Teaching Indigenous history and current life

Larry Spotted Crow Mann will be giving the keynote address for Indigenous Heritage Month at Mount Holyoke College on Nov. 30, 2021.

By Christian Feuerstein

Larry Spotted Crow Mann will be the keynote speaker for Indigenous Heritage Month at Mount Holyoke College. His talk, “We Are Still Here, We Are the Story and We Are the Land: Honoring the Past, Present and Future of the Indigenous People of Western Massachusetts” will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 30, at 6:30 p.m.

Born and raised in Springfield, Massachusetts, Larry Spotted Crow Mann is an author, musician, activist and community engagement leader. A member of the Nipmuc tribe, he also co-directs the Ohketeau Cultural Center, which offers classes, workshops and a space for the Indigenous community to connect. The Nipmuc exists as an Indigenous community in central Massachusetts. Their ancestral land once comprised over 1,000 square miles from northern Rhode Island, Connecticut, central Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire. As Spotted Crow Mann reflects on the presence and vitality of the Nipmuc people and other Indigenous tribes of western Massachusetts, he continues to combat the stereotype that all Native Americans are gone from the area. By telling traditional stories, he educates those around him about the historic and contemporary legacy of the Indigenous people of western Massachusetts.

He spoke with Mount Holyoke College before his talk. 

The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

Talk about the presentation you’ll give at Mount Holyoke College. 

The focus is going to be on Indigenous rights, sovereignty, the people of the land, the stories that bind us and really speaking in the first-person voice about what happened here. I think that’s the most important thing to give people the awareness that has been denied everybody about the current events.

I’m also an artist-in-residence at Bunker Hill, and we’re doing a campus-wide curriculum change to have Indigenous studies across the spectrum and all different disciplines, not just as an elective, so every student who graduates will have learned about the local tribal people. It’s just absolutely phenomenal.

And so in that respect, it’s about teaching that true history to folks. And so they can really have that information to make these decisions that can help our communities.

What are you hoping that the Mount Holyoke community takes away from your presentation and also Indigenous Peoples Heritage Month? 

Intentional relationships. [I co-founded] the Ohketeau Cultural Center. We are the first Native-run and -operated Indigenous center in all of central and western Massachusetts to exist. And so I am just thrilled to be the founder and director of this, along with my partner Rhonda Anderson, who’s Iñupiaq-Athabascan Alaska Native. There’s been an explosion of support. We are having such broad support from allies, and so I think that’s what I’m hoping to get from this visit, to really get people excited about being involved and to let them know they do have a place in this circle of support and what it is to be a good ally.

What does it take to be a good ally for Indigenous people? 

I think the best thing an ally can do when they’re going to a Native person or a Native community or an organization is just these words: “What do you need, and how can I help?” And in that way, you are centering their voice. You are centering their needs. You’re not making any assumptions. You’re not trying to do things without asking. And by centering them, by asking “What do you need? What can I give? How can I support you?” it gives them that agency to make these decisions. And you are there as a support, and they are leading. And they know that you’re there for their backup. I think that’s the key.

What is the importance of the artist in centering voices and the importance of art in lifting up cultures?

That’s a great question, because in our [Nipmuc tribe] native language, there is no word for “art.” Our art is about things that are shared and lived experiences. Everything that we make or create is about living and sharing.

So the artist, him- or herself, is about bridging these connections — not only the spiritual but the physical [connections] of our culture and our people. And so they are carriers of knowledge. They are carriers of spirit. 

Keeping in mind that, again, our work has been illegal up until 1978, where Native people couldn’t practice their work. So to be able to overcome all that and still, in the shadows and on the periphery of what white America wants us to be, we’re continuing our language, our songs, our dances despite the boarding schools [and other oppression].

It’s a monumental feat that I think is overlooked, in the sense that we weren’t even supposed to be here, you know? And here we are, thriving and making these monumental comebacks, despite the health disparities that our communities suffer in terms of addictions, suicide, depression and health disparities across the board.

 

 

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