EXETER — For Lorén Spears, the land means everything.
“Culturally speaking, everything we have and everything we do is connected to the land,” said Spears last week from her office at the Tomaquag Indian Memorial Museum, where she serves as executive director. “For eastern, woodland, coastal people, everything we do, even our spirituality, comes from the land . . . and of course the ocean.”
On Friday, Nov. 8, Spears will lead a lecture, “Gifts of Mother Earth: An Indigenous Perspective,” as part of The Big Read, a program of the National Endowment for the Arts. She plans to reflect on the relationship indigenous people have with the gifts of the land in connection with Louise Erdrich’s “Love Medicine,” and compare the ecosystem in that novel with the ecosystem of the Narragansett/Niantic.
The Big Read is an NEA program created to “revitalize the role of literature in American culture and to encourage people to read for both pleasure and enlightenment.”
Keith Cowley, a naturalist who serves as the museum’s marketing coordinator, said that Spears would connect “traditional ecological knowledge of the environment as penned by Louise Erdrich with that of our own ecology.”
“As Lorén is Narragansett/Niantic, this is her homeland and her perspective is priceless,” he said.
Spears said she learned about the program during an NEA workshop hosted by U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse to help members of the Rhode Island arts community learn about NEA grant opportunities. After the workshop, Spears said, she sat down and began to write the grant application. She contacted a number of organizations with similar philosophies and was able to include 22 of them in her application, including Brown University, Rhode Island College, the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center, the Block Island Free Library, Cross’ Mills Library, North Kingstown Free Library, the Warwick Public Library and the Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge.
“I dreamed up all sorts of things,” said Spears, a former teacher in the Newport School system.
She was thrilled when the museum received a Big Read grant for $15,000.
“I’m thrilled that Lorén Spears was selected to participate in NEA’s Big Read initiative. My office has had the pleasure of working with Loren in the past, and we are very impressed by her ability to use the arts to promote Native American culture and history,” said Sen.Whitehouse, who is a member of the NEA. “I’m so glad Loren was able to take advantage of the resources offered at our conference, and I offer her my sincere congratulations.”
The Tomaquag Museum programs will run through 2014, Spears said, and will include round-table discussions, visits from authors, art exhibits and an Artistic Response Program. Participants will also express their thoughts and ideas through collage art.
“Collage is a way to express ourselves . . . it helps with memories,” said Spears, adding that she especially enjoys discussing genetic memory during “art reflection” projects.
The local Big Read program held a kickoff in September at the University of Rhode Island’s Multicultural Center. The event included storytelling, traditional music, and an introduction to Erdrich’s 1984 book, her first novel and a modern classic that won the National Book Critics Circle Award. “Love Medicine” examines the struggles of Chippewa families in North Dakota to balance Native American traditions and the modern world. In a 1991 interview with Writer’s Digest, Erdrich said that people in Native American families “make everything into a story . . . People just sit and the stories start coming, one after another. I suppose that when you grow up constantly hearing the stories rise, break, and fall, it gets into you somehow.”
Michael Holtmann, program manager for The Big Read, said the program was created in response to a 2004 NEA report Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, which identified a critical decline in literary reading. The study showed that literary reading was declining among all age groups, with the steepest decline in the youngest age groups.
Today The Big Read provides nonprofit organizations nationwide with comprehensive resources to help inspire their communities to read and discuss a single book or poet’s body of work. Other Big Read authors include Harper Lee, Emily Dickinson, Julia Alvarez, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Organizations chosen to receive a Big Read grant were selected by a panel of experts who reviewed the proposed project for artistic excellence and merit. Competitive applications demonstrate strong literary programming, experience in building strong local partnerships, reaching and engaging new and diverse audiences, working with educators, involving local and state public officials, and working with media.
The Big Read has awarded 81 grants in New England for total funding of more than $1.1 million since the beginning of the program, according to Liz Auclair, NEA public affairs specialist. Including the 2013-2014 grants, six grants have been awarded in Rhode Island since the inception of The Big Read for a total grant award of $81,500.
Victoria Hutter from the NEA Public Affairs office, said the NEA holds workshops around the country to explain the grant application process. Holtmann said that applications are now being accepted for 2014-2015 Big Read grants. Two new titles have been added, he said, Dinaw Mengestu’s “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears,” and Julie Otsuka’s “When the Emperor Was Divine.” This brings the Big Read library to 36 selections from American and world literature, he said.
“Gifts of Mother Earth: An Indigenous Perspective,” will be held Nov. 8 at 7 p.m. at the Kettle Pond Visitor Center, Ninigret Wildlife Refuge The program is free and open to the public.
For more information about the Big Read, visit neabigread.org. For more information about the Tomaquag Indian Memorial Museum, visit tomaquagmuseum.com.