Princess Red Wing sits at the worn upright piano, playing the chords for "Majestic Sweetness Sits Enthroned" and singing softly to herself. "You know, I'm just doing what my ancestors have done for centuries when they stepped out of their wigwams and greeted the day. I'm singing the praise of my creator."
For much of her long life, Red Wing has been singing her song of praise, with Indian words but with what she hopes is a universal message.
Since 1945 she has been the squaw sachem of the New England Council of Chiefs. This honor permits her to wear the big bonnet and to perform the sacred ceremonies. She presides at weddings, baptisms and christenings, and at the festivals of Thanksgiving which the woodlands Indians hold not once but five times each year to thank their Maker.
But before she achieved such a distinguished rank among her own people, she was offering much the same song to thousands of children of every race, as a teacher of Indian crafts and lore and a memorable teller of her people's legends and myths, at summer camps in Connecticut, rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Vermont. Most of her life has been devoted to this one theme, regardless of audience: thanksgiving.
She is first and foremost a storyteller, in the most ancient sense of the world, telling her tales effortlessly, the way only a teller with years of practice can. Chiefly, they are stories of origin, the myths of her people. They provide a record of how the Indian accounted for everything from the creation of man and the seasons to the rabbit's short tail, the colors of the leaves, or the song of the thrush. Whether she is talking to adults or children , she starts with the same story -- how the ceremonial drum came to be made:
"A young Indian stood on a hilltop with all the glories of nature about him, and he felt so good that his hear beat loud and he heard, "Tum . . . tum . . . tum.'
"Then when he realized how close he was to Mother Nature -- he slept on her bossom, he fed from the berries of the bushes and the fish from the brook. In all he heard the heartbeat of Mother Nature: 'One, two . . . one, two.'
"then when he realized that everything his eye beheld -- the pine trees, the green grass, the flowers, the hard rocks, the wind upon his cheek, and even himself -- that all was created by a good, a great, and an unseen spirit, he heard the heartbeat of the creator of the universe: "One, two, three . . . one, two, three.'
"And when he looked around and saw his brother, he heard the heartbeat of mankind: 'One, two, three, four . . . one, two, three, four.'
"then he made his drum and he beat out that rhythm. All the music of the world is made up of that same rhythm that the young Indian found on that hilltop. And, for the Indian, all his ceremonies, all his business meetings, are called together by the drum, and when the drum beats, the people come."
Princess Red Wing was born on March 21, 1896, in sprague, Conn., near New London. Her mother was Mary Simonds of the Wampanoag nation, a direct descendant of Simeon Simonds, the young Indian who accompanied General Washington on his final campaigns and who, it is believed, was the grandson of King Phillip, the Massasoit who made war on the early colonies in defense of his lands, family, and traditions.
To this day, Red Wing carries the sign of Phillip's house, the Seven Crescents. It makes up part of the title which appears on all of her official correspondence with the federal government.
Red Wing's father, Walter Glasgo, was descended from the line of Mary Sachem of the Narragansetts and was a member of the family that estab lished the first iron foundries in Connecticut; their iron was used to make some of the earliest railroad tracks in the state. He was a farmer, a dairyman, a horseman -- and a gambler and a drinker.
Red Wing insists that his weaknesses never cost him a job or caused his family undue suffering, though one suspects they must have stretched the family's resources at times. Red Wing, however, refuses to spoil the memory of what she considers an essentially happy, if exacting, childhood. Bonds of love and respect for her parents remain intact.
She recalls the pride she felt, as a child of 4 or 5, sitting high atop her father's express wagon when she joined him on his early morning milk rounds from the farm he ran in southeastern Connecticut at the turn of the century. She would scurry to be on time to go along, pulling on her clothes inside out in the dark. And he always took her, a joyful companion, once he had patiently smoothed out the mistakes of her hurried dressing.
And she remembers that her mother never let them forget that they were Indian , and different. "when we went to school, she made us learn our lessons. There were seven of us, and we had to keep our clothes just so. We'd better not bring any bad marks home for department, because we'd get punished at home, and we didn't want to get punished twice."
Her mother's strictness extended throughout their family life, particularly to table manners.
"when we came home," Red Wing remembers, "we sat at the table. There was a white tablecloth, and white napkins for each of us. We had to learn to eat and use our silver properly. People would say to mother, 'Why do you set all those seven children down to a white tablecloth and napkins and everything? Why don't you put oilcloth on?'
"My mother'd say to them, 'My children might eat with the President someday, and they have to learn to eat at home.'
"And college presidents put their feet under my mother's table. She didn't have to say, 'You children go into the kitchen.h Because she knew we were going to sit up there, 'cause we learned our manners at home every singlem night."
