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A Never Quit winner realizes his dream of honoring Native Americans

AFSCME member Charles Smith Jr., second from left, and Craig Spears, master stonemason, far left, and crew. Member provided photo.
A Never Quit winner realizes his dream of honoring Native Americans
By Pete Levine ·
A Never Quit winner realizes his dream of honoring Native Americans
AFSCME member Charles Smith, Jr., in purple, and singers, during ribbon cutting ceremony.

Two years ago, when AFSCME recognized Charles “Snow Bear” Smith, Jr. with its Never Quit Service Award, Smith was a new cemetery specialist at the Rhode Island Veteran’s Cemetery. At the time, he noticed that the cemetery, where 40,000 of Rhode Island’s veterans are buried (including Smith’s parents), had memorials recognizing the varied backgrounds of veterans who’d served the state.

But there was no memorial for Rhode Island’s Native American veterans. Smith, a member of the Seaconke Wampanoag Tribe, wanted to change that.

More than two years later, his dream has been realized. Yesterday, Smith, along with representatives from Rhode Island’s Native American community and other state officials, took part in a ribbon cutting of Rhode Island’s first memorial to Native American veterans – a stone monument representing that state’s 12 indigenous tribes that are interred at the cemetery, with Native American symbols carved throughout it.


Representatives of Rhode Island's Indigenous tribes at ribbon cutting. Photo credit John A. Cianci,

Getting the memorial built wasn’t easy. Establishing which veterans buried in the cemetery were members of indigenous tribes and ensuring that Rhode Island’s Native American tribes would be represented was its own hurdle.

“I walked 40,000 graves,” said Smith. “I did some genealogy with family and friends, and with the head of the historical cemetery commission. I was able to get info from the Rhode Island Indian Council, to help me find things on the gravestones.” Those markings, such as a medicine wheel or dreamcatcher, along with common indigenous names, helped Smith determine whether veterans may have been Native American.

Then came raising money to get the monument built.

“We had fundraisers and raffles, sold T-shirts and stickers. We got donations from all the tribes [represented on the memorial],” said Smith. “Their help has been instrumental in getting the monument built.”


Rhode Island Veteran's Cemetary Native American monument. Member-provided photo.

He also got a grant from the state and funds from AFSCME RI Council 94.

“I’ve been hustling for the last two years,” said Smith, whose vision for the project really began as far back as five years ago. “It’s a piece of me and from my heart. It’s a dream that came true. Every tribe has dealt with hardship to keep their culture alive. It’s been a challenge – a financial, political, spiritual challenge. But it’s good medicine, as we would say, to finally complete something that will be here for today’s generation, who are going to serve our country or who have already served our country.”

Smith not only threw himself into getting the monument built, but in the two years since we last wrote about him, he’s taken on a leadership role within his union. He’s now a union representative for Local 904, which represents workers at the cemetery, as well as AFSCME workers at the veteran’s home in Bristol, Rhode Island.

“It’s a very good job and a good place to work,” said Smith. “My goal is just to see that everyone has a good payday and a livelihood. I just like to make the cemetery the best I can for everyone.”

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