Keeper of Her Culture

While still an undergraduate, Leah Hopkins ’20 became the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology’s first community engagement specialist. Her job: Collaborate with academic institutions, create educational programming, and raise the profile of Indigenous and tribal communities. A big job? Yes. But also one Hopkins has, in fact, been doing for almost 20 years.

By Marybeth Reilly-McGreen

1. Takôy “Cold weather”

A story told out of season disturbs the order of things. A harvest story, for instance, shouldn’t be told in the spring if you believe that many things—plants and animals, for instance—are sentient and malleable. This is what Leah Hopkins ’20, a member of the Narragansett Indian Tribe, the Algonquian people native to Rhode Island, was taught as a child. Winter is the time for stories.

This is why, URI English professor Martha Elena Rojas explains to her class one day in the fall of 2019, they will not be following the dictates of her syllabus on that particular day. The class, “What Cheer: Indigeneity and Settler Colonialism,” surveys literature of Colonial America through the lens of critical race theory, specifically examining settler colonialism, the conquering and subjugation of Native people by settlers, as a structure rather than an event. The class was to read “Moshup,” a creation story, but it was fall. Leah Hopkins ’20, a member of the Narragansett Indian tribe and a student in the class, brought this to Rojas’ attention. Hopkins calls herself an educator, but the term seems inadequate given the scope of her work.

Hopkins occupies a unique space in academia and society: She is a bridge between two cultures, tasked with keeping the customs and traditions of her people alive while also diffusing that heritage to a wider, non-Indigenous group. The lesson on creation stories was one of many contributions Hopkins would make to Rojas’ class over the course of the semester. And as the semester progressed, some students came to understand they were benefitting from the wisdom of two dedicated scholars: Rojas and Hopkins.

But not every student appreciated that.

One student, part of a group presenting on the Narragansett leader Canonicus, stumbled in the pronunciation of his name. “I’m not even going to try,” she said.

Rojas used the moment to explain to the undergraduates that scholarship—and human decency—demands that students pronounce a name correctly. Hopkins, for whom the leader in question is an ancestral relation, is pragmatic. “It’s a common occurrence,” she reflects. “We do what we can to change it. “It’s a 400-year-old battle.”

2. Unchemokauhettíttea “Let us discourse.”

Rojas recalls Hopkins, an anthropology major, being a star student when they met in 2008. So it was a big surprise when she left URI.

Hopkins occupies a unique space in academia and society: She is a bridge between two cultures.

“She disappeared from my class one day, and I didn’t have a conversation with her about why. English 396, ‘The Literature of the Sea,’ at the time I was teaching it was more traditionally structured, and I was transforming what had once been a very male, very white canon.”

Rojas began adding African-American and Black writers and women writers to her syllabi—writers such as Olaudah Equiano, Phillis Wheatley, Colson Whitehead, Rachel Carson, and NourbeSe Philip. “And Leah asked me why there weren’t any Indigenous writers on the syllabus given that we’re at the University of Rhode Island. It was a lightbulb moment,” Rojas says. “I told her, ‘There is no good reason.’ She left the class shortly after that conversation. She had been an excellent student. I felt like I had failed her.

“I spent the next few years educating myself, trying to figure out what Narragansett or Wampanoag texts I could include. Who was doing the work in oceanic Indigenous studies?”

And then Hopkins returned to URI in the spring of 2018.

“I started school in 2008 and I stepped away for a while because I was working at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center full time,” Hopkins says. “I was on that museum trajectory, and I honestly thought, ‘Why do I need this?’ I didn’t drop out of school so much as I just kind of stopped taking classes for a while, because in my mind I was really like, ‘Why do I need this degree? I’m already in the field,’ and then my husband was like, ‘Just finish, just get it done. You’re almost there.’

“And my mom and dad wanted me to finish, and I took a couple of classes here and there, and then I had my son in 2016,” Hopkins says.

The arrival of a child might cause some to postpone a return to school. Not Hopkins. Motherhood compelled her to finish. “And when I returned, that’s when I really developed my love for continuing education.”

And for a second time, Hopkins enrolled in Rojas’ “The Literature of the Sea” course. Rojas and Hilda Llorens, associate professor of anthropology, were instrumental in what would prove to be her triumphant return to URI, Hopkins says. As for Rojas, Hopkins’ second act proved an opportunity to do something unique with “The Literature of the Sea” course.

