Tag Archives: rhode island

A Personal Ethnographic Narrative

I have always viewed my being from philosophy. I do not believe that I have ever appreciated myself from an anthropological viewpoint. Though I have always been more interested in where did we come from, anthropology and ethnography certainly does help to answer how did we get here.

On December 7, 1975, at 4:48 a.m., I was born in Providence, Rhode Island. A healthy boy of healthy weight, I never suffered much in childhood. I do remember the chicken pox, however. My mother was sure to make me play with every child suffering from the chicken pox until it finally gripped me. This was my first experience in active inoculation. I was always well cared for, received all of my shots in timely fashion, and the doctor’s office remains a fond childhood memory. Medicine was just practiced differently in those days.

My early childhood was based primarily around my grandparents. My mother was a single parent, and though it irked her to do so, she relied heavily on State-sponsored welfare. My mother was a strong and determined woman, however. She continued her schooling, found a job with a sustainable wage, and made a great home for us. Until this time, though, I spent the majority of time with my grandfather. From a very young age, I was learning his trade as well as his life lessons. Today, I do not think many five-year-olds would be able to cut and wet sand glass in a licensed shop. Working with my grandfather, once a week when I attended school, framed my work ethic and provided an early education in engineering. This opportunity allowed me comfort in engineering at an early age. In fact, my interest in engineering was so pronounced that I was already considering California Institute of Technology at age ten. Massachusetts Institute of Technology was my second choice.

My family had it hard. My grandparents raised five children and helped to raise 13 grandchildren. We were not an affluent family by any means, but we lived comfortably if not rustic. Though my ancestry is primarily Italian, my mother’s parents are primarily Irish, English, and German, and this is how we ate. Meat and potatoes were the staples of dinner while fresh vegetables were cultivated in my grandfather’s garden. Simplicity did not end at the kitchen door. My grandfather’s first meaningful gift to me was a knife. Very simple with a fork and spoon on the sides, the knife was very utilitarian in nature. His belief was that you could not be a good steward of the environment without a knife: “How can you take a walk in the woods if you can’t even whittle a walking stick?” (personal communication with Malcolm Webb, n.d.). It was very important to him that I had honed my outdoor skills.

For leisure and sport, my grandfather would hunt rabbit with beagles. He belonged to a club in Rhode Island that held competition trials, and I was always made welcome. After a few years, I started to enter dogs that I helped to raise and train. Immediately, I began accumulating trophies that were taller than me. To be honest, the trophies might have had my name on them, but the dogs earned them more than I had. It was this foray into competition that introduced me to the team concept. Thinking back on this today, however, I find that this concept is alien to most people. Many people today, I find, want to do no work and take most of the credit. It is only when you stand up to these people that you hear comments about being a part of the team. It is a shame. It seems that yesterday’s definitions need to be defended today.

I have always been aloof and wondrous as a child. With translation assistance from the Native Languages of the Americas website (2009), my name might have been mautáubon tamóccon nemík kéesuck túppaco (morning fog sees the heavens by night or one with many questions) if I was Narragansett. Rhode Island has a rich Narragansett and Algonquin heritage and history, and this is transmitted to every inhabitant of Rhode Island. Many of our streets, villages, cities, and towns are named with Indian words and names, such as Apponaug, Chepatchet, Metacom, Misquamacut, Woonasquatucket, and Pawtucket. We are very proud of the relationship that Roger Williams, our State founder, had with the local tribes. This lasting relationship may be the reason why Rhode Islanders are typically naturalistic and prefer a rustic life proximate to water over city life.

During my formative years, my mother married and we moved to North Providence from Warwick. My step-father was Italian, and it was from his family that I learned of my Italian heritage and culture. Beyond the Mediterranean-style food, the most important lesson that I learned was loyalty. Many people have a misconception about Italian loyalty. Hollywood often depicts Italians as mafioso who shakedown store owners on a daily basis. In fact, we are very supportive of each other. So long as you are considered loyal, as an Italian, people will do you favors. It is expected that you return the favor. I have applied this lesson many times throughout my life. Again, this is a trait that many hold as one-sided, like teamwork.

