Photo Credits: LUIS LOPEZ / AGGIE
Native American and Indigenous Student Advisory Committee proposed to consult chancellor
The Xicanx Futurity exhibition at the Manetti Shrem closed on May 5. The controversial exhibition, featuring the use of ceremonial indigenous objects by Chicanx artists, weathered critical public statements from both the Native American Studies department and Native American and Indigenous students on campus.
In the wake of the exhibit, students at UC Davis have begun organizing a Native American and Indigenous Student Advisory Committee that would report to the Chancellor.
Lindsey Balidoy, a fourth-year undergraduate student, and other students are working to create a this advisory committee that would ideally prevent future instances of cultural misappropriation from taking place. Balidoy said that the group has met with the Chancellor to formally present on the goals of the proposed advisory committee.
“On [our] end, we’re organized,” Balidoy said. “We know what our ask is and we know, you know, how we want this committee to function.”
In response to concerns that were raised by Native American elders, faculty in the NAS department and Native American and Indigenous students on campus, the Manetti Shrem facilitated the removal of eagle feathers from artist Celia Hererra Rodriguez’s installation, “Acoyaliztli Tlachpana” Xicana, on March 25.
Rodriguez’s son, Matthew Montes, who took part in creating the installation, consulted with his spiritual leader and advisor, Chief Wakiyan Sna Mani II of the Oglala Sioux Tribe from Pine Ridge Reservation, about further steps to take.
Following an April 13 meeting organized by the co-curators and staff of the Manetti Shrem Museum, Sna Mani “felt compelled to restore Herrera Rodríguez’ and Montes’ original prayer” by returning the feathers to the exhibit. The Department of Fish and Wildlife also maintained that the artists featured in the exhibition had the right to own the eagle feathers. Wendi Delmendo, the chief compliance officer at UC Davis, affirmed this decision in an email to Susan Reece, a Native American elder who publicly raised concerns about the exhibition.
“After consultation with University counsel, we were unable to determine that any of the federal laws you cited were violated,” Delmendo wrote in the email. “Nonetheless, the University referred the matter to the Department of Fish and Wildlife for independent review.”
However, Reece said that the investigation into a possible violation of federal law is ongoing. She added that the General Counsel of lawyers at the university should be held accountable because federal law “most definitely falls under [their] purview.”
“When issues were raised about Herrera Rodriguez and Gina Aparicio’s installations of prayer ties and feathers the curators worked to actively understand more fully the critique from Native American Studies and community members considering past exhibition practices,” the co-curators of the exhibition said in an email. “When the co-curators and artists attempted to establish communication with those who expressed dismay minimal ground was made so the curators and artists could not negotiate with NAS faculty or community to realize the best steps forward.”
Gina Aparicio, whose tobacco tie installation was featured in the exhibition, has also responded to the complaints that were raised about her work, discussing the thinking behind her artistic practices.
“This offering of tobacco is meant to unite us as one heart, one mind, and one spirit,” Aparicio said via email. “It is a prayer for the healing of ourselves, our community, and our Madre Tierra. Ipan Nepantla Teotlaitlania Cachi Cualli Maztlacayotl bridges the political and the sacred,” she added. “It is meant to disrupt, challenge, and reclaim spaces that have historically been oppressive to our communities. In an act of self determination it is meant to transform the white walls of an institution into a sacred space.”
Aparicio also said that none of the complainants contacted her directly about their concerns.
“Not once was I ever contacted by anyone about their concerns about my work,” she said. “If I had been I would have asked that we dialogue the way we have been taught on this road, in front of the fire.”
But on April 17, Native American and Indigenous students at UC Davis released a public statement in response to the use of these ceremonial objects.
“The commodification of these objects violates cultural protocols that have been in place since time immemorial,” the letter said. “Neither NAS faculty nor our Native American and Indigenous student body were consulted regarding the planning of the exhibition, nor have they been consulted regarding the harm it has inflicted.”
The letter also described the emotional nature of the exhibition’s content, noting that “[…] student and community members have experienced deep shock, immense stress and pain regarding the misuse of ceremonial objects.”
