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Student Exhibit Questions American History

By Jennifer Gabrielle ’06

“Where do you enter history?” poses the sign by an entrance to a student exhibition in Campus Center Room 108, the student gallery. The sign offers three choices: Europe, Africa, or Indigenous. Outside, the exhibit walls are covered in black cloth, shrouded, perhaps, like the traditional history of the Americas.

Inside, the truth is revealed.

The exhibition is titled “Almanac of the Dead” after a novel by the same title by Leslie Marmon Silko that challenges typical textbook perspectives on American history. In her book, Silko discusses the oppression of indigenous Americans and their uprisings, known as 500 Years of Resistance. The student exhibition is the result of an Interterm course on the novel taught by Ginetta Candelario, assistant professor of sociology and Latin American and Latino/a studies.

After first reading the Silko novel during a graduate seminar, Candelario was moved by its depiction of the 500-year history of peoples of the Americas, she says. “It’s an epic, apocalyptic novel,” she says, in which the past becomes very much alive. The book’s title is an oxymoron implying a future foretold by the past. The voice given to this usually silent story stayed with Candelario over the years.

Finally this January, she was able to share and explore that voice with seven Smith students in her seminar. Their assignment at the end of the course was to create an exhibit, in an attempt to extend the effect of that voice to others.

The “Almanac of the Dead” exhibit features four walls of history: Indigenous, Africa, Europe, and The Americas, each of which provides accounts of the respective peoples’ arrival, settlement, and resettlements in the Americas. It comprises graphics, such as a reward poster for a runaway slave, a photograph of a march for the American Indian Movement, and battle scenes as explorers and settlers clash violently with indigenous populations. The class also created its own Native American artifacts, such as the Great Stone Snake, an important symbol in Silko’s novel.

Monica Wang ’09, a participant in the exhibition, says she learned even more about Native American culture in the process of creating the exhibit. “We’re not art majors,” she laughs, but after collaborating on ideas, the students “came away with a great deal of respect” for the people to whom the book gives voice. The main difficulty, she says, was simplifying nearly 800 pages into a feasible project that would maintain the dignity of the novel.

The primary objective of Candelario’s assignment was to make the book accessible to others on campus, and to inspire “the impulse to explore further,” she says.

The class, through its exhibition, has taken the lead in that exploration. For example, it questions the glaring omission from Silko's novel of the obvious impact of Asian peoples on American history. “So come on Ms. Silko, where is Asia?” demands a sign in the exhibition entryway.

With this question, the voice of one J-term class challenges history even further, exactly the kind of curiosity Candelario sought to inspire.

The “Almanac of the Dead” exhibition will be on display through February 26.

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