational Initiative, an Indigenous education and interpretive consultancy for museums, K-12 schools and colleges/universities. She spoke about local tribes and also about Indigenous peoples across “Turtle Island” (the Native name for North America), focusing on the importance of learning from elders and passing down the traditions that keep Indigenous people connected to the land.

“This landscape is a space for tradition, stories, ceremony, practices, protocol, medicine, prayer, knowledge and subsistence,” endawnis says. “Native people and cultures are so dynamic and so adaptable. We wouldn’t be here today if that weren’t true.”

“This landscape is a space for tradition, stories, ceremony, practices, protocol, medicine, prayer, knowledge and subsistence.”ENDAWNIS SPEARS, AKOMAWT EDUCATIONAL INITIATIVE

In response to a question posed during the closing Q&A, endawnis noted that one way for settlers to build new relationships with Indigenous people is to make an effort to understand the policies surrounding tribal government and to use their votes and voices to support tribal sovereignty.

Fish are the main source of food for the Narragansett, but many other plants and animals help them live in balance throughout the year.

Do the Spears have any suggestions regarding sustainability and dwindling natural resources? “Connecting people with the environment is important,” says Cassius. “We don’t know how to address Capitalism since that’s not something we created. But we have dealt with limited resources for generations and never had a problem with it.”

Simone Solondz

DeLesslin “Roo” George-Warren, a queer artist, researcher and organizer from the Catawba Indian Nation, will present the next lecture in the series on Tuesday, March 16. Visit liberalartsmasters.risd.edu for more information about the entire Decolonizing Nature, Rethinking Art and Design, Remaking Society speaker series.

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