Grave Undertakings focuses on seventeenth-century Narragansett
Indians, whose languages and lifeways were described by Roger
Williams in A Key Into the Language of America (1643), long
considered an objective, thorough, and authoritative account. By
weaving textual and archaeological evidence with community memory,
Patricia Rubertone challenges the canonical status of A Key,
imagining a more complicated and dynamic history of Native cultural
survival and persistence in New England.
Rubertone provides a much-needed context and critical reading of
Williams's life and myths, and explores the limits of A Key. Using
archaeological evidence from a seventeenth-century Narragansett
burial ground, Rubertone shows how material objects, including many
European goods, were imprinted with Native meanings of communal and
generational relationships, learned social knowledge, and sacred
traditions. Her analysis illuminates individual lives within the
society and makes clear that burial places and practices continued
to be central to the Narragansetts long after the seventeenth
Grave Undertakings provides a compelling portrayal of the
colonial experiences of a Native people, demonstrating that
anthropologically informed cultural translations of the historical
past are possible and necessary in the twenty-first century.
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