After moving to North Providence, it seems that I did not much care for school. I always felt that I was being cheated out of an education. I am a reader, a learner, a student, and a teacher. I do not appreciate being taught incomplete and erroneous facts merely because it is written in the textbook. I began my own education from this point onward focusing on the arts and music, taking up drawing, poetry, and studying music theory and some of the classical languages. These, though, were hobbies and I made sure to keep them that way.

Aside from school, I remained focused on the outdoors. I would walk everywhere within the State. Distance was not a barrier. Rhode Islanders are known for staying local. If a Rhode Islander had to travel 10 miles or more, the joke was that they had to get a motel room for the night. As true as this held for most, it was not descriptive of me. I always took the road less traveled.

Throughout my high school years, I gave up on the engineering dream. I started to focus more on giving back to my community. A friend of mine introduced me to one of the local volunteer fire departments and I was hooked. After graduating from high school, I enlisted in the Marine Corps, but when I returned to civilian life, I focused on the fire service. This was the impetus for my attaining my emergency medical technician license and, ultimately, my paramedic and critical care credentials.

Though I have traveled extensively, I always seem to return to New England. I am currently living just beyond the Western border of Rhode Island in Connecticut (another Indian name).

Considering the anthropological roles outlined in Omohundro (2008), I would have to align myself with all five roles. The reformer looks to make the world a better place, regardless of his or her motivations. The critic is necessary to use introspection to identify personal weaknesses ingrained in cultural learning so that he or she may contemplate self-improvement. This, I feel, is the best role to take on first. Only after seeking to improve one’s intrinsic nature should someone seek to change the extrinsic. The scientist role is important to really think about the factors relating to certain problems. Without this role, one could have lofty goals only to find failure in execution for a lack of understanding. The role of the humanist should be used as an umbrella. When considering anthropology, we need to have a certain understanding and tolerance. This role allows us be compassionate when considering cultural issues. Finally, the means to the end is the cosmopolite role. This role gives us more tools to further our understanding. Hand-in-hand with the humanist role, the cosmopolite has a truer understanding of origination and context when dealing with the various cultures of the world.

Personally, I take on more aspects of the critic and the scientist. I am not an anthropologist, and I do not consider myself as having a platform to affect cultural change, but I do like to identify and understand problems so that I do not contribute to them negatively. More so, being mindful of the critical and scientific anthropology roles leads me to understand that there is still much to learn about my own culture and heritage and how this identity relates to the world around me. Foremost, I want to know the effect that my ancestors have had on world. I want to understand the problems they faced and the means employed to overcome them. I want to know decisions that have been made and the fallout associated with these decisions. I have always found it important to learn from the past, and though the sins of the father shall not encumber the son, we should still strive to avoid repeating historical mistakes. Second, I want to find a means to assess my own life and better understand how my existence impacts my community. I have always believed that I should make positive contributions to my community, but there is no benchmark. As a critical care paramedic, I assume that alleviating suffering and saving lives positively contributes to my community, but how can I know the harm that I might be causing in other aspects of my life? We cannot only understand the good we impart, but we must know the bad in order to prevent it.


Native languages of the Americas website. (2009). Retrieved from http://www.native-languages.org

Omohundro, J. T. (2008). Thinking like an anthropologist: A practical introduction to cultural anthropology. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Making the Strange Familiar – A Cultural Identity

Scouring the literature in an attempt to define indigenous identity as it relates to me has been futile. Weaver (2001) describes the difficulty of obtaining a consensus on the definition of indigenous identity and how to apply the term. She continues to outline her frustration and finally gives in to using less exact terms. Corntassel (2003) shows how a multitude of definitions has arisen that are both incomplete and politicized. Neither Weaver nor Corntassel nor any of the other scholars that I have read in the past two weeks would agree, based on their writings, that I would have some indigenous identity. It seems that this would otherwise offend them. It is obvious, however, that I have a cultural identity as do all people, but I fail to see myself as indigenous, so I will concentrate on this cultural identity using the fieldwork methods outlined by Omohundro (2008).

