New College of Florida’s Anthropology Commons, with support from the New College Student Alliance (NCSA) and the Novo Collegian Alliance (NCA), hosted a celebration for Indigenous Peoples Day on Monday Oct. 9. Indigenous Peoples Day is a day of recognition and commemoration of the Indigenous peoples of the world. It is important for New College to recognize this day, as much of Florida’s West Coast development sits on land traditionally occupied by Native peoples.
The event was organized by thesis student Gabriella Batista and Professor of Anthropology Maria D. Vesperi. Batista, who is Anthropology Lab TA and also Copy Editor of the Catalyst, explained their personal experience with education surrounding the topic in Florida public school systems. “Many students growing up going to public schools in Florida, myself included, likely don’t know too much about these groups, much less the struggles they went through at the hands of European colonizers and the United States government,” Batista told a Catalyst reporter.
Batista elaborated on how the event aims not just to focus on the struggles, but also to celebrate and educate.
“Indigenous Peoples Day is definitely not all about the struggles, that’s why we hosted an Anthropology Commons event to celebrate the diversity among Indigenous people and invite the New College community to learn alongside us,” they continued.
Vesperi, who sponsors the Catalyst as a project of her Newspaper Writing and Production course, emphasized this point. “It is important to focus on the positive things, and the resilience of [Indigenous] people,” she said.
The event began with folk musicians from Florida, Pete Merrigan and Vinnie Seplesky, two members of the Mad Beach Band, who have been playing in the area since the late 1970s. They kicked off the celebration with songs that shone a light on Indigenous Peoples Day itself by carrying messages of peace and unity.
After Merrigan and Seplesky’s set there was a short film entitled Urpi: Her Last Wish, shot by Walker Hull (‘18). The film was about a Peruvian-American woman on a journey to place her late grandmother’s flowers at her old home in Peru as her dying wish. The woman is searching for a specific house, but has no idea where to look as she was raised in America. She meets a local stranger with a motorbike and they go hunting for the spot, asking around for the house’s location.
After searching for the entire day, the pair becomes stranded when the stranger’s motorbike stops working. As they walk around, the woman slips and hurts her foot, accidentally dropping the flowers into a river. A local shamanic woman takes her and the stranger in to treat her wounds. As she does so, the Peruvian-American woman hears the song her grandmother used to sing and makes the connection that this is where her grandmother once lived. Going outside and looking at the people dancing around the fire, she realizes her grandmother’s dying wish was not just to place the flowers, but to experience the humanity of the community and the connection to her Peruvian heritage.
The next presenter was another New College alum, Gabrielle Vail (‘87). Vail is an internationally known Maya archaeologist and expert in Maya hieroglyphic writing, affiliated over the years with many different museums and institutions such as The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Research Labs of Archaeology, the Harvard University affiliated-Dumbarton Oaks research collection in Washington D.C. and projects at the University of Florida. Vail has taught several archaeology and cultural anthropology courses at New College, and Oct. 9 was not her first time returning to campus to celebrate and educate during Indigenous Peoples Day. In this presentation she went over Maya hieroglyphics and showed examples of her work in this area over the years.
After the event, the veteran archeologist and hieroglyphics analyst spoke to the Catalyst about her past at New College and her thoughts on why Indigenous Peoples Day is important to recognize.
“Because of my experiences at New College… I was able to go into the field and work at a large Maya site in my third year,” Vail said. “It just became really important to me, as Maya cultures were often thought of as being a past or dead culture.”
Vail also spoke about fellow event guest Concepción Poou Coy Tharin’s long connection to New College. “The exhibit she and I worked on at Weedon Island in 2009, we had New College students working on that. [After 2009] she started doing workshops, a couple as independent study projects, a couple as tutorials. She would also come to these events I organized. They were like Indigenous Peoples Day but focused more specifically on Maya peoples and people from Latin America.”
The last presentation was by Tharin, a woman from Guatemala who specializes in Maya weaving. Tharin is from a village in Guatemala that is a major coffee bean and corn production and trade hub. She explained that they dry the coffee by hand on the floor, then grind it and trade it all over the world. In 2020, her native village was flooded during Hurricane Eta, with houses two stories above ground now below water, causing major issues for the area, which they have yet to fully recover from.
Tharin comes from a family of 11 children and she was taught backstrap weaving at the age of 10. This traditional technique has been passed down through generations. Tharin explained some of the history behind this as well, as many women whose husbands died in civil wars would weave in this fashion to provide for their families amid hardships.
Tharin has been living in the United States for around 16 years, and stressed that she believes in keeping tradition alive and visiting family. She hopes her children will share weaving skills with one another and continue this multigenerational tradition. Tharin’s daughter also attended the celebration, and seemed excited and passionate about weaving in this way, just like her mother. “One day [my daughter] told me, I want to try that, and if I said no, [I was afraid] she might have never asked again.”
After Tharin finished presenting the weaving tradition, a group of students were led outside to see the weaving in action. This act of weaving is a spiritual process, and includes various motifs and patterns with religious or symbolic importance.
Tharin spoke about why she thinks Indigenous Peoples Day is valuable. “It is important to show the world we are still here, when a majority of people would not be aware.”
Vesperi also commented on the demonstration. “Why I think it’s important for New College is that we learn a lot of things in theory, but to see how people actually do what they do, to meet them, it gives a sense of immediacy and connection.”
Indigenous Peoples Day is meant for everyone to come together and celebrate each other’s historical backgrounds and unique ways of expression. Members of the New College community were proud to participate.