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The Heartbeat of Rhode Island’s Indians

According to the late educator and historian princess Red Wing (Pokanoket), the first music of Aquidneck Island (present-day Rhode Island and Providence Plantations) was the chant of the “Red Man” who lived in the hills and valleys adjacent to the shores of Narragansett Bay. Legend has it that music was the gift of the Great Spirit—to a young brave who stood on the verdant hillside with all the glories of nature around him. His heart thrilled to the great beauty and he felt his heart beat one great thump. Gratefully realizing the gift of all nature to him, he heard the heartbeat of Mother Earth—thump, thump, one, two. He was aware that all of the natural wonder around him was created by a great and unseen spirit which he named “Great Spirit.” As the young brave listened, he heard His throbbing heartbeat—thump-thump-thump-one-two-three. After he had recognized the Creator of the Universe, he looked beside him and saw that all men were his brothers and heard their mighty heartbeats—thump-thump-thump-thump-one-two-three-four. Then he made a drum on which he could beat these different rhythms and his feet moved in time with the sound of the drum. As the young brave hunted in the forest one day, he pulled his bow and as the arrow wafted into the air, he heard the sound—tum. When he shot his arrow from a larger bow, he heard a lower pitched sound. In this way he found his harmony and created his songs in unison with his own heartbeat.

It is almost impossible for civilized man to conceive of the importance of song in the life of early New England Indians. To him, song has ever been the breath of the Great Spirit which consecrates the acts of his existence. There was no important personal experience nor any ceremonial where it was not essential to the expression of emotional or religious feeling. The people were summoned to all Council meetings, festivals and ceremonies by the beat of the drum; which also herald the beginning of each ceremony and signaled for quiet. However, New England Indian’s never thought that one day their songs would fall silent to strangers from across the sea.

Before the Europeans came to these shores in search of wealth and religious freedom, about 12,000 Wampanoag lived in Southern New England. In 1621 when the English Puritans landed in Plymouth, they walked into the abandoned village of the Pawtuxet Wampanoag. When English Separatists landed in 1630, first in Salem, then Boston, they entered the land of the Massahusêuck or Massachusett Wampanoag. The Massachusett, the Pawtuxet, and other indigenous people along the coast became victims of catastrophic diseases introduced by previous European explorers as early as 1616-1619 in a plague of unknown origin, and again in 1638, when the small pox virus caused ninety percent mortality among native peoples. After King Philip’s War (1675-1676) only about 400 Wampanoag people survived, many of whom were forced into indentured servitude in colonial households, divided among other Eastern tribes, or sailed on the Seaflower for the Caribbean, or West Indies, and in some cases Portugal, Spain and Africa as “heathen malefactors men, women and children” who labored in perpetual servitude and slavery. However, Indian culture was never completely lost to enslavement, Christianity or European culture. A people, a culture does not want to die.

The Massachusett language has been sleeping since the early 1800s. Even in the early 1700s, some were no longer speaking the language fluently. Wampanoag ancestors were considered a “conquered” people and no longer able to practice their culture or speak their language: the new ways of the Europeans slowly replaced many of the old ways. It seems the parents and the grandparents just refused to teach their children the old language, perhaps because they saw the pain involved in being Indian in a world no longer theirs.

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Eventually the old language fell silent, as did all the Indian languages across southern New England, from Cape Cod and beyond the Hudson River. Across Turtle Island (what we call the United States of America), more than 125 American Indian languages have become extinct through the harsh lessons of American history. Many more are on the brink of extinction.

Today, many Indian people want their ancient Massachusett language back as essential to their humanity, as it makes one unmistakably Indian. Rebuilding the Massachusett language involves intense research and corporation among Indians, language scholars, and others. In 1996, Dr. Francis O’Brien Jr. (Abanaki) and I published Understanding Algonquian Indian Words (New England), the first book of its kind written by New England Indians. O’Brien asserts, “The most prominent evidence of our existence here in Rhode Island is Indian place names?which have now been erased by a factor of two-thirds, not to mention the total loss of Indian languages of the Narragansett, Pequot and Massachusett — which despite all the hoopla about language reclamation will only be dim replicas of the sounds and meanings of the original tongue.” Those sounds, although limited, are now being used today by Eastern Medicine Singers, a drum group dedicated to turning revived Algonquian words back to songs: the heartbeat that once echoed deep into New England’s forests are now being heard again.

Click here for information on Eastern Medicine Singers; or Dr. Francis J. O'Brien.

Julianne Jennings, E. Pequot-Nottoway, is a Ph.D. student at Arizona State University