However, Xicanx Futurity co-curators have said that they were in contact with NAS faculty before the exhibition.
“Shrem staff met with faculty across many academic departments, including Native American Studies,” the co-curators said. “The two faculty members (Professor Ines Hernandez-Avila and Assistant Professor Jessica Bissett Perea) who first approached Shrem staff with concerns in February of 2019 were consulted prior to the exhibition.”
The curators and artists of Xicanx Futurity are cognizant of the concerns raised by the Native American and Indigenous community in Davis and have asked for “clarity, healing, understanding, compassions, and deep listening for everyone who is feeling the pain of these tensions, and who has experienced the traumas of colonization for generations.”
Their letter described the NAS and Chicano/a Studies departments as “not opposing forces,” and clarified that, “Xicanx Futurity co-curators and artists [are] not aiming to disrupt anyone’s autonomy, sovereignty, land and treaty rights, and/or ceremonial rights, nor do we want to participate in the white supremacist settler practice of ‘the elimination of the Indian.’”
Balidoy, who helped craft the Native American and Indigenous student letter, views the controversy at the Manetti Shrem as being part of a general disregard for Native and Indigenous voices on campus. Balidoy is a member of the Bad River Ojibwe and Tiwa Pueblo tribes.
“Our community is hurt because our voices are not being heard and our voices are kind of actively being silenced,” Balidoy said. “I think the biggest thing on campus for our student leaders and our student community, is we want to be heard. […] I think we’re lucky that we have a very strong Native student body on campus, [but] it hurts that we’re not being talked to or listened to.”
Balidoy expressed hope regarding the increased visibility of Native students on campus, mentioning a recent pow-wow that took place, as well as a student advisor to the Chancellor who is Oglala.
Native American students who had raised concerns about the exhibition also received a message of solidarity from El Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán (M.E.Ch.A.), a Chicanx student organization with a chapter at UC Davis. Alejandro Galicia Cervantes, a first-year political science major and the recently elected political chair of M.E.Ch.A., described the Xicanx Futurity exhibition as a “big event” for the Chicanx and Latinx communities on campus. Initially, he said, he “didn’t think too much of it,” and was not aware of the controversial use of eagle feathers and tobacco ties in the exhibition.
Galicia Cervantes said that he was contacted by Balidoy and viewed the concerns she expressed as a chance for M.E.Ch.A. to express its solidarity with Native American students on campus. Since M.E.Ch.A. is undergoing a transition of its own that has raised questions about indigeneity and inclusion, including a possible name change, Galicia Cervantes decided to take action. Within a few days, M.E.Ch.A. had voted to issue a statement of support for the Native American student community on campus.
“I felt that it was connected to the national movement that we’re trying to do […] I felt that if we’re making a move on the national stage, we have to walk the talk on campus,” Galicia Cervantes said. “It was an opportunity and a call from another community member to show solidarity for them, and I chose to push for that.”
Balidoy, who expressed gratitude for M.E.Ch.A.’s public support, discussed the importance of this kind of allyship.
“I want to highlight that it’s important that we have allies, and it’s important that we have allies that back our ask [for the advisory committee] and can respect that we’re hurt on a level of thousands of years of trauma,” Balidoy said. “But we also need our allies to amplify our voices and not speak over us or speak for us or disregard our feelings.”
Highlighting the fact that tribal nations are sovereign and have their own governmental processes, Balidoy said that Native American and Indigenous students are “not just an ethnic group,” pointing out the high number of different tribal affiliations on campus.
Balidoy added that Native students on campus are moving forward from the incident at the Manetti Shrem by pro-actively creating the advisory committee, noting that the student body is not actively seeking a response from the museum.
“Just keeping in mind, we have to deal with this every day,” Balidoy said. “The one thing we want to focus on, is how do we prevent this from happening again? Because it’s not the first time that there’s been a lack of cultural oversight. And we have a little bit more voice in how we would like our community to be represented on campus. Because who better to know what the students want or need than Native and Indigenous students?”
Written by: Rebecca Bihn-Wallace — firstname.lastname@example.org