by Julie Steinbacher ’10
For decades Deborah Spears Moorehead M.A.C.S. ’13 has invited members of the Eastern Woodlands Native American tribes to her studio in Richmond, R.I. Some come dressed in traditional regalia; others bring photos of themselves in ceremonial dress. All share stories about their lives, relatives, tribes, and traditional beliefs. After their departures, Moorehead creates vivid oil portraits informed by their experiences and recollections. Already she has painted nearly 500 images of native people.
“European people paint European people; I’m going to paint Native American people,” says the artist, a descendent of Massasoit, the Wampanoag leader who helped the Pilgrims prevent the failure of Plymouth Colony. “Because we’re seen as people of the past, I show that we’re people of today, that we are living amongst everybody.”
Moorehead is one of five students who identify themselves as Native American and are enrolled in or have graduated from Goucher with a master of arts degree in cultural sustainability (M.A.C.S.). Launched in 2010, the program takes two years to complete and so far has produced 25 graduates. Its goal is to develop community leaders and advocates who work to protect living local cultures. Degree candidates are trained in ethnographic research, sociology, folklore, media, activism, and business management. One graduate works with members of a rural Guatemalan village, sharing stories of land use practices and healing traditions to connect generations. A second promotes awareness of women ranchers in the American Southwest through festivals and public events. Others work in museums, classrooms, and historical societies.
“This program resonates with folks within the Native American community,” says Rory Turner, assistant professor of anthropology and sociology and a M.A.C.S. co-founder. “There are many ways in which sustainable cultures can be informed by traditional cultures, and that’s very much the case for the Native American pathway. It’s not about a back-to-the-land, Luddite disavowal of modernity, but it is about the idea that we need to develop stronger and healthier local economies and communities that provide cultural scaffolding for people’s well-being.”
Amy Skillman, M.A.C.S. director, calls students coming out of the program: “the next generation of cultural advocates—people who value living cultural traditions and see them as a resource for living peaceably on this planet.” Already versed in the culture, tradition, ritual, custom, and art of their tribes, these Native
American students now have additional tools to advocate for their future.
Rewriting Tribal History
As a child growing up in Warwick, R.I., Moorehead remembers looking around her predominantly white neighborhood and wondering: “What happened to all the people who look like me?” That question was the beginning of a lifelong quest to learn about and document her heritage through historical narrative and visual art.
M.A. in Cultural Sustainability
Established in 2010
Two-year master’s degree
Distance-learning program with two 10-day residencies per year
Completion of a capstone project is required. Capstones are six-credit theses or practical applications in a student’s field of interest.
Twenty-five graduates as of 2013
Moorehead’s parents were from different Eastern Woodland tribes, and in her youth, she attended powwows and ceremonies with her family. She continued to ask questions about her culture, but it wasn’t until after she received a bachelor of fine arts degree from the Swain School of Design (now part of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth College of Visual and Performing Arts) that she came across materials to further her investigations and trace her ancestors.
Moorehead inherited her grandfather’s Bible, which included a partial family genealogy but left many gaps. Several years later, she was referred to Indian History, Biography, and Genealogy: Pertaining to the Good Sachem Massasoit of the Wampanoag Tribe, and His Descendants. The book, published in 1878 by Zerviah Gould Mitchell, a descendant of Massasoit and distant relative of Moorehead, filled in the missing links. With that information, she could trace her lineage all the way back to the Wampanoag leader who maintained peace for many years with the English when they first landed at Plymouth Colony.
“I sat in the library crying because I realized it was the puzzle piece that connected all my genealogy to the past,” says Moorehead.
In addition to investigating her tribe’s past, Moorehead teaches art classes in her studio, Painted Arrow Studio Talking Water Productions, and culture classes at Native American Lifelines in Boston (she was nominated Indian Educator of the Year in 1994 by the National Indian Education Association). In 2005–06, she and 15 Native American students painted murals portraying themselves and others practicing their traditions at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian. Last year, the artist curated the first Native American art exhibit at the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts.
All along, Moorehead has been refining her narrative history and making portraits of native people in regalia. These depictions connect the subjects of her paintings with the past; the presence of regalia also has a deeper meaning to individuals. “It shows who we are, what we believe in, how we feel, what we were named, who our ancestors are,” the artist says. “It tells so much about a person.”
A Mohegan friend suggested that Goucher’s program might enhance Moorehead’s work, honing skills that could be used to sustain her culture. The artist agreed. She enrolled in the program and completed a historical narrative of the Seaconke Pokanoket Wampanoag Tribal Nation as her capstone project. She also filed for federal recognition of her tribe and has a contract with Blue Hand Books to publish the narrative.
