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Life Along the Bay
Excerpted from "Narragansett
Indians and Narragansett Bay," by Ella W.T. Sekatau, Ethno-Historian
and Elder Medicine Woman, and John B. Brown III, Understudy to Medicine
Man. This essay appears in What a Difference a Bay Makes, published
in 1993 as part of a project by the Rhode Island Historical Society and
the Rhode Island Department of State Library Services.
Rhode Island and parts
of other New England States were once the far-reaching lands of the Narragansett.
Prior to the European invasion of the 17th century, there existed a near-perfect
state of well-being. People lived in concert with their environmental
surroundings. The ancestors in their utilization of all true materials
did little to disrupt. Conditions were dependable and unique and predictableever-constant
with known variables.
Summers were spent closer to the great salt ponds [along the southern
shore] and sea in small one- or two-family dwellings for the sole purpose
of preparing for the survival through the six months of late fall, winter,
and early spring. In the vicinities of the small summer homes made from
reed mats of bark of chestnut, pine, and cedar, great areas were cleared
for horticultural practices. Varieties of maize, squashes, pumpkins, and
beans, were planted along with cucumbers, sunflowers, and tobacco. The
care of the gardens was the females' responsibility, except for the tobacco.
Ample supplies of natural wild foods in the form of roots, tubers, nuts,
berries, fruits, and both land and aquatic varieties of leafy plants were
used by the Archaic Narragansett, many of which are still there for the
taking. All varieties were eaten daily when in season and some of all
varieties were sliced and dried for storage to save space. Winter dwellings
or longhouses were in fact the permanent homes of the Narragansett Peoples.
Matriarchal clans shared the buildings housing up to 30 families in one
building. The larger families had several bark-covered longhouses within
an 18- to 24-foot palisade made from small trees inserted closely together
and bound together as well. Many observers mistook these palisades for
protection against other humans. However, these palisades were built to
protect humans and their belongings from weather and animal depredations.
Summer home locations changed every few years, and permanent homes changed
only if a natural disaster deemed its relocation.
The contact and colonization periods of New England opened the doorway
to cultural conflict as well as to the environment which includes the
land and water resources. Customarily the Narragansett People used summer
camp for three to four years; they would then pick another favored spot
for three to four years, and rotate the areas. This process allowed for
regeneration of all natural resources in a given place and prevented "wipe
out" of species. Some of the Native history has been swallowed by
attrition, and the imperfect contributions, observed by outsiders regarding
the Native Populations, have persisted and exist in the worst forms today.
There has been the wearing down and the weakening, almost to exhaustion,
by the constant demands and harrassments on the base rocks, the Waters,
and the Earth Mother, since the influx of another culture has overwhelmed
the native population with their towns and cities which stay in one place.
This practice of the newcomers taxed all of the environment.
The ecological transformations for the last 300 years of Narragansett
Bay and the land it surrounds are inexcusable today. The colonists were
ignorant of the ecological practices of the Indigenous People. They could
not understand the undergrowth burning, the practices of planting crops,
or the benefits of not defiling the waters. The colonists did not understand
that the moving of habitats periodically placed minimum demands on the
Narragansett Indians made sure no species became overused and this insured
perpetual natural wealth. Much of what Narragansett People did and how
they lived was a love for the labors knowing the benefits would be enough
to survive. In case of shortages due to natural causes, areas would not
The colonists had a different understanding of labor and wealth, based
on profit and greed to acquire material wealth. Their ideas were to conquer
what they interpreted as wilderness. The goal was to make the areas look
like what they had left behind in Europe. Clear the great tress, fence
the land for their cattle, put up buildings. Rip and tear out the natural.
The bay was always there, however, to assure constant sources for food
and clothing, and making parts of the tools, utensils, and weapons by
using bones, shells, scales, skins, and bladders.
For more information
see the Economy