Growing up in Springfield, Aprell May knew a few bits of her Native American ancestry. But it wasn’t something the family members talked about much.
In fact, May says that for years she considered herself a “lost bird” or a “missing feather” because she knew little about the traditions and culture of her Aboriginal background, which she traces back to the Mohawks. , one of the central tribes. of the 17th and 18th century Iroquois Confederacy in upstate New York.
But in recent years, May, who is 39, has delved deeper into her family’s past and Indigenous history in general – and now, as a guest curator, she has put together an exhibition at the museums of Springfield to tell part of this story. and that of other indigenous peoples in the region.
“We’re Still Here,” at the Springfield Science Museum, is designed to remind visitors that, indeed, today’s Indigenous peoples are part of western Massachusetts and modern America in general. With photographs and accompanying text (in English and Spanish) provided by participants, the exhibition features 11 people, including May, and examines themes of resilience, identity and cultural history.
May, a reporter for the Springfield Republican — her byline appears as Aprell May Munford — recalls once attending a history class as a student at Bay Path University when her professor asked the students what they thought happened to the American Indians. Almost all of the students thought they were missing, May said during a recent interview at the Springfield Expo.
“I remember thinking, ‘Does everyone live right under a rock?’ “recalls May. “But at that point in my life, I didn’t know much about my own family history either.”
There was a certain irony in that. “We’re Still Here” is located in the Native American Hall of the Springfield Science Museum, a space partly occupied by a large diorama of Eastern Woodland natives in which a button activates a voice that explains some of the stage. The voice is actually that of May’s great-aunt, Gloria “Gentle Running Deer” Peeler, whose photo is part of the exhibit.
“I came [to Native Hall] many times when I was growing up and heard his voice,” May said. She also brought her own daughter, Olivia, to the exhibit when she was young, along with some of her nieces. Still, May didn’t know much about her great-aunt’s background.
But in recent years, her great-aunt has told her more of this story, as well as that of May’s grandfather, Gloria’s brother. Their family in Massachusetts had been separated decades ago by the state, May says, when her great-grandmother Harriet Minor May was imprisoned in Framingham because authorities believed she could not care for of his 11 children.
Her great-aunt and grandfather and their siblings were sent to white foster homes, May notes; her great-aunt and grandfather ended up in Dalton, where both were beaten by their adoptive parents, she said.
“There was a lot of trauma about it, a lot of stuff was buried, so nobody in my family talked about it for many years,” May said. “But now we’re reclaiming our stories…the exhibit is really about bridging the past and the present.”
May became active in the Native American Inter-Tribal Council of Western Massachusetts, a multi-tribal group that organizes events such as powwows and various educational events. Through the advice, she bonded with many of the people now featured in “We’re Still Here.”
There’s artist Justin Beatty of Hadley, for example, who, like May, has Native American and African American heritage and hosts and performs at regional powwows as a singer and drummer. He also hosts art exhibits, and many of his digital paintings feature proudly dressed Native Americans in urban settings.
In the exhibit, which runs through June, Beatty writes, “Our cultures are here, dynamic and evolving. We are able to maintain our relatedness, our understanding, our relationships…in accordance with how we are taught to be as people.
Also featured is Nayana Lafond, an athol painter who grew up in the valley and graduated from Amherst Regional High School. Lafond, whose ancestry is part Anishinaabe, Abenaki, and Mi’kmaq, has garnered much attention in recent years for an extensive series of portraits of Indigenous women, primarily from the western United States and Canada. , who have been victims or otherwise affected by domestic violence. violence.
Glenroy Buchanan, chairman of the Intertribal Council, explains in the exhibit that the organization’s founder, the late George L. Greyhawk May Jr., wanted to “ensure that the children of the [Native] the diaspora would be proud” of their history and would not feel pressured to do what previous generations had done, such as taking “common names to avoid discrimination when obtaining employment”.
To cite just one example of the prejudices that Indigenous peoples have faced, the United States Department of the Interior released a report earlier this year documenting how the federal government, between 1819 and 1969, managed or supported over 400 boarding schools where Indigenous children were forcibly “Americanized”: They were forbidden to speak their own language and punished if they did, had their hair cut short, and were often separated from their families for years in a row.
“That’s what this exhibit is pretty much more than anything,” said May, who previously worked at Springfield Museums as an intern. “I want us to be able to pass on our history, our culture and our experience in overcoming trauma to the next generation.”
Additionally, museum officials say they are committed to redesigning Native American Hall and working with Indigenous groups such as the Western Massachusetts Intertribal Council to present more exhibits that will “respect (recognize) the history, traditions and cultures of the indigenous communities (who) were, and still are, located in the region.
May says she is working with museum staff and exhibit attendees to add video interviews and other elements to the exhibit that visitors can access via their cellphones. Additional events, such as storytelling and songs in the exhibition space, are also planned.
Additionally, the Intertribal Council hopes to find a physical space to house what May calls a resource and cultural support center for Native American peoples that could devote more effort to supporting the native peoples of western Massachusetts and to educating. the public about Aboriginal stories and experience. .
“We’re slowly building our presence, and we’d like to do a lot more,” she said.
For more information about the exhibit, visit springfieldmuseums.org/exhibitions/were-still-here.
Steve Pfarrer can be contacted at [email protected]