Moorehead says documenting, researching, and filling in the gaps of her tribal nation is “a healing process for me, as well as all my relations, native and non-native. The American history was written by European people who didn’t really have our best interests in mind. It was misinterpreted in the primary documents, and that’s the history we’ve had to live with.”
Access to Tribal Lands
Leaping fish, prowling bears, zig-zagging arrows, and shimmering stars are among the designs that Leah White Horse-Mata M.A.C.S. ’15 drills out of lustrous mother of pearl to crown her bead-and-shell necklaces. White Horse-Mata, of the Northern Chumash tribe, makes and sells traditional regalia and jewelry out of her studio, Saqwamu. She lives in Rohnert Park, Calif., with her husband, Keevin Hesuse, a silversmith, artist, and drum maker, and their four children.
In warm months, the family descends upon nearby beaches to collect abalone, olive, and clam shells. White Horse-Mata also gathers pine nuts, willow bark, and grasses for skirts and woven baskets. Her work is resplendent with a wealth of shells, seeds, and other natural materials, but their availability and accessibility is not guaranteed.
Much of the Northern Chumash’s homeland now belongs to private homeowners and businesses. Certain grasses traditionally used for baskets and bandoliers grow on the banks of the San Luis Obispo Creek, for example. To gain permission to collect on these lands, White Horse-Mata has forged careful relationships with the owners.
“The mouth of the creek is through a very public beach, and it runs through a golf course,” she says. “Tribal communities are losing access to traditional materials because of environmental, developmental, and policy issues.”
A graduate of Ashford University with a degree in cultural anthropology, White Horse-Mata works full time as an artist and dedicates her career to keeping ancient forms alive. Her work has won awards in traditional attire and cultural arts. In 2011, the artist was awarded a Smithsonian Artist Leadership Fellowship to research regalia and customs of the Northern Californian tribes. In 2013, she and her daughter, Naomi, respectively as master artist and apprentice, entered the Apprenticeship Program of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts. When White Horse-Mata discovered Goucher’s M.A.C.S. program last year, she knew it would empower her mission. “I wanted to tip the power a little bit. It seems like, as a traditional artist, you don’t have access to a lot of opportunities, so I wanted to bring a new skillset to my community,” she says.
Although White Horse-Mata hasn’t yet declared her capstone project, she is exploring ways to ensure the health of San Luis Obispo Creek, which is host to declining salmon and steelhead trout populations. The salmon restoration project she envisions would allow her tribe to “partner with local environmental groups to ensure the salmon population is sustainable in a way that we can practice our traditional fishing and cooking methods and keep a healthy diet within our community.” This also would have an impact on her artistry: “A lot of the materials we use for regalia grow along the creek beds, so if there’s clean water for fish, then that means there are healthier plants. That means a greater availability of plant materials for regalia or baskets.”
Reviving a “Lost” Tribe
Growing up in Puerto Rico, Joanne Morales M.A.C.S. ’13 learned in elementary school about the Taíno, a people indigenous to the Bahamas and much of the Antilles. There were no more Taínos, according to her lessons. The people and their ways had long been eradicated by the Spanish explorers who colonized the island.
When she was 9 years old, her family held a puberty ceremony for her. Most of her toys were given away, and she was taught to cook, sew, clean, iron, butcher, and pray. “People in my community said, ‘It’s something we do when children come of age.’ I thought it was normal for everyone,” she says.
It wasn’t until she was 13—when her family moved from Puerto Rico to Pennsylvania—that Morales learned the truth: Her family was Taíno, a fact often denied or concealed due to racism and a lack of formal recognition in Puerto Rico.
“By that time I was far from my island. It was saddening. I tried to forget about my heritage,” she says. “But my life continued to unfold toward it.”
Morales studied colonization, epistemology, self-determination, and decolonization at the Institute of American Indian Arts, a college in Santa Fe, N.M. The more she came to understand the role Taíno culture played in her life, the more she wanted to explore how others who grew up with elements of Taíno culture felt about their heritage.
That’s when Morales began to think about Goucher’s M.A.C.S. program. “I was looking for programs that shared my understanding of what a culture actually is. It’s not really something you can put in your pocket or put on the shelf: It’s something you practice confidently. It’s woven into our lives,” she says.
As part of her capstone project, Morales interviewed members of her tribe. As she spoke with Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Americans living in Florida, New York, and New Mexico, her project became an ethnographic study of her tribe and how its members feel their living culture should be preserved.
These days, Morales teaches archery, math, and the occasional first-year seminar at the Institute of American Indian Arts. In 2012, she had an experience she hopes will encourage more Taínos to accept their heritage: She ran and took second place in Miss Indian World, a program that judges participants on a speech, a performance of a talent (Morales’ is archery), dancing, and interviews.
“It was a great experience. Taínos are so unknown; it’s important for people to know that we’re still here.”