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Remarkable Women: Indian princess, author spun compelling stories of history

April 3, 2011

The final pair of memorable women in our Women’s History Month series were, appropriately enough, historians.
I was fortunate enough to known both of them.
The first was Princess Red Wing, a wonderfully colorful character, who helped preserve Native American history and culture by speaking to schoolchildren as well as dignitaries throughout the world.
Although her bloodlines included the Wampanoag and the Mashantucket Pequots, she identified primarily with the Ninigret Narragansetts and gave generations of their children Indian names.
Our other honoree today is Florence Parker Simister, a Wickford fixture who, with her husband Robert, operated a cozy and welcoming bookshop at the corner of Brown and Main where great books were sold and good conversation abounded.
She was widely known as the author of many books chronicling local history and was nothing short of famous as the writer of countless scripts for the popular radio series “Streets of the City.”
I once called the program, which ran daily for 20 years on WEAN, Florence’s “love letter to Rhode Island.” She chronicled the history and significance of an astonishing 2,500 streets, houses, fields and ponds.

EXETER – The dramatic beaded headband and feathered ensembles Princess Red Wing wore to tribal events and her famous storytelling sessions were legendary. I can almost hear the clang of the multiple silver bracelets she wore.
I wonder if she could have predicted this look would be adopted by today’s fashionistas. After all, she did read tea leaves. When she was quite elderly, she read mine at the former Dovecrest Restaurant, in Exeter.
She told me what she would say to strangers who asked the derivation of her name. Her mother, she said, named her for the red-wing blackbird, “to fling her mission far with grace, for ears that harken for the uplift of my race."
A local man observed that Red Wing often spoke in verse because she was part of a generation in which “everything was poetry and pageantry.” Her mission in life, he added, was to use her extraordinary gifts as a speaker to generate a positive image of Indian people.
Born Mary Congdon, in Connecticut but raised on a Rhode Island farm, Red Wing was one of seven children. As an adult, she was so widely revered as an expert on Native American history that, in 1934, Narragansett leaders sought her help in drafting the tribe's bylaws. She also designed the tribal seal, which is still in use.
Keeping her people’s history alive was Red Wing’s passion. She spoke at elementary schools and colleges, organized day camps, wrote newspaper articles and gave tours at the Tomaquag Indian Memorial Museum in Exeter.
She fascinated Eleanor Roosevelt who invited her to lunch. She was also in demand as a speaker in Europe and even addressed the United Nations, in New York. There she was deluged with luncheon invitations, requests for photographs and questions about the Indian position on every topic imaginable.
Princess Red Wing died in 1987 at the age of 92.

NORTH KINGSTOWN – Like Red Wing, Florence Parker Simister believed in educating children. Her method of storytelling, however, was written: she published a dozen books for young readers, all with historic settings.
She was also a contributor to the Providence Sunday Journal’s former magazine, the Rhode Islander, as well as the Rhode Island Yearbook, Yankee magazine and other publications. She won local awards for playwriting and her work was performed at Providence College.
Without question, her greatest literary achievement was The Fire's Center, an account of Rhode Island's role in the Revolutionary War. It was, observed one reviewer, the first time all the strands had been woven together. “It was the first time it had all been made into a single fabric,” he said.
A leading historian once told me that Florence’s radio series helped popularize the preservation movement and added immeasurably to burgeoning efforts of the Providence Preservation Society to restore the historic homes of Benefit Street.
“The radio program and the preservation movement went hand in hand,” he said.
She was incredibly generous with her time and expertise, he added, able to answer questions about dates of houses and biographical inquiries from memory.
“She was very generous with sharing insights,” he said.
Florence Parker Simister had the ability to appreciate the past while putting it in the context of the present. She played a unique role in keeping history alive in a compelling way that still informs and fascinates readers of her many books.
Her work ethic was a challenge of all of us who write.
She once told me, “The more you do, the more you can do. I hope I never find myself just sitting around idle.”
Florence died in 1981 at the age of 67.

Martha Smith can be reached at mgs3dachs@cox.net

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