PBN: What does it mean to you to represent your ethnicity at such an institution?
SPEARS: It is important that the work I do empowers the indigenous community while sharing our history, culture and art with the public. Everything I do is for the next generation. We often say the “next seven generations” as it means what you are doing today should impact your great-grandchildren’s great-grandchildren. Those that came before me laid the groundwork so I could be here today. I thank my mother Dawn Dove, the director in the 1970s who gained our nonprofit status; Eleanor Dove, who supported the museum by first giving it a home in the 1960s; and Princess Red Wing, who gave the museum its first-person voice when it began in 1958. My earliest memory was of my cousins and I doing the Strawberry Dance at Tomaquag Museum, when I was 5 years old.
PBN: How do you incorporate your personal and family history and ethnicity into the educating you do through your work?
SPEARS: Our museum has a first-person presentation style. Each educator, including myself, tells the history through their own lens and set of experiences. I am Narragansett and when I am working at Tomaquag, visiting a school, corporation or other museum to share my culture, I share what has been passed to me by my family and community. I do this through storytelling, music, dance, lectures, games, traditional arts, nature hikes and kayak tours. In each of these experiences visitors get to know a bit about me, my family and my tribal community and the intersection of identity, sovereignty, equality and other social justice issues.
PBN: Has there been a certain exhibit or project you’ve worked on that has been particularly emblematic of your curation style?
SPEARS: “Wampum: Telling Our Stories” is an example of my curatorial style. The goal is to correct misconceptions while telling the history, culture, art and community of our people. It is important to get visitors to understand we are sharing our history through our stories and art; that we are still here despite the genocide, colonization, displacement, enslavement, assimilative practices, acculturation and erasure policies that have made us all but invisible in our homelands.
PBN: How did you feel after you found out you were nominated for the Tom Roberts Prize from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities?
SPEARS: I was pleasantly surprised and very honored. I am proud of my work and the work of my staff, board and volunteers that support the mission and goals of the Tomaquag Museum.
PBN: What does this honor mean to you as a museum curator, someone who finds creative ways to communicate with an audience?
SPEARS: It is important to me for the larger Rhode Island public (tourists, too) to learn about the first peoples of this land – the Narragansett. I want them to understand that there is no Rhode Island nor United States history without indigenous history, that we are woven into the landscape, our ancestors are here, we are here, the next generations will be here. The work we have done with the support of the Rhode Island Council on the Humanities has allowed us to create exhibits, films, books, lectures and audio recordings that express the trauma we have felt and the pursuit of happiness we endeavor to strive for. This award allows us to broaden our audience and share our stories in new and meaningful ways.