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Issues of tribal membership and curator experience in complaint over Springfield museum exhibit

In the Native American Hall at the Springfield Science Museum, the main exhibit is a diorama of two life-sized men and a woman. The woman is kneeling on the ground, with a bowl near her hand. The figures were constructed 85 years ago.

The scene has been slightly updated over time, with some technology. Visitors can push a button to hear what the woman is doing.

“Today I have gathered young milkweed pods, which I will cook in water with dandelion blossoms and leaves and mushrooms, with wild onion as a seasoning,” declares the exhibit, voiced years ago by Gentle Running Deer, also known as Gloria Peeler, a longtime Springfield resident.

“So I would tell all my friends or anybody that I brought here, ‘This is my aunt's voice,’” Aprell May said in a recent interview.

May, a niece of Gentle Running Deer, has been coming to this museum since she was a kid.

The diorama scene has no context, May said. It tells a single story about tool-making, but — among other things — it doesn't represent the many Indigenous groups that were in the area.

“The only thing that's accurate about this diorama, the only one thing that's culturally accurate and appropriate is the regalia,” she said.

To May and other Native Americans, the museum’s old display makes it seem like they’re extinct.

‘Tell my story’

In her life, May said people have even said to her face, “You can't be Native American. They're gone.” And most of her life she’s never quite known how to explain her background.

“I would say I'm Black and Indian,” May said, “not even understanding the terms, not understanding the culture, the language, the extinction rhetoric.”

But in the last few years, May said she’s been finding out all she can about her Indigenous heritage.

When a relative shared the family “history book,” she learned how her grandfather and his 10 siblings were impacted by a federal program that allowed Native American children to be taken from their families and sent to residential schools or adopted out to white families.

Her aunt, Gentle Running Deer, was affected — as was May's grandfather.

“I discovered some things about the Indian Adoption Project, and I discovered more of my family history and how my grandfather was taken away from his mother and her from her mother,” May said. “And he asked me, he said, ‘Tell my story.’ So I said yeah.”

May is a reporter at The Republican newspaper in Springfield and sometimes covers Native American issues.

Aprell May (left) is the curator of a temporary photo exhibit at the Springfield Science Museum called "We're Still Here." Artist Ella Nathanael Alkiewicz (right) is among the people featured in the exhibit. Here she's explaining "Orange Shirt Day," an annual day of remembrance for tens of thousands of Indigenous children who were separated from their families and banned them from speaking their native languages. The day was founded in Canada, and is now observed internationally.
Jill Kaufman
Aprell May (left) is the curator of a temporary photo exhibit at the Springfield Science Museum called "We're Still Here." Artist Ella Nathanael Alkiewicz (right) is among the people featured in the exhibit.

A few years ago she was an intern at the Springfield Museums. That’s when she proposed the idea for an exhibit about Native Americans living in the area.

It’s called “We’re Still Here,” and it opened in September.

In a glass case across from that old diorama are photos of 11 Native Americans, including herself. May interviewed most of them and used excerpts in the display.

“I wanted to include a young person,” she said. “So that's why I have Starfire (Angeliah Carter) and Carlena (Carter) Two Feathers (Sky). They're both a part of a band of the Nipmuc tribe.”

Gentle Running Deer is in the exhibit, as is western Massachusetts artist Nayana LaFond, who paints portraits of missing and murdered Indigenous people.

“This exhibit is a tool or a bridge, if you will, to say that there's bigger changes coming,” May said.

The museum has been actively working with a group of Native American consultants to create those new exhibits, focusing on Indigenous peoples’ contributions to astronomy, agriculture and food production. May was among the consultants.

“We've had some long conversations with them,” said Jenny Powers, director of the Springfield Science Museum. “And what's come out of those conversations is the next thing that will happen is the native figures will be removed.”

‘That was not well-received’

Powers said the museum had been doing things wrong for decades, freezing cultures into a specific period in time.

But this new exhibit curated by May, which was meant to begin addressing that, has led to some controversy.

In an interview this week, Powers said the Native American advisors — about eight longtime educators and cultural historians — sent the museum a letter with concerns about May’s exhibit and about having her as an advisor to the museum.

“[May] has been educating herself, but only for a couple of years,” Powers said. “And so, to bring her in as the guest curator, when we have access to these people who have been doing this work — if not their entire lives, definitely the bulk of it — was something that was not well-received.”

Springfield Science Museum Director Jennifer Powers spoke at an event for the exhibit "We're Still Here," featuring Native Americans who live in western Massachusetts.
Jill Kaufman
Springfield Science Museum Director Jennifer Powers spoke at an event for the exhibit "We're Still Here," featuring Native Americans who live in western Massachusetts.

Powers would not share with us the letter from the Native American consultants. And those we reached declined to be interviewed this week.

The consultants are not judging May as a person, Powers said, but the group takes issue with some of the people who May chose to profile in "We're Still Here.”

They may be descendants, but are not recognized by tribes. May herself is a descendent of the Mohawks of the Iroquois confederacy, but is not claimed by the tribe. And the consultants told Powers that’s a problem for them.

“Because [May] doesn't have a formal affiliation with a group, [they said] she should not be representing Indigenous culture in an exhibit in the Springfield Museums,” Powers said.

It was the museum’s mistake choosing May, said Powers, who inherited the project when she took over earlier this year. She said the museum was just so eager to represent Native Americans better and more vibrantly.

May did nothing “wrong,” Powers said, and has been completely transparent with the museum about her background.

‘I have blood’

Powers called May a few weeks ago to tell her the exhibit would be shut down at the end of December, earlier than planned.

In an interview this week, May said she was OK with that. But when Powers told her about the complaints from the consultants, May said she was frustrated.

“Only because I had — throughout the entire project — I had let people know that I don't have tribal membership,” May said. “But I have blood. I have blood.”

May said she feels ostracized by her own people, and no one in the group got in touch with her directly. She really would like to keep learning from them.

“I wish that they would have – and forgive me if I get emotional – I wish that they would be OK with teaching me. Or even me listening in,” she said. “Because who am I supposed to learn from? I can't learn from white people. I can't learn from Black people. I can't really learn from books because [of] who writes those books. How do I go about it? How do I reconnect? Because I want to.”

Even if the advisors don't claim her — as a tribe might — May said she still claims them.

Disclosure: Springfield Museums is a financial supporter of New England Public Media. Our newsroom operates independently of the station’s fundraising department.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."

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