An Opportunity to Tell America 'We're Still Here'

Ashley Tsosie-Mahieu, 2015 UANews Student Columnist
June 17, 2015

The drive from Moline, Illinois, to Salem, Massachusetts, was much less leisurely than the trip from Tucson to Moline. My mother, sister Cydney and I piled into the car and had two days to make a 1,200-mile drive with threats of 60 mph winds and hail.

I thought about all of the "Indian stuff" I saw along the way, particularly place names that obviously have been borrowed from Native languages. I wondered about the depth to which the general population understands the origins of those place names — and if the general population acknowledges the peoples from whom those names derive.

We arrived safely in Salem the night before the first day of my Peabody Essex Museum (or PEM) Native American Fellowship orientation and had dinner with the three other fellows and the coordinators of our summer program.

The other fellows and I became fast friends — the kind of friends you intuitively know will have a long-lasting impact on your life.

Jordan Dresser, of the Northern Arapaho Tribe from Wyoming, already has been given three nicknames within our group. That is a very positive sign in Native communities, given that teasing is cultural currency.

The youngster of the group, Halena Kapuni-Reynolds (Kanaka Maoli), who is Native Hawaiian and from Hawai’i, has become a parental figure of sorts, making sure that everyone is fed and feels comfortable and welcome in any situation.

Lastly, there is Alex Nahwegahbow (Anishinaabe and Kanien’keha:ka) from Manitoulin Island in Ontario, Canada. Nahwegahbow almost feels like the twin I never had. From our personal tastes to our scholarly pursuits, we are kindred spirits.

On our first day of orientation, PEM staff welcomed us with a blessing by Elizabeth James Perry (Aquinnah Wampanoag) and Leah Hopkins (Niantic/Narragansett), who are representatives of local tribal nations. The two women honored us with gifts of greeting, inviting us to be guests on their homelands. In this gesture of gifting, there is a tacit agreement that we will uphold their standards of dignity and respect while we’re here.

In addition to receiving this warm welcome, PEM staff took us on tours of Salem's historic downtown and waterfront, and even went above and beyond to take us to pick up groceries and other necessities.

Throughout our orientation week, each of us had the privilege of sitting down and talking with Dan L. Monroe, the Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Director and chief executive officer of the Peabody Essex Museum, about our aspirations for our fellowship work. He imparted words of wisdom that will guide us in our time at PEM, which was founded in 1799 and contains some of the earliest collections of Native American art in the U.S. Committment to Native cultures and peoples is implied in PEM's mission statement, however it only takes a brief conversation with Monroe to understand that he is deeply committed to producing exhibits and educational experiences that challenge mainstream beliefs and stereotypes about Native peoples.

At the end of our orientation week, we participated in our first of nine leadership workshop sessions that focus on professional development within museums, including sessions on effective communication, cultural interpretation and exhibit design.

We also began work in our assigned departments.

As the Curatorial Fellow in Native American Art and Culture, I have the honor of working with the esteemed Karen Kramer, PEM's curator of Native American Art and Culture. Like being able to work and live with Nahwegahbow, Kapuni-Reynolds and Dresser, working with Kramer already feels like a serendipitous and synchronous relationship. In my role, I will have creative input in the "Native Fashion Now" exhibit and how garments, jewelry, shoes and other items will be displayed, interpreted and presented.

At the conclusion of our orientation week, I reflected on the trip from Tucson to Salem. I contemplated the erasure of Native peoples from those landscapes, and the subsequent erasure of Native peoples from popular culture and mainstream consciousness. While that seems like quite the downer, it really isn't.

I sat there, smiling, confined to the car, anticipating that I would be going to a place to do work that says, "Hey, mainstream America, we're still here." That we as Native people — we, as four Native American fellows — can, and will, be able to talk about our cultural items and tell our own stories from our lived experiences. That I am going to a place where Native people can interpret those cultural items and stories for the benefit of the museum and for the world. And that we fellows can do that on our own terms.

And that is exactly what PEM is giving us the opportunity to do.

Photo: John de Dios/UANews

Ashley Tsosie-Mahieu, a doctoral student in the UA's American Indian Studies program, is one of four students selected as a 2015 UANews student columnist. The columnist initiative was launched in June by UANews and provides students the opportunity to share insights about the work and research they will be doing over the summer in various parts of the U.S. and abroad. It is the UA's 100% Engagement initiative in action, and the experiences will prepare the students to be real-world ready upon graduation.

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