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Daniel Hyland
A service for Dr. Ella Wilcox-Thomas Sekatau were held at the Narragansett Indian Cemetery in Charlestown on Friday. | Daniel Hyland / Sun File Photo

Narragansett medicine woman remembered as ‘wisdom-keeper’

CHARLESTOWN — Firefly Song of Wind was Dr. Ella Wilcox-Thomas Sekatau’s Narragansett Indian name. On Monday, Sekatau passed from this world into, Native people might say, the spirit world.

“She was a great light and we are diminished by the extinguishment,” John Brown, Sekatau’s son, Narragansett medicine man in-training and tribal historic preservation officer, said Thursday, just days after Sekatau’s death at age 85.

Sekatau, Narragansett Tribe ethno-historian and medicine woman, is credited with helping to ensure the tribe’s federal recognition in 1983.

In a statement from the tribe shared with other Indian tribes, including the Shinnecock Indian Nation, the passing of Sekatau was described as “one of the greatest losses to the Narragansett Indian Tribe in the 20th and 21st centuries.” The tribe described her as a “legend.”

“Her range was far beyond and her knowledge and her lessons are for everyone,” Brown said. “She instilled that in her offspring and in the tribe. Those lessons are lifelong.”

A tribal linguist, Sekatau is credited with reintroducing the original Narragansett dialect. The tribe describes her as “a teacher of culture, language, and traditional arts and crafts.”

Sekatau taught not just countless schoolchildren, but educators from the elementary school level to the post-graduate level as well. She was an artist and she taught finger weaving and quill embroidery. A writer, she penned numerous essays and her Duke University Press-published work, “The Right to a Name: The Narragansett People and Rhode Island Officials in the Revolutionary Era,” co-authored with Ruth Wallis Herndon, was a seminal text. Her presence was always a powerful one at the Narragansett Tribe’s annual August meeting, tribal ceremonies and traditional tribal gatherings.

And, it was Sekatau’s Narragansett language translation of the words “new town” — Wuskenau — that helped the Town of Westerly in naming its new town beach Wuskenau Beach in 2007.

“[Sekatau] was the wisdom-keeper. She always wanted the knowledge of the Narragansett Tribe passed to the next generation. She’s had a very significant impact on our community. It’s always a great loss when we lose an elder, but her legacy is what she’s shared with her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren ... all of us,” said Lorén Spears, Tomaquag Indian Memorial Museum executive director, longtime educator and founder of the Nuweetooun School, artist and essayist. Spears frequently worked with Sekatau, whom she described as a mentor.

“She helped make us a vibrant place,” Spears said. “Our cultural traditions exist in the modern era because of her. I hope to follow in those footsteps, to have that voice out there.”

Brown agreed her legacy must be her indisputable impact and influence on preserving important cultural and historic traditions of the Narragansett Tribe.

“Her greatest hope would be the things she had done in her earthly form would not be lost when she was in the spirit form; that her work would continue,” he said Thursday. “That is what she instilled in all of us, in our family and all the other people that she worked with as an educator.”

Even in his grief, Brown was willing to share his thoughts about his mother and her legacy.

“She belongs to the family. That is true. She belonged to the tribe. That is true. But she also belonged to the world. And that is recognized by us.”

Sekatau was buried Friday in the Narragansett Indian Cemetery on the tribal reservation in Charlestown.

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