October 22, 2014
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Then and Now
Fact, fancy and folklore circa 1980 continued
Don D'Amato and Terry Spencer

One of the major problems of the time was the large number of blackbirds that abounded in the 17th century. To counter this, the Indians built a “watch house” in the fields where the older children lived in the summer. Their task was to get up early and scare the birds away from the fields. In addition, young hawks were often captured and trained to keep the blackbirds away.

The Indians in the area also planted tobacco. This crop had a religious significance and had to be planted, cultivated and dried by the males as females were forbidden to partake because of religious reasons.

Once the corn was grown, the women picked it and spread the fresh ears on mats to dry. When the corn dried it was placed in a deep hole lined with stones or stored in baskets and stone-tubs. The corn was alter ground in stone mortars by the females, who often combined the cornmeal with nuts and berries. As the tribes increased in number, this source of food became more and more important, but the major food supply was still obtained from hunting and fishing, which was the responsibility of the male.

Another aspect of tribal life that was for male only, and a puzzle to the English, was in what Roger Williams called the “hot-house.” He describes it is a little “Cell of Cave,” six to eight feet round and made on the side of a hill. The men would “heet it exceedingly” with wood laid upon a “heap of stones in the middle.” The fire was taken out and the stones left to heat the house. Ten of more men would enter at one time and remain an hour or more, “smoking tobacco, discoursing and sweating together.” After this, in winter or summer, Williams tells us, they would run to a nearby brook to cool off.

The English settlers found the Indian way of life strange and often concentrated on the less attractive aspects. Even Roger Williams described their wigwams, or homes, as “filthy, smoky holes” that were loaded with fleas and accused the Indians on Warwick Neck of the “wildest and most licentious practices.” The bitterness and the horror of King Philip’s War in1775-76 clouded the positive feelings many colonists had for their native hosts. Much of the writing of the Colonial period pictured the Narragansetts as ignorant, lazy and savage, forgetting that before the Europeans came, drunkenness, gluttony, thievery and murder were practically unknown. Only recently have we been made more aware of the positive aspects of Indian life, such as their hospitality, generosity and attitude toward children. There were no beggars in the tribe, and fatherless children were never turned away or forced to go without food or love.

Today, we realize that the past contributions of the Narragansetts through their generosity, knowledge, tolerance and compassion are as much a part of our heritage as their material contributions.


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