Narragansett Chief, "Culture Bearer," Honored At Ceremony In Manchester

At age 96, Chief Strong Horse of the Narragansett tribe retains a powerful singing voice and a steady hand on the drum.

The Turtle Spirit Drum Circle, held at the end of a ceremony Wednesday honoring the longtime tribal leader, combined resonant beats with the united voices of Native Americans from several tribes. Their songs filled the halls at Manchester Community College’s Great Path Academy, where about 100 people gathered to recognize Strong Horse during the college’s Native American Heritage Month.

Strong Horse, who now lives in Manchester Manor Health Care Center, was named a “sub-chief” of the Rhode Island-based tribe in 1946. On Wednesday, he was recognized for his lifelong contributions to preserving the Narragansetts’ customs and culture.

Strong Horse recently donated many personal items, including an elaborate feathered headdress and 300 photographs, to the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, R.I. (www.tomaquagmuseum.org/)

“He’s already reaching beyond his lifetime in the gifts he has given,” museum Executive Director Lorén Spears told the audience.

Also known as Kenneth Smith, Strong Horse was born in Orange, Conn., in 1921. In an interview before the ceremony, he said his father was three-quarters Narragansett and his mother a full-blooded member of the tribe. Both parents “taught me all the old ways,” he said.

He graduated from Portland High School and then joined the U.S. Army in 1941, assigned to an armored unit. After the war, he worked for more than 30 years at a Wallingford steel mill. He has three children: a stepdaughter from his second marriage and two sons from his first.

Stepdaughter Joy Millard attended the ceremony in a buckskin dress her father made.

“I’m very proud of him,” she said. “He’s always been a person who teaches others.”

Strong Horse’s generosity was a recurring theme among speakers. Spears called him “a culture bearer,” not only for donating about 200 Native American items that he made and collected, but also for the many stories he has shared about the Narragansett tribe, which today claims about 3,000 members.

In his ancestral language, Strong Horse thanked those who attended the event, Native Americans and those from outside the tribes.

“I’m sure the Great Spirit will bless you,” he said.

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