This post is by guest author and Archives Student Assistant, Alexis Scalese ’22
October 11th, 2021 was the celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the so-called United States. Indigenous Peoples’ Day centers the lives, stories, cultures, and diversity of experiences Indigenous peoples hold.
In conjunction with the display of an Indigenous Peoples’ Day banner of Frost Library created by Carley Malloy ‘22 (Citizen Band Potawatomi), I was asked to put together an exhibit celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day using books and printed material from the Kim-Wait/Eisenberg (KWE) Collection of Native American Literature. This was my first exhibition so I was really excited!
Mariah Leavitt, who is the Preservation Specialist and supervisor of student staff members, guided me through the process of exhibiting materials from Archives and Special Collections. Before I selected books and other printed materials, Mariah suggested that I think of a theme or story I wanted to share with my audience. I originally thought about doing an exhibit about Native humor, but my theme shifted once I came across a beautiful book titled Between Earth and Sky: Legends of Native American Sacred Places by Joseph Bruchac.
The book struck me because of its visuals and the incorporation of Land on the cover. I carefully opened the book and skimmed the text: poetry, paintings, and stories about the Land were prevalent. This book resonated with me because, in my Pueblo, Land is very much part of the stories we tell as it is the reason for our livelihood as Indigenous Peoples. With that said, Bruchac’s book, Between Earth and Sky, shifted the exhibit from Native humor to sharing different materials that illustrate the different ways Indigenous peoples tell stories about their personal and communities’ experiences.
After deciding on an exhibit theme, it was time to select materials from the KWE Native American Literature collection. I knew I wanted to include Earth and Sky and the super awesome card game, Cards Against Colonialism display. Once I pulled these materials from the shelf, I began to physically browse and sift through the file cabinets and shelves that hold materials from the KWE Collection. While it might have been better to use the Five College Catalog to look up the exact location of material (which I encourage people to do), I could not remember the names of books I had in mind, only a mental image of the covers. With that said, the Five College Catalog is a very comprehensive tool for searching for materials, however, yielding a search with keywords like “Pretty yellow cover” is not possible. I enjoyed physically searching through the archives. It was a great experience because I was able to connect with the materials by touching them rather than looking at them through their catalog entry.
After selecting about 20 materials, I narrowed my selection down to 9 materials that fit the exhibit’s storytelling theme and were visually appealing. Once I selected my materials, I took my cart of materials to the Archives and Special Collections office space and drafted the label for the exhibit.
The next day, I took my cart to the first-level of Frost where Mariah and I began the process of assembling the exhibit. Mariah and I disassembled the previous exhibit which celebrated Amherst College’s Bicentennial. The previous exhibit that showcased many aspects of Amherst College’s history including plates from Valentine Dining Hall which featured Lord Jeffery Amherst chasing an Indigenous person. Deconstructing the previous exhibit allowed me to reflect on the act of removing anti-Indigenous material and replacing it with Indigenous stories. I think this was a moment that I will hold and reflect on as I continue my interests in archives.
After removing the materials from the Bicentennial exhibit, Mariah went downstairs to retrieve the book cradles and exhibit ‘furniture’. When she came back, we began arranging together. Mariah and I both agreed that Deer Woman, a comic book with assorted promotional items, and Cards Against Colonialism had to be spread out to show how one may interact with the materials behind glass. After Mariah and I spread out the different cards from both texts, we began to place the books on the shelves, arranging them in ways that would grab the viewer’s attention. I wanted to balance out the two yellow books: Land of the North Carolina Cherokees and Yellow Woman and spent time rearranging the books. These yellow books were originally placed on the middle shelf, but I noticed my eyes were drawn to the middle shelf because of the warm yellow tones. Mariah then placed the two yellow books on the top shelf and it felt balanced. With the intriguing printed material on the bottom shelf, and the yellow books on the top, my eyes were drawn to all shelves.
Setting up this exhibit was such a wonderful experience. It was so interesting to see the processes that go into creating a display. I learned that the visual element of exhibits was very important, especially in regards to cover art. Understanding the importance of the visual in curating an exhibit allowed me to reflect on my own biases and preferences. As I mentioned earlier in the post, Joseph Bruchac’s book Between Earth and Sky resonated with me the most because of my Pueblo’s worldview which may differ from other communities’ worldviews. I say this to reflect on the biases I hold and to state that exhibits are not created in a vacuum, they are created through our own experiences and worldviews we each hold.
I learned a lot through this process and I will take this experience with me as I continue to learn more about the world of archives. Finishing the exhibit left me with some questions and thoughts to carry in the future: How can myself and others interested in archives and museums address the colonial history of exhibiting Indigenous materials in our exhibition processes? What words can we use that are not objectifying? For example, words like “material”, “curation”, and “display” limit the agency of the stories which are living. With more experience and curation practice, I hope to think of ways to address these questions and be in conversation with others.
Alexis Scalese ‘22 is enrolled in the Pueblo of Isleta with familial ancestry to Pueblo of Laguna. She is an American Studies major and pursuing a Five College Certificate in Native and Indigenous Studies. She is interested in incorporating Indigenous Knowledge systems and Tiwa Pueblo concepts of relationality into archival and museum practices.