Notable Natives: A woman before her time

Mel Rising Dawn Cordeiro

Managing Editor

Photo taken by Mel Rising Dawn Cordeiro

It is discouraging to know that there are very few mainstream female Native American leaders. They do exist, but they are few and far between. A whirlwind in her own right, Princess Red Wing of the Seven Crescents was more than a leader. She was an advocate, a teacher, a storyteller, a visionary and a well respected Elder of the Wampanoag community. Willing to talk to anyone who wanted to learn, she made it her life goal to preserve her heritage, her culture and her language.


Born on March 21, 1896 to Pokanoket Wampanoag and Narragansett parents, Princess Red Wing was destined to change lives. Her lineage is strong, having the prominent blood lines of Natives such as Sachem Metacomet and Simeon Simons, a Pokanoket and descendent of Sachem Massasoit who served as General George Washington’s body guard during the French and Indian war, running through her veins. She received her tribal name from her mother, who named her after the red wing blackbird, "to fling her mission far with grace, for ears that harken for the uplift of my race,” Princess Red Wing explained to anyone who asked. Indeed, her mission flung far.


The Indian Recognition Act was passed in 1934, signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt. The goal of this act was to allow Natives to self-govern and take responsibility for their Nations. In response to this, Princess Red Wing was asked to design the Narragansett Indian Tribe seal and also assisted in the writing of the tribe’s bi-laws. One of the first things she did during this time was to organize ceremony recognizing the loss of Narragansett lives during the Great Swamp Massacre of 1675, a critical battle in King Philip’s War. This ceremony is still held yearly.


The 1930s also saw the opportunity for her to participate in ceremony at Mount Rushmore, which included an American historical play. She chose not to participate, as “It spoke of the ‘dirty painted savages of New England.’ I sent it back and told them that they did not know their history of New England natives who, in that age of yore, jumped in the water every single morning to cleanse their bodies. I told them ‘NO.’ I would not take part as a ‘dirty painted savage’ or get any of my people to do it.”


In 1945, she became the Squaw Sachem of the New England Council of Chiefs, as well as the Squaw Sachem of the Pokanoket Wampanoags. Becoming the Squaw, literally meaning “female” or “woman,” Sachem meant that she now had the authority to preside over ceremonies. This position also allowed her to ensure that tradition lived on.


From 1947 to 1970, Princess Red Wing served as a member of the Speaker’s Research Committee of the under-secretariat of the United Nations. Of this experience, she shared: “I met Eleanor Roosevelt and [Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei] Gromyko and a lot of other leaders at the U.N. When you’re the only Indian in the place, they notice you.”


It was during this time frame that she and her friend Eva Butler, a local anthologist, founded the Tomaquag Museum. Originally opening their doors in 1958 in Butler’s private home, the museum remained there until Butler’s passing in 1972, when Princess Red Wing moved the museum to Exeter, Rhode Island. This new location, aptly situated at the end of an old Indian trail, was also home to Dovecrest restaurant, where Princess Red Wing would often share tribal knowledge and read the tea leaves of the customers. She resided with the Dove family, and remained there for the rest of her days. She stepped down from her role as historian and archivist at Tomaquag in 1984, ultimately crossing over in 1987.


Other notable achievements include receiving a Doctor of Humane Affairs from the University of Rhode Island in 1975, awards from the Rhode Island Federation of Women’s Clubs, the Boston Indian Council, the Rhode Island Writers Guild and induction into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame, of which she is the only Native woman. A shining light for her people, Princess Red Wing truly was ahead of her time.


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