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Memorializing the service of our Indigenous veterans

By: Dana Richie

(Dana Richie)

With a bulldozer in the background, six shovels stuck out of an uncovered patch of dirt. Six indigenous veterans sprinkled tobacco where the shovels met the earth. As a flute played, they dug their shovels into the ground and moved pieces of the land.

Less than three months after this event, on July 12, an engraved granite monument beneath a stone arch will stand in this same place, accounting for the 42nd memorial on the cemetery grounds.

This ceremony included blessings by Wallace Hazard, a Narragansett reverend, and Andre Gaines, cultural steward for the Nipmuc nation, as well as musical performances by Thawn Harris and Quanah LaRose. The celebration, complete with a crowd of more than 50 supporters, represented the first physical step toward the construction of the Indigenous Veterans Memorial at the Rhode Island Veterans Memorial Cemetery, a process that has been years in the making.

Charles Smith, Co-Chair of the Honoring Indigenous Veterans of Turtle Island Committee, said that the monument is a “dream of mine.” Five years ago, while working as a Cemetery Specialist, Smith of Warwick noticed that there was not a monument to honor Indigenous veterans. He started conducting his own research to identify the Indigenous people who were laid to rest there, estimating about 122 veterans.

“I walked 40,000 graves myself, personally, to find out every single name and rank” he added.

For Smith, a monument for Indigenous servicemen and women was not only overdue, but it was also personal.

“My parents are both buried here,” he said. “Native American, both sides. I wanted to do something to honor the Indigenous men and women who are here.”

Three years ago, Smith approached Lorén Spears, Executive Director of the Tomaquag Museum, with his idea for a memorial. She jumped on board, serving as the co-chair of the committee. They assembled a team of veterans, educators and advocates who championed this project.

Lorén Spears and Charles Smith (Dana Richie)

Maija Hill, a member of the Narragansett Tribe and a member of the committee, spoke at the event. She shared that her family has generations of veterans: her father and uncle were laid to rest in this cemetery, she served in the U.S. Army and both her son and daughter served in the military.

“We’re still here,” she added. “What we sacrifice every single day will now forever be memorialized and can’t be erased.”

Candyce Testa, a veteran, member of the committee and member of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, said that the monument symbolizes a “bridge between past, present and future.” She added that it was important to “sow seeds of remembrance” as they broke ground for this memorial.

As an educator, Spears views this monument as an important conversation starter. “Most people don’t know that per capita, Indigenous people have the highest number of U.S armed service since the inception of this country to today,” she said. “It’s still a fact.”

“It’s an oversight in the cemetery to not have Indigenous people represented in one of these monuments, and so it’s very exciting to be getting to the groundbreaking,” Spears added.

Spears said that the monument design represents many Indigenous nations. The engraving on the front will recognize the nations with interred veterans in the cemetery. Those nations, based on Smith’s research, include Seekonk Wampanoag, Pokanoket, Manissean, Narragansett, Nipmuc, Nottoway, Osage, Pequot, Poosepatuck, Shinnecock and Wampanoag. The stone arch is a nod to Narragansett masonry and will be crafted by Craig Spear Jr. of Craig Spears Masonry, a Narragansett business.

“What better way to represent Indigenous community than to have a monument that’s created by Indigenous people?” Spears said.

The monument will also feature two benches in the back so community members can pause and reflect upon the sacrifice and service of Indigenous veterans.

A lot of thought also went into the monument’s location. Smith made a list of his preferences, but the committee encountered some constraints when working with the cemetery’s offerings and regulations. Both Smith and Spears are happy with the visibility of the final location.

“Everybody that comes in here has to drive down this straight away and how wonderful is it to actually have the monument honoring Indigenous people,” Spears said. “As people are coming in and out, they’ll be able to see it.”

(Dana Richie)

When the committee originally drew up plans for the monument in 2020, the estimated cost was $50,000. Over the past couple of years, the cost adjusted to around $80,000. Spears said that they’re only one or two thousand dollars shy of their goal, thanks to community support. For example, Douglas Construction will be donating some of its time to lessen its portion of the expected cost.

Additionally, the committee received a $25,000 grant from the state legislature.

Representative Camille Vella-Wilkinson, a veteran herself and a member of Veterans Affairs Committee, spearheaded this grant. “The state is supporting our Indigenous veterans who are part of the fabric of the veterans community,” she said.

At the close of the event, Spears encouraged attendees to return to the same space in early September for the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Published in the Warwick Beacon and Johnston Sunrise on 7/20/2023


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