Princess Red Wing has not eaten with the president -- yet. But she has had tea with Mme. Pandit, talked with nehru and Khrushchev, and been on friendly terms with Eleanor Roosevelt. She has shared the car of the governor of Rhode Island when rain dampened the commencemet ceremonies at the University of Rhode Island in 1975, where both she and the governor received honorary degrees (hers was a doctorate of human affairs).
She is particularly proud of having served as a member of the Speaker's Research Committee of the undersecretariat of the united Nations (from 1947 to 1970). She feels she was able to help bring some of the ideas of the world's great minds directly to general audiences.
Red Wing has her own perspective on the world's recognition of her long work in Indian and humanitarian affairs. She still gets as excited over the first story she had published -- in a local Sunday school newspaper -- as she does about the elaborately embossed scrolls of honor that have been presented to her.
A speaking engagement for a troop of neighborhood Girl Scouts or a long-ago memory from her summer camping experiences is remembered with the same tickled enthusiasm as the occasion when she gave the blessing at the International Congress of Distinguished Men and Women of the World this past summer in Amsterdam.
She doesn't disparage the accolades, by any means: But one is as natural and as cherished as the other.
Red Wing is now archivist at the Tomaquag Museum of American Indian artifacts , part of a cluster of buildings called Dove Crest near Rhode Island's Arcadia State Park. Dove Crest, where she lives as well as works, is owned and operated by Eleanore and Ferris Dove, both Narragansett Indians. It lies in a hollow at the end of an old Indian trail.
She does not recall ever deciding to become a storyteller. It just happened naturally. She learned the tales orally, the old way, from her mother and her mother's mother each day, and especially during the winter:
"It the Moon of Storytelling, which is about our February, that's the moon of ice storms and bad weather here in New England. It's about the worst, stormy month of all. January's the Moon of the White Silence. But February, they sat in their wigwams around the fire, the older people, the grandmothers and the grandfathers, and all would tell to the children all the legends, all the stories, all the history of the tribe, which became our Great Unwritten Book. And this came down from mother to daughter, from father to son, and on down through the generations."
As Harry crews, the Southern novelist, has written, "Nothing is allowed to die in society of storytelling people." So it was for the Indian and so it is for Red Wing. Nothing is allowed to die, and nothing of importance is overlooked.
Red Wing will launch into a cycle of stories, hardly pausing for breath, as she offers, from the Indian perspective, the reasons for the way things are. What better, more poetic, or perhaps more memorable way to explain the flinty, vexing rocks of New Enlans than through the following story, which, in some respects, is more powerful than any geology lesson:
"You see all these stones that grow in the field? You know when you're making a garden somewheres, you gotta dig up the stones everywhere, there's a rock here and a rock there. Well, you see, the Great spirit, when He was lonesome, decided to make Himself a man. So He took a piece of stone and carved it into a nice man. When He got it done, it was so cold He couldn't love it. And it wouldn't love Him.
"So He took His great mallet and smashed it and it scattered all over southern New England.So today, whenever you're trying to make up a garden, you've got to dig up the stones, and every stone's a piece of the man the Great Spirit couldn't love. So He decided to make His man out of something that grew, like a plant. Because the plant has its nourishment from the earth, and its limbs go up this way in praise of its Maker. And so that's why when the Indian prays, he puts his arms up like that, like the limbs of a tree."
There are whole seasons of stories in her, about the plants and animals of the woodlands, about the legends of the tribes and chiefs of New England, about the Indian trickling the white man. Yet there is no animosity or bitterness in these latter stories.
Red Wing can bristle over the Indian stereotypes that are perpetuated by the non-Indian world and the general ignorance concerning Indian culture. When Mt. Rushmore was to be dedicated in the mid-'30s, Red Wing was asked to participate in the pageant.
She refused, returning the script, because it referred to the "dirty painted savages of New England."
She told the organizers, "You don't know your Indian history. My ancestors jumped into the water every morning to cleanse their bodies, summer and winter. When a new baby was born, they dunked him in that water even though they had to cut a hole in the ice to put him in. 'Course you were fortunate if you were born in June instead of January, 'cause you got dunked just the same."
She addresses with equal fervor the misconceptions she finds about Indian religion. The thought that officials from Washington believe they have to counsel the West Coast Indians about how to conserve the Columbia River salmon outraged her. The idea runs counter, she insists, to everything Indians believe , that you never take more than you need, or destroy what's essential to future generations: "All of nature was their great storehouse. Gave'em everything they needed to eat, to wear, to build their abodes, to build the instruments and weapons -- everything. But they never wasted a thing or used anything unnecessary. They were the greatest conservationists that the world ever knew.
