A chance meeting with a Native activist and farmer manifested into an eye-opening experience on a Narragansett farm intertwining sustainability, identity and the original American.
Holidays serve as poignant junctures of introspection about familial ties and historical narratives. This November, as the nation observes Native American Heritage Month, I find myself contemplating the evolving essence of Americanness—a concept in perpetual flux. Moreover, how the understanding of what and who was American has been usurped over time.
In the 1828 edition of Webster’s dictionary, the definition of American, stated Ameri’ican as a noun pertaining to “A native of America; originally applied to the aboriginals, or copper-colored races, found here by the Europeans; but now applied to the descendants of Europeans born in America.” In this most basic definition, it implies that the term of who was identified as “American,” was stripped then reappropriated, as is the “American narrative.”
To hold this truth to be self-evident, manifested in a day spent with Cassius Spears Sr., who champions sustainable environments. Spears invited me to his family-run Ashawaug Farm in October, while I attended the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) and the Transition to Organic Partnership Program meetings in Providence, Rhode Island. Like him, I was there to address resource disparities among Black, indigenous, and minority farmers on behalf of Black Farmers Index. As well, seek more insights into USDA initiatives tackling the issue. Specifically, how will the USDA place resources in supporting Black farmers who grow organically, but face many obstacles in becoming certified; hence their low representation in the organic industry.
Since the construction of the USDA, non-white farmers have been underserved in every way possible. At the center of this reality is an agricultural industry founded on the growing traditions of both indigenous nations and Africans. Yet, the commercial enterprise used a colonizing, slave system to acquire immense wealth that prescribed those same peoples at the bottom of a brutal and unsustainable hierarchy. Resultantly, it caused cascading disruptions in our food systems and the country’s ecological health. Simply put, we are off balance and in need of a full and utter readjustment that starts with the soil, water and sky.
During the NOSB pre-meeting, Spears emphasized the need for more federal monies and support to be directed towards efforts that preserve the land and support farmers doing this work. Because of the capitalistic-driven system in agriculture, those stewards who regard soil and water as sacred elements have been historically dismissed. Now, with the global climate crisis, the world cannot afford to disregard the knowledge that someone like Spears brings.
To tell you how generous Spears is, we met via a handshake earlier this year in a Washington DC hotel lobby. He was there to advocate for more funding towards conservation efforts on the Hill. I was there visiting the area. The encounter was brief, but you knew him by his cowboy hat that crowned his tall frame.
Quite a surprise, months later and unexpectedly, we found ourselves in meetings where we were one of the few Black and Native men of color talking about sustainability and farming. In his generosity, he invited me to the Ashawaug estate on Narragansett land. Happily, I accepted, and unapologetically skipped the next day of talks to embark on an eye-opening journey.
Stewards of Turtle Island
Walking the sacred grounds of Ashawaug Farm, I marveled at Spears’ profound knowledge of planting and harvesting techniques, rooted in indigenous wisdom. The farm is what the white man calls organic, but Narragansett sees it as growing traditions passed on to harvest the rich, silt loam soil. His cultivation of corn, greens, tomatoes, and squash, along with medicinal herbs, blends ancient practices with modern farming technologies.
At every turn, he named crops, while dropping facts in understanding the natural flow of the land. Their reverence for the environment extends to traditional practices, such as gathering only male crabs during shellfish season to ensure the continuity of reproduction. In their cultural epistemology, “plants are looked at as [Narragansett’s] sisters and animals as their brothers.” As such, they treat them with that respect. Plus, the Narragansett acknowledge that plants and sea life were here before them, so they do not harm their environment.
An advocate for indigenous ways of stewarding the earth, he is actively involved in the Ashawaug Project, an initiative integrating art, agriculture, health, and food sovereignty. This is a collaborative effort with his wife Dawn, who is the Director of the Northeast Indigenous Agriculture and Arts Alliance.
As we walk past customary homes of the Narragansett while Spears explains how the caw of one bird or the flock of another indicates certain weather patterns, it becomes clearer each minute why he has been designated as an expert on the indigenous ways. Indeed, he is a caretaker of Mother Earth or Turtle Island as he often refers to her.
For Spears, reclaiming the land is a calling and duty to his tribe. The Narragansett people boast a rich history as part of the Algonquin tribe from Rhode Island, with their influence spreading across Canada, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and the Midwest. In fact, Rhode Island is Narragansett land, and the indigenous name for the chain of islands off the Atlantic coast in the northeast of the U.S.
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While there was a ban to enslave the Native nations in the Rhode Island territory, Ruth Wallis Herndon’s research on the Narragansett and their calamitous relationship with Rhode Island officials during the Revolutionary era of the late 17th century and throughout the 18th century, provide a historical snippet of how the Amer’ican identification changed. Herndon uses oral history to capture how Rhode Island authorities viewed Native people most often as “the poor of the town . . . whose lives required official management.” Further, these officials redesignated Native people as “Negro” or “black” in the written record, preparing the way to place them in perpetual indentured servitude.
In all, these tactics set the stage for tribal “extinction,” but it also justified enslavement of Narragansett men who were master farmers, hunters and fishermen. At the same time, it targeted Native women who often moved throughout the territory unaccompanied by men, which in the English’s eyes, validated kidnapping, arrests, entrapment and forced liaisons.
This reassignment of identity validated the years of atrocity that was to come to the Narragansett. Herdon writes. “In 1675, in the heat of a regional war with Native peoples, New England colonist killed hundreds of the Narragansett, uninvolved in the war at that point, in an unprovoked attack on one of their winter camps located in the Great Swamp in South Kingstown, Rhode Island.” However, the Narragansett fiercely resisted, even though it brought on their dispersal.
