‘We’re everywhere but we’re not seen for who we actually are’:Indigenous portraits on display at Athol Public Library

  • Chimaway Lopez (of the Chumash people) on the Amherst College Sanctuary Trail Pond in Amherst. Contributed photo/SARA K. LYONS

  • Denise Sundown (Mohawk 6 Nations, Bear Clan), Sheldon Sundown (Seneca Nation, Turtle Clan), and Sophia Sundown (Mohawk 6 Nations, Bear Clan). Sheldon served as the event emcee at the 38th Annual UMass Powwow in Amherst. Contributed photo/SARA K. LYONS

  • Caroline Collazo (of the Nipmuc people) at home in Springfield. “Our regalia tells a story of our tribe and homeland. But within our hearts is the story of why we never forget.” Contributed photo/SARA K. LYONS

  • Justin Beatty (who is of Ojibwe, Saponi, and African American heritage) sings with Urban Thunder at the 38th Annual UMass Powwow in Amherst. “I was blessed to be raised with some connection to my Indigenous heritage from the time I was a baby. I have been going to, and participating in powwows for as long as I can remember. Being able to express myself culturally is important to who I am as a person for many reasons, including the fact that the opportunity to express ourselves culturally for many Native people had been expressly forbidden and outlawed for many years. Being able to openly and proudly participate in cultural events is a way for me to honor my ancestors and others who were not afforded that same opportunity. Singing at powwows gives me a joy like no other thing in my life. It is a joy and happiness that I feel in my mind, heart, soul, and bones. I am beyond thankful that I get to express this part of me.” Contributed photo/SARA K. LYONS

Staff Writer
Published: 5/8/2021 5:00:23 AM
Modified: 5/8/2021 5:00:12 AM

You may have heard of the Cleveland Indians, Chicago Blackhawks, Florida State Seminoles and, until last year, Athol High School Red Raiders.

But are you familiar with Chimaway Lopez or Caroline Collazo? Rhonda Anderson, Western Massachusetts Commissioner on Indian Affairs and Sara K. Lyons, a local photographer, wanted to change that.

Anderson, who lives in Colrain and founded the Ohketeau Cultural Center and the Native Youth Empowerment Foundation, conceived an idea a couple of years ago to counteract the spread of inaccurate stereotypes in response to debate over the rebranding of Indigenous sports mascots. She teamed up with Lyons to photograph and collect statements from members of the local Indigenous community. The final result is “Vital.Vibrant.Visible: Local Indigenous Identity Through Portraiture,” a photography exhibition open at the Athol Public Library until June 30.

The participants — Indigenous people who live and work in the region — were photographed in a location meaningful to them and each had control over how they chose to represent themselves.

“Our sacred ceremonial grounds have been subject to extractive industry, toxic waste dumping, sold for cattle grazing and stolen despite the guarantees of international treaty rights,” Anderson said in her curator statement. “We are not a historical side note or a caricature. We have faced intentional genocide and cultural genocide, and yet we remain, our cultures and our identities intact. Indigenous people are the fastest-growing population, working towards a better future for our next seven generations.”

Anderson and Lyons will participate in an online presentation about the exhibit at 7 p.m. on May 18. To register for this event, visit bit.ly/3xRjz2G.

“Everybody was amazing and fantastic to work with. It was a fantastic experience for me because I got to listen and take part in the conversation,” said Lyons, an artist and educator at Greenfield’s Four Rivers Charter Public School, where Anderson’s daughter attends. “It was a really unique opportunity and a unique privilege. It certainly was an education for me.”

The Athol Public Library is the third stop for the exhibit, which was on display at the Great Falls Discovery Center in Turners Falls in 2019 and later in the Mohawk Trail Regional School library. Anderson said she was guided by the work of Indigenous photographers like Matika Wilbur (Swinomish and Tulalip) of Project 562, Josue Rivas (Otomi) and Brian Adams (Iñupiaq).

Chimaway Lopez was, at the time he was photographed at the Amherst College Sanctuary Trail Pond, a student at the college. According to the school’s website, the California native of Chumash heritage is now an alumnus, having studied environmental studies and American studies. Caroline Collazo, of the Nipmuc people, was photographed at home in Springfield.

“Our regalia (worn during traditional dances) tells a story of our tribe and homeland. But within our hearts is the story of why we never forget,” her statement reads.

Lyons said she has no Indigenous ancestry, but Anderson was born in Alaska and is a member of the Native Alaskan tribes Inupiaq and Athabaskan. Her native village is Kaktovik, though she grew up in Western Mass. and attended Sanderson Academy, Mohawk Trail Regional School and Turners Falls High School. Anderson has been at the forefront of the fight to get local high schools to remove Indigenous mascots. Turners Falls High changed from the Indians to the Thunder in 2018. The following year, the Mohawk Trail Regional District School Committee voted to remove all vestiges of its Native American mascot but opted to retain its team name, “Warriors.” These decisions came after tense, emotional debate at public meetings.

“The idea for this installation was born during those contentious meetings,” Anderson said in her curator statement. “It grew with each passing statement that rendered us as historical, dehumanized, and caricatured, thus invisible — and tried to reduce us to stereotypes.”

Anderson is also a supporter of SD.417, a bill filed by state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, to get the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to establish a date “by which any school in violation of said regulations” must choose a new team name, logo or mascot. Comerford is the lead sponsor and Adam Hinds, a Pittsfield Democrat, has joined the effort, as have Democratic colleagues Sonia Chang-Diaz, Jack Patrick Lewis, Rebecca Rausch, Sal DiDomenico and Jason Lewis. The bill has previously been unsuccessful in legislative session.

Anderson said pro-mascot advocates often say they want to honor Indigenous people but don’t invite them to the table to talk about how their image is being represented. She said Native mascots are used for everything from food to vehicles to packs of cigarettes.

“But those are not our images. They are caricatures and stereotypes, right? We’re everywhere but we’re not seen for who we actually are,” she said. “I wanted to use an Indigenous lens so we can really show who we are.”

Seed funding and support for “Vital.Vibrant.Visible” came from Eggtooth Productions in Greenfield. It was also supported in part by grants from the Orange, Athol, Royalston, Wendell, and Petersham Cultural Councils, each a local agency supported by the Mass Cultural Council, a state agency.

More information on Lyons can be found on her website, saraklyons.com.

Domenic Poli can be reached at dpoli@recorder.com.


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