“I was delighted when she called back years later to say that she was returning to URI. That moment of her return was a happy convergence,” Rojas says. “Leah’s question had stayed with me. I needed to be open to it, to hear it, and not just explain it away. She was returning to the class as I was implementing the changes she had prompted me to consider.”

Round two found the pair transcending the usual professor-student relationship. They became friends and collaborators.

“In the last 18 months of her college career, Leah was a gift to me, still a student but possessing the knowledge and confidence of a colleague. We could have frank conversations and there would be moments when I told her, ‘You will be the expert in the room.’ It was an acknowledgement and an open invitation for her to deliver what were essentially mini-lectures in the class,” Rojas says.

A close-up of Leah Hopkins wearing earrings created by her husband, Jonathan Perry.
Leah Hopkins wears earrings created by her husband, Jonathan Perry. Perry is an Aquinnah Wampanoag speaker, singer, actor, and artist, and a traditional Wampanoag boatbuilder. Like Hopkins, the focus of his work is educating the public about Wampanoag history, culture, art, and traditions.

Postscript: Hopkins won the prestigious 2019 Rumowicz Maritime Essay Contest for an essay written for Rojas’ class, titled “The ‘Savage’ and the ‘Leviathan’: The Commodification of the Bodies of Indigenous Men and Whales in the Mid-nineteenth Century.”

3. Sauncksquûaog. “Queens”

It is a sunny Friday afternoon in June 2019, and Hopkins is having coffee and checking her phone with the frequency of a teenager. She is awaiting word as to whether she will be offered the position of community engagement specialist at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology at Brown University in Providence. There is serious competition and Hopkins is not yet done with her undergraduate degree. If she gets the position, it will mean a full-time job and coursework, come the fall, as well as the demands that come with a precocious 3-year-old.

Hopkins is not too worried, though. She is the product of a strong heritage. One of her heroes, Queen Weetamoo, was a Pocasset Wampanoag sachem and ally of Metacomet, also known as King Philip. Weetamoo led 300 troops into battle during King Philip’s War.

“The whole idea of American feminism is relatively new, but Indigenous feminism has existed for millennia,” Hopkins observes. “The word for ‘woman’ in our language literally translates to ‘one with final say.’”

When people talk about Indigenous male leaders who spoke on behalf of their communities, these men, these decisions, weren’t just off-the-cuff. They were decisions made with the consent of the elder women and the clan mothers of our communities, because that’s just how we functioned.”

What held hundreds of years ago again holds today. The female elders of her community are integral to the governance of its members, Hopkins notes.

“So I think what would be of value for academia and institutions is to value Indigenous women. That’s where all the knowledge is. I shouldn’t say all the knowledge because that negates men. But that’s where a lot of knowledge is held. And I’m not saying, ‘Listen to me because I’m a woman,’ but there’s a lot to be learned by listening to women. So I hope to use my position as an Indigenous woman to bring light to our history and our knowledge and our voice.”

She got the job.

Indigenous artists welcome non-Native collectors of authentic Indigenous jewelry and designs. The best guarantee of quality and authenticity is to buy from the artist directly, Hopkins says. Hopkins’ cuffs were made by her sister-in-law, jewelry-maker Elizabeth James-Perry. The cuffs feature hundreds of wampum beads.

On her feet, Hopkins wears moccasins embellished with traditional beadwork, which is an embroidery technique with glass beads.

4. Npépeyup náwwot. “I have long been here.”

It is late September, mid-afternoon at a living history event, a 17th-century encampment, at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center in Ledyard, Connecticut. Hopkins, her husband, Jonathan Perry, and their son, Tristan, are dressed in traditional period clothing of the 17th century. Hopkins and Perry are demonstrating Indigenous meal preparation: She is adding spices to a pot of squash and beans; he is dressing venison with maple sugar and garlic. The pair has worked together often over the years, often with Tristan in tow. Only 3 years old, Tristan has declared he, too, will give tours at museums, like his parents.

“I hope to use my position as an Indigenous woman to bring light to our history and our knowledge and our voice.”
—Leah Hopkins

“We do this at home,” Hopkins tells her small audience as she stirs the contents of the small pot. There is no irony in her tone but it does underscore the fact that people are paying close attention to a mundane activity Hopkins and Perry will likely repeat later that evening, without an audience.

During a lull, Hopkins shares how she came to work in museums. “In 2008, I had a high school internship here. My mom was friends with the director of public programs, Trudie Lamb-Richmond, and she took me under her wing. I really liked the public education aspect. I spent time studying exhibits. I moved up to the position of educator. Then I became an education planning coordinator for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head in Aquinnah, Massachusetts.”