"Now the Indian never worshiped anything he could conquer. But he figured that the sun, the stars, the animals, and all of nature was the creator's way of speaking to him and maintaining makind, and thatm was the basis of the Indians' religion. And every single morning they parted the doorway to their abode to go out on a hill and ask for wisdom from their Creator for the day.
"The Indian's religion went into every phase of his life. That's why ages ago we had a ceremony of thanksgiving for every moon, because the Indian felt he had to stay in favor with his creator or else the evil spirit, somewheres under the earth would come up and destroy him."
This spirit of thanksgiving lies at the heart of Indian culture, and Red Wing will point out that the Indians of the Northeast still celebrate five major thanksgivings.
The first is for the maple trees and takes place in March when the sap begins to flow.
Following it, in June, comes the Strawberry Thanksgiving, the Thanksgiving of Renewed Friendships, when the Great Spirit gave a girl the gift of strawberries to take back to her brother, with whom she had quarreled.
"And since the strawberries were given as a peace offering, we're all at peace when we eat our strawberries. No one goes into the Strawberry Dance with a grudge against anybody else."
Then, in late July, there is the Green Bean Thanksgiving, to celebrate the gift from the forest elves of this edible bean.
An, in early October, the Indian commemorates another thanksgiving. According to Red Wing:
"The Great Spirit looked down on His children of the forest, and He knew that some of them weren't as fast as their brothers and sisters, and perhaps a little less ambitious or a little lazier, maybe, but He took pity on them just the same. After the first frost, He turned the warm winds back for a few days so that they could get their harvest in and be safe for the Cold Moon.
"Now some people call these good, warm days Indian summer, but the Indian knew just what it was for. He gave them a berry, but He had used up all His sweetness in the strawberries and the raspberries and the currants and the blueberries and the fruit.
"But they gathered the cranberries He gave them just the same, even though they were a little sour; and they made their cranberry juice and their cranberry sauce and their cranberry bread and all and were thankful for the cranberries."
Finally, there is the story of the Pilgrims' first thanksgiving, with Red Wing's comments on the accuracy of the historical record. Again, as with nearly all of her stories, there is a point -- effectively to show the spiritual direction all Indian life took:
"When those Pilgrims came across the water in the little Mayflower, they has used up just about everything they had on the ship, and they would have starved if our Wampanoag mothers hadn't opened up their storehouses and fed them. Then when spring came along, they gave them seed that was strange to them and showed them how to fertilize the virgin soil with dead fish.
"But that first year their crops were poor; many of them couldn't stand this wilderness and passed into the land of the hereafter. Another cold winter was ahead of them, and they didn't feel very festive.
"Then old Squanto stepped down into Plymouth, and said to Governor Bradford, 'when things look dark, when many pass into the land of the hereafter, when the crops are poor, that's the time for the biggestm feast, for the biggestm thanksgiving, for the biggestm dance, to show your creator that you're not complaining against your hard lot.'
"And Governor Bradford answered him, "That wouldm be good for my fainting people. Go call your Massasoit and your people and tell them to come, and we will feast and we will thank God for what blessings we have.'
"And the Wampanoags came with their wild turkey, with their venison, with their bear meat, their potatoes, their corn, their beans, their squash, their pumpkin, their cranberries -- enough to feed all Plymouth. They cooked it up and sat down and ate and thanked God.
"Now history says it was the first Thanksgiving, and the Pilgrims fed 700 Indians, but it was the Indians who brought food enough to feed all of Plymouth and themselves, and for the Indians it was just another thanksgiving, for the harvest of the garden, the forest, the fields, and the meadows. And we still have that thanksgiving today, but we celebrate it in conjunction with the national Thansgiving."
No matter how often she may have recounted these stories, she delights to offer them to new ears. She puts her whole self into the presentation, acting out the parts, telling and telling and telling -- generously, innocently, without ego. Red Wing explains that in the ceremony to the spirit of giving, Nimiko, one dances "for the privilege of putting gifts into the circle for the less fortunate members of the tribe." It is with that purpose that Red Wing shares her stories, her gift to anyone who listens. Only afterward does one realize how "les fortunate" he was before he received these gifts.
The true spirit of her humanity is released, like a dove, in her benediction, which she continues at the holy days she still keeps with her people and friends from outside the tribe. It is a grace, appropriate for any thanksgiving feast, a wish for every new morning: May you be able to gain the peace that surpasses all understanding the gift from the Great Spirit, as my ancestors did. And may you be able to call the Great Spirit to bless your cornfields of present day achievements, as my ancestors did. And may you be able, in this age of creative noises and modern machinery to find still the time to be still, as my ancestors did. Red Wing has spoken.m