New UMass Mural Welcomes Native Students to UMass Boston Campus

SGISDInclusion
5 min readOct 8, 2021

This year, we observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day on Monday, October 11. UMass Boston is on the traditional land of Massachusett people.

To welcome students to UMass Boston’s campus this year, and to emphasize that UMass Boston is still Indigenous space, Robert Peters, an artist and member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, created a mural in UMass Boston’s first residence hall. Peters created this mural to help Native students feel more at home. This mural also encourages non-Native students to think about what “home” means, while also making them feel at home as a guest to the territory. The design depicts a wall in a traditional Eastern Woodlands home and includes representations and symbols of Mashpee Wampanoag culture.

Peters explained the themes he explored in the mural

With support from the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe and New England Foundation Arts, Robert Peters directed the Menz Wetu Project. Together, 24 native youth built a 32-foot longhouse on Mashpee land. Peters used photographs from this longhouse to design the mural for UMass.

“I wanted to share our sophisticated architecture. We showed photographs of the longhouse that we actually built on our land in Mashpee, and incorporated it in the design,” Peters shared, “The curve of the wall in the residence hall mirrors the curve of the longhouse we built. Our structures were round, and we used cedar poles to bend the structures. Cedar is not like all wood; it can grow in swamps and in all water. It ages more slowly and creates more resilient structures.”

Peters described the significance of each aspect of the mural, from the bullrush grass wall to his signature symbol. The images of cattails are significant as well. “Cattails covered our lodges in the summer. They act as a natural air conditioner; when cattails are wet, they swell and help transfer cool air into the home.”

Close up photo of the cattails, medicine wheel, pottery, and artist’s symbol. Photo credit: Quinn Barbour, School for Global Inclusion and Social Development.

Another focal point of the mural is the depiction of a medicine wheel. The medicine wheel represents the four directions (north, south, east, and west). There are diverse interpretations of the medicine wheel among indigenous people, and many native tribes have used the medicine wheel for a variety of healing and teaching practices.

Close up of the medicine wheel and cattails. Photo credit: Quinn Barbour, School for Global Inclusion and Social Development.

Peters’ signature in the lower right of the mural is a symbol of the Mashpee river. “My family identified with turtles. But I’ve always felt that I’m more like a river. I can’t go out of my banks.”

Peters’ artwork is not just about acknowledging his native ancestors and their rich history. It is also about indigenous cultures today. “I like to do things that depict us now, not as people in the past, but as people moving forward to the next thing in life,” he explained. “I wanted to put examples of others’ artwork in the picture, too. My cousin makes pottery, and she fires and burns in a traditional way. The image of the pottery in the mural is an image of her actual artwork.”

UMass’s Institute for New England Native American Studies and Native American and Indigenous Studies program reached out to Peters to design and paint the mural. Michael Metzger, PhD, Special Assistant to the Vice Chancellor, shared about the significance of UMass Boston’s mural project:

“This project represents an important collaboration of students, faculty, and staff to bring an indigenous visual to our campus Residence Halls. For the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, as well as the Housing and Residential Life team, we aimed to provide a piece that could contribute to an ecology of acknowledgement of native communities as the traditional land caretakers of Massachusetts. As these buildings are the campus home for many first-year students, we sought to also provide a piece that would offer a sense of welcome and community, as expressed through Robert’s native iconography that beautifully provides a window into cultural elements for the traditional caretakers of the land that our students’ home now sits upon.”

Indigenous Peoples’ Day is October 11

Native peoples in the western hemisphere have organized and advocated for the observance of Indigenous Peoples’ Day for decades. Today, 13 states and many cities and locales recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day as the official holiday on the second Monday of October.

Peters shared he is glad people are finally recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ Day, though it is more than just one day of the year. “[Indigenous Peoples’ Day] is about reclaiming your identity. The discussions that come out of this day are more than just recognizing native people for one day. It is about our place and what happened to us. It is about recognizing that these are things that happened all over the world. Everybody is indigenous to somewhere.”

Observing Indigenous Peoples’ Day is an act of solidarity with Native Peoples. Indigenous Peoples’ Day has replaced Columbus Day in many locales. Christopher Columbus exploited and enslaved Taíno Peoples and appropriated their homelands. Observing Columbus Day celebrates colonialism and memorializes the demographic collapse, enslavement, and attempted erasure of Native Peoples in the Americas.

We must acknowledge that this erasure we think of historically is not just in the past. Peters explained, “This day is also about recognizing that there are things people still do today that are genocide. We can recognize this in environmental and economic injustices that are happening today.”

We must continue to educate ourselves about the histories and present-day strengths and resilience of native people all over the world. Globally, non-native governments, systems, and individuals still commit ongoing violence and atrocities against indigenous people and their lands.

It is important for us all to learn more about indigenous people and cultures. Here are some additional resources to explore:

Contact Director Cedric Woods at Cedric.Woods@umb.edu to learn more about UMass Boston’s Institute for New England Native American Studies.

Are you interested in learning more about UMass Boston’s Native American and Indigenous Studies Minor? Contact Director Maria John at maria.john@umb.edu with questions about this academic program.

*Thank you to Cedric Woods, Robert Peters, Michael Metzger, Maria John, and Melynda Davis for assisting in the creation of this piece. The post was compiled by the School for Global Inclusion’s Katie Ashwill Allen. Photo credit: Quinn Barbour, School for Global Inclusion and Social Development.

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