Students Groups Collaborate to Explore Museums and Indigenous Sovereignty

Two student unity organizations are co-hosting a November event at the Smith College Museum of Art to explore indigenous people’s resilience in the context of museum and archival work.

“illumiNATIVE: exposing colonialism and embodying sovereignty” will examine the ways in which museums have acquired, collected and continue to display indigenous cultural resources—including objects, structures and sacred sites—often against the will of indigenous communities and without their voices represented.

The event—to be held Thursday, Nov. 29, in Graham Hall—will feature a 6 p.m. keynote address by Jaime Arsenault, a tribal historical preservation officer for the White Earth Band of the Minnesota Chippewa.

A gallery walk led by student organizers will follow the talk.

Co-hosted by the Indigenous Smith Student Alliance and the Latin American Students Organization, “illumiNATIVE” will call attention to the colonial legacy of museums, highlighting settler colonialism, physical and intellectual theft and the dehumanization of indigenous peoples and people of color transnationally. The event will center on student responses to artworks, including those that are relevant to the ideas of reclamation and resilience.

Student organizers hope the event “will push the Smith community to think critically about how museums have a history of reinforcing colonial narratives that erase indigenous people and their histories,” says Tracie Benally ’19J, who is a member of ISSA.

“We are very excited to work with the museum,” Benally adds, noting that the program has enabled the two student unity organizations to collaborate “for the first time in a few years.”

Rosa Ramírez Mazaheri ’20  and Dania Ruiz ’19 were also organizers of “illumiNATIVE.” SCMA post-baccalaureate fellows Paula Lopez and Tiffany Cho provided support for planning and promotion.

The student organizations were awarded a $1,500 grant from the SCMA’s Museum Grants for Student Programs, which provides individual students, student groups and Smith houses a chance to host a “Thursday Late Night” event once a semester at the museum.

Lopez says the student grants program is about encouraging student engagement with the museum.  

“We’re providing a space for people and student organizations to discuss what they want to,” she says. “That’s what these grant programs are for—to provide funding and an opportunity for different groups to have an event.”

Information about applying to the program is available online. The deadline for spring semester is Feb. 4, 2019.