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'A Cultural History' combines voices of the past and present

NEWPORT, R.I. - ''A Cultural History of the Native Peoples of Southern New England: Voices from Past and Present'' aims at introducing readers to the peoples who populated the northeastern woodlands and seacoast at the time of the European invasion.

Authors and editors Frank Waabu O'Brien and Julianne Jennings have put together a book that combines an extensive pastiche of historical writings from the first colonist-settlers in New England with an introduction, annotations, maps, lists of Algonquian words, estimated populations, appendices and other reference materials they have written or collected.

Few books on the history and culture of the Native populations of southern New England are written by American Indians, the authors observe in their foreword.

''Most standard academic books read like a clinical autopsy of a dead culture with big words few can understand, Contrary to this, A Cultural History of the Native Peoples of Southern New England provides an understanding of the ways, customs, and language of the southern New England Indians - from voices of our modern Elders and other Indians, and from historic records of the 1500s and 1600s. Everything you ever heard about the beauty, the power, and richness of our culture has been included,'' the authors write.

True to their word, Jennings and O'Brien have produced a book that avoids academic language and aims at a wider audience, including, they hope, history and anthropology students.

''I think it's for the non-Native person and for Native peoples, because the first chapter talks about Christian conversion, taking the land, taking the people. It's very raw and it needs to be so because that's the way it was at the time,'' Jennings told Indian Country Today.

Jennings, who uses the name Strong Woman, describes herself as a ''Nottoway artist and educator.'' She co-produced the Emmy Award-winning PBS documentary ''Mystic Voices: The Story of the Pequot War.'' She is a graduate student in anthropology at Rhode Island College, where she is also an adjunct instructor.

O'Brien, who is of Huron and Abenaki ancestry, earned his doctorate in linguistics at Columbia University. He has authored several books and set up a number of Web sites on southern New England Indians.

''It may sound ironic, but it's taken me about 50 years to do the book,'' said O'Brien, who uses the name Moondancer.

''What I tried to put into the book is my years of experience. I thought long and hard about the Indian/white relationship that's gone on for 400 years and I've tried to see all sides, to experience as many things as I could; and the book is a result of that,'' O'Brien said.

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The introductory chapters provide a brief historical background about the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620, and describe the authors' approach to the materials collected in their book.

Concerning a list of estimated populations of five major southern New England tribes in the early 17th century before epidemics wiped out the majority of the populations, for example, O'Brien and Jennings stipulate that although the numbers are generally accepted, they aren't necessarily accurate.

''They were not obtained by the scientific method of statistical enumerations, and we don't know how to grade the truthfulness or accuracy of many of the old documents written by Englishmen who, by and large, hated the people they were bent on stealing from,'' they write.

The main body of the book, however, is comprised of quotes from those same Englishmen who colonized the Eastern Seaboard before ''Manifest Destiny'' drove them across the continent to conquer the Western tribes and grab their lands.

The majority of the quotations come from Roger Williams' 1643 publication, called ''A Key into the Language of America; or, an Help to the Language of the Natives in that Part of America called New England.''

The quotations follow the structure of Williams' book, laying out his cultural observations in chapters such as ''Their Appearance,'' ''Greeting and language,'' ''Eating and Entertainment,'' ''Sleeping and Lodging,'' ''Numbers,'' ''Family Relations,'' ''The Body and Senses,'' ''Government and Justice,'' ''First Thanksgiving Day,'' ''Marriage,'' Wampum,'' ''Religion,'' Fishing'' and other categories.

All of the quotes paint a glowing picture of the indigenous peoples of the Eastern Seaboard as physically beautiful, kind, generous, friendly, faithful - and good business people.

''The Natives are very exact and punctuall in the bounds of their lands, belonging to this or that Prince or People (even to a River, Brooke &c). And I have knowne them make bargaine and sale amongst themselves for a small piece, or quantity of Ground,'' Williams wrote.

Jennings said that Williams is quoted extensively because he provides so much detail about Native life during the early years of the invasion before Indian resistance to the colonizers' land grab arose.

''In his wanting to convert the Eastern Indians, he also preserved us. I think the categories left behind by Roger Williams offer a blueprint to the reconstruction of our cultures,'' Jennings said.

''A Cultural History'' is available from Bauu Institute and Press, P.O. Box 4445, Boulder, CO 80306, or online at