My cultural identity is, in part, related to my ancestry, or genealogy. As far as I can tell, my ancestry is a combination of Italian, French, English, German, Irish, Scottish, and Portuguese, though living New England, specifically around Boston, Providence, and New York, I have more of an affinity to my Irish and Italian heritage. However, it does appear that I share my English heritage with nobility of Queen Catherine’s privy court, Sir John Alexander Webb, and William Shakespeare.

Developing as a child in my household, I have learned a few ideals that have more import and others: loyalty, character, and resolution. Honesty, temperance, and justice I have learned on my own, or more evidently from my environment growing up. Much of this wisdom of our forefathers is still evident in and around Rhode Island, thankfully. Understanding why my ancestors migrated as they did certainly underscores the importance of freedom, liberty, and tolerance.

The ethnosemantics of Rhode Islanders can be quite intriguing to outsiders. I am not sure that I have ever met anyone who enjoyed the dandle as much as my cousins and I. Others, though, would have used a see-saw or teeter-totter. Likewise, I remember looking forward to enjoying a cabinet on a hot summer day with my grinder. Others might have enjoyed a milkshake with their submarine sandwich, hoagie, or hero. It seems that we stole the terms bubbler and soda from Wisconsinites as they moved to the area as my ancestors did. A bubbler being a water fountain and soda refers to any carbonated beverage.

Even more interesting than our vocabulary, though, is our pronunciation. Traveling around the country, I have noticed that when residents of other States hear an accent, they usually just comment on it. For the typical Rhode Islander, we are made to repeat ourselves often. Sometimes people truly do not understand our vernacular, but mostly it is for the novelty of it all. Rhode Islanders seem to remove the letter ‘r’ from words and place them in words that do not have any. Additionally, we run many words together unnecessarily. For example, “A Rhod’aylindah would flip a breakah if the lights’n out an’ say suntin’ like ‘I’ve an idear… let’s getindacah’n go fe’ bananar splits wit vanillar ice cream,’” or my favorite, “Immunna gessin gaggahs, djeetjet?” This question would usually be replied with, “No, joo?” More obvious, the first set of statements refers to resetting a circuit breaker after losing power then taking a ride in the car to get a banana split. The second, more cryptic, phrasing simply translates, “I am going to get some gaggers (or, hot weiners; see also http://www.olneyvillenewyorksystem.com), did you eat yet?” The reply being, “No, did you?” We tend to ask even if we know the answer.

As our strange vocabulary and pronunciation are very colloquial, I think I might understand how it has developed. Rhode Island has always been known for tolerance, both religious and political; therefore, the heritage has always been a rich mixture of various cultures attempting to flee from various types of oppression. My assumption is that much of the dialect and vocabulary is simply based on misunderstanding and ethnosemantic distortions of the multiple cultures residing at any given time in Rhode Island, a pidgin. I may be mistaken, but the thesis seems viable.

Understanding my cultural identity allows me to view the world and other cultures with temperance and acceptance. My heritage is rich with both culture and despotism. Likely, many other people have a similar story. Most important in understanding cultural identity is the ability to benchmark one’s self against society. Doing so allows me the ability to focus on the moral strengths that I have learned while attempting to temper the weaknesses. With a more complete understanding, I am able to justify the life lessons that I might pass on to others.


Corntassel, J. J. (2003). Who is indigenous? ‘Peoplehood’ and ethnonationalist approaches to rearticulating indigenous identity. Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, 9(1), 75-100. doi:10.1080/13537110412331301365

Omohundro, J. T. (2008). Thinking like an anthropologist: A practical introduction to cultural anthropology. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Weaver, H. N. (2001). Indigenous identity: What is it and who really has it? The American Indian Quarterly, 25(2), 240-255. doi:10.1353/aiq.2001.0030