A family of four—husband, wife, and two adolescent sons—arrives, pausing the conversation. After Hopkins introduces her family, the woman smiles at Tristan and asks, “Where is your bow and arrow?”

Turning to Hopkins, she asks, “What is his Indian name?”

“We don’t share our Native names. We keep those private,” Hopkins replies. The woman presses the issue. Hopkins is gracious but steadfast. The answer is a firm no. Finally, the family moves on.

It is a tough ending to the day but by no means unusual. Hopkins and her husband are physically striking. They wear their hair long and, in Jonathan’s case, braided. They draw attention. Sometimes it’s unwanted.

“Automatically we become ambassadors for all Native people throughout Turtle Island—North America,” Hopkins says. “For me it becomes exhausting when I’m having dinner at a Thai restaurant with my husband—and it usually happens to my husband, I think, because not many people are used to seeing a man with long braids. But when you’re sitting down to a private meal and people just come up and ask, ‘Are you Native American?’ And you say, ‘Yes,’ and then the litany of questions starts.

“So if you want to talk about responsible museum curation, you need to talk about 400 years of history first.”
Leah Hopkins

“Meanwhile you’re being polite and you’re talking to them but your food’s getting cold. We’ve had that happen quite a few times.”

Cold pad thai is one thing, but then there’s also translation exhaustion—the term refers to the scaffolding Indigenous people often must provide when in conversation with non-Indigenous people. An example: To understand why an Indigenous person might take umbrage in a discussion about civil rights, it would help to first know that they weren’t granted the rights afforded to citizens of the United States until the Nationality Act of 1940, and were prohibited from practicing their religion until 1978. That’s not a typo. The American Indian Religious Freedom Act was ratified in 1978. In casual and, sometimes, academic conversation, it falls to the Indigenous person to provide the historical framework for a contemporary conversation to begin to take place, Hopkins explains.

“Sometimes in academia or in daily life, you have to set the stage of colonization before you can get to your point—what it is you really want to talk about,” Hopkins says. “So if you want to talk about, for instance, responsible museum curation, you need to talk about 400 years of history first.”

Leah Hopkins standing in profile on a rocky jetty next to Narragansett Bay
Hopkins’ work as the Haffenreffer Museum’s first community engagement specialist will ensure local Indigenous people’s visibility and cultural continuity.

Hopkins can handle translation exhaustion. It’s part of the job. She worries for Tristan, though.

“I’m 29 and I’ve worked since I was a young child to educate the public about Native people, to educate mostly non-Native people, because those are the people who really need that education,” Hopkins says. “I work to enhance and uplift our communities and obviously I’m always learning, and I’ll continue to learn and I’ll continue to share what I’ve learned, but I already see the microaggressions toward my son. He is constantly told what a pretty girl he is because of his long hair.

“He’s a strong little spirit, but I still want him to be able to grow up and not have to be an ambassador for Native people if he doesn’t want to be. Obviously, he can do whatever he wants. I hope he will never encounter somebody who dresses up as a Native person for Halloween.

“I don’t want to break his little heart, you know, by explaining that this is how we’re represented. That we’re caricatures.”

If there’s to be translation exhaustion, Hopkins will bear the burden in the hopes of creating a different experience for her son.

“I can continue to educate people for the rest of my life, and I absolutely will. I want to make Native people want to work with museums and to make museums want to work with Native communities,” she says. “This is what I was meant to do.” •

Author’s note: The Indigenous language used in the headings of this story is taken from Roger Williams’ A Key Into the Language of America.

Photos: Nora Lewis


  1. Wow, what a great article about a real life story. When I was at URI in the early 1960s I worked for a lady at the Student Union from Kenyon. I remember her telling me about Usquepaugh and other Native American areas. After I got out of the Navy in 1966, I worked for two years at the Great Swamp Wildlife Management are in West Kingston. Coming originally from Bristol, I was interested in King Philip and the tragic War. This article brought back these memories, but sadly I learned how little I know of this culture. Thanks for the work of URI and Leah.

  2. Wow . How fascinating and what a wonderful contribution to our society to educate non natives about the customs and practices of indigenous people . She is a tribute to her culture and such an asset to our community . Such a great reflection of both URI and Rocky Hill . Definitely will be following her to learn more of her wisdom and be enlightened .

  3. I’m very interested about our heritage. My family originates from the Ojibwe Tribe. I would love to talk to you further about your heritage and to help to bring more education of the Indigenous People of this country.

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