Princess Red Wing
Preserver of Native American traditions
By CHRIS POON
She was born Mary Congdon, but was known throughout South County and even abroad as Princess Red Wing, the Narragansett Indian who spoke to school children and dignitaries alike about the honor of being a Native American.
Her gift of storytelling and her jangling silver bracelets and beaded headband mesmerized her audience. Among the Narragansetts, she was a leader, a historian and the woman who bestowed Indian names on generations of Narragansett children.
Strangers would inevitably ask: How did you get your name? Her mother named her after the red wing blackbird "to fling her mission far with grace, for ears that harken for the uplift of my race," she'd reply.
Everett Weeden of Charlestown recalls a woman who wasn't technically a princess but rose to legendary status in the tribe and in the non-Indian world.
"She spoke in these poetic verses at times because she was part of that generation when everything was poetry and pageantry," said Weeden, who was given the Indian name Tall Oak by Red Wing when he was 16.
Since her death at age 92 in 1987, a few Narragansetts have been successful in carrying on the storytelling traditions, but "none could fill Red Wing's shoes," Weeden said. "She was an exceptionally gifted person and a natural born speaker . . . Her message was always to generate a more positive image of Indian people in this society."
Born in Lisbon, Conn., Red Wing was one of seven children of Walter and Hannah (Weeden) Glasko. The family moved to the village of Harrisville, where Walter managed a farm and raised the family.
Red Wing was taught that her family descended from the Ninigret line of the Narragansett tribe, as well as the Wampanoags. But Weeden, a second cousin to Red Wing, says his research traces their lineage to the Mashantucket Pequot line.
Regardless of her exact roots, she was regarded as an expert in Native American matters.
In 1934, Narragansett leaders sought Red Wing's help to draft the tribe's bylaws, which were mandated by the Indian Reorganization Act. She later designed the tribe's seal, which is still used on official stationery.
When she wasn't speaking at elementary schools and colleges, running day camps, writing for a tribal newspaper or giving tours at the Tomaquag Indian Memorial Museum in Exeter, she traveled to Europe or to New York to address the United Nations. Once, she dined with Eleanor Roosevelt.
In an interview published in The Basic Yankee by Steve Sherman, Red Wing recalled the stir she caused during her visit to the United Nations: "Can I take you to lunch? Can I have your picture for my paper? What does the Indian think of this, what does the Indian think of that?"
She always answered their questions, no matter how naive or insulting and always made sure they went away with a positive impression of her people, said Eleanor Dove, owner of the now defunct Dovecrest restaurant and trading post.