The genocide and experiences of being “deeply alienated by the religious beliefs and cultural practices of the Europeans,” caused many Narragansett to leave their homes to resettle in New York and Wisconsin. In other instances, they relocated to neighboring cousin tribes like the Hassanamisco band of Nipmuc in Massachusetts.
The Hassanamisco Nipmuc nation, who were called “the Praying Indians,” were receivers of the first bible printed in America, which was not in English, but the Algonquin Natick language. The bible, titled “Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God,” was also called the Eliot Indian bible. Named after John Elliot, the missionary who translated it, also held meetings at local Native praying churches. Ironically, as we wrap up the Thanksgiving holiday that speaks of Pilgrims who wanted religious freedoms, the Christian holy book was gifted to an original Amer’ican and in their language; albeit to spread the religious practice throughout the indigenous nations.
Although the Narragansett rejected the white man’s religious practices, to this day, the two tribes carry out an annual convening called the Fall intertribal gathering. Included in the meeting are traditional ceremonies of “drumming, dancing, and speakers focused on the importance of bringing migratory fish like herring back to the Kittacuck-Blackstone River.”
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Ironically, as I was walking Spears’ Ashawaug Farm, the ritual was taking place. More pointedly, Spears spoke in depth on how the Narragansett and Hassanamisco usher the herring fish back up the river to encourage spawning since the 1700s, when their natural breeding journey was blocked by European immigrants. Today “herring play a vital role in the aquatic human food chain and Rhode Island’s $400M fishing industry,” explained the Blackstone River Water Council.
The river that Spears spoke of was the same water he once swam in as a youth. When the local tribes struck a deal with white developers, it was these same waters that he and his tribal family found refuge after working construction on the buildings they gradually erected. But in a predictable response, it was these same developers who complained about the workflow of the Native peoples being “too slow.”
Spears explained that the way of indigenous people was to remain tuned to the natural order of things, which includes working. When the body tells you to stop, that is exactly what they did. Gradually, they were replaced by a labor force who didn’t have the power to negotiate work hours like they did. Subsequently, it cut into the Narragansett’s income. For Spears, his answer was to return to the old ways and the land, of which he serves as a custodian on a six-acre farm, armed with sustainable ecosystem knowledge.
The copper-colored Native
When I first saw Spears, I saw a Black man in America. When I learned he was Native, it brought me to a term that has resurfaced in looking at the color spectrum of the American nations. That term, copper-colored was a way Natives were described in the early mappings of the Americas, though Hollywood and media mostly often represent the original indigene as pale as the white man, and more closely resembling a particular type of European—thin nose and all.
On the contrary, there is a diverse range of hues, which is Spears and the Narragansett. The research done by Herndon says that in their disbandment, there was intermingling with Europeans as well as Africans transported to the Americas after the 1675 reclassification doctrine. While that is true, Herndon’s supposition is that the Narragansett relabeled as “Negro” to enlist them into slavery, indicates that there were tribal bands who resembled those enslaved before the mixture of lineages even began. This means that what we call today, Black people, are also part of the copper color indigenous with lineages spanning tens of thousands of years before chattel slavery and European settlement.
There is a fierce removal of Native people being those of the darker, more rich copper-toned complexion. In the annals of American history, those dipped in deep-bronzed shades are Black, not Native, or a transported African, not Indigenous, and even more so, a slave, and not Amer’ican. The Narragansett show that they too are custodians of the land, and reject the naming that the white man attempted to blanket them with long ago. So much so, that they even fought to call themselves Native when it came to them voting in the 1920s.
In 1928, after the Equal Franchise Act, the federal government barred Natives from voting. Already, there were fissures amongst the Native people as to who was Indian, who was not, and even more so, the direction of the nations as America solidified itself as a superpower. First Nations people like the Narragansett were told they had to vote as a Negro. Phenotypically, many of them looked African American, but the tribe stood firm. They were Indian. It was not until the 1950s they were granted the opportunity to vote under the Indian designation.
In many Black homes, when someone said, “I have Indian in my family,” some would scoff at the idea. Now, what we are uncovering is there is much truth to it regardless of the ancestry swabs. It actually happened to me.
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In 2021, when I began to go deeper into farming, I decided to locate my mother’s people in North Carolina. After a few conversations, I ended up in a town looking at a whole bunch of people who look just like me—brown to light-brown skin with red undertones, full lips, tightly-coiled hair and wide noses. Eventually, I found a cousin who assured me, “We’re native, we’ve been here,” as he said that oftentimes cousins married each other. Well, I am glad my grandfather left for that reason, but it was the awakening of me looking into a family history on American soil that runs long before those of us were forced onto the Rez, hiding in plain sight, or captured and placed on plantations.
Undoubtedly, this does not abandon the African heritage coursing through me, but merely acknowledges the native ones that flow as prominent too.
Meeting Spears and going to the farm this past October was a homecoming for me. To me, there is no coincidence of the Thanksgiving holiday taking place around this pivotal fish-harvesting season and the end of fall crops marks the finality of the growing season. During this time, many Black farmers shut down their operations for the cold months. Like the Native, it is their way to rest and sustain from crops that are stored for the winter season. While these lands stand thousands of miles apart, the cultural exchanges are uncanny.
Every year, the challenges of indigenous erasure and genocide centering the “first” Thanksgiving continue to grow during this observation. Many such households often grapple with feelings of marginalization, and some who are labeled “Black,” see their linkages to the fraught observance as pedestrian observers, at best.
What Spears’ farm walk and history shows is that many of us are more connected to America than we think. For me, it took farming to find out that I too sing America in the mosaic of identities I find myself. In the grander lens, our stake, those who are so-called Black, and also have Native ties, must also do the work of restructuring history, which includes us in re-writing ourselves back into the original America, American-ness, and its ever-evolving tapestry.