CHR joins Professor Gabrielle Tayac for second IndigenoUs Northern Virginia Summer Institute

by Catherine Olien, Associate Director, CHR

In 2023, the Center for Humanities Research began work on a new public humanities project, “IndigenoUs Northern Virginia: Activating Local and Diasporic Native Identities at Mason," thanks to a $50,000 seed grant from Mason’s Anti-Racism and Inclusive Excellence (ARIE) Task Force, in partnership with the Office of Research Innovation and Economic Impact and the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Other campus collaborators on the project include the Co-Creative History Space and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media.

The funding has enabled the CHR to co-host, with Professor Gabrielle Tayac (History and Art History), among other academic year programming, two summer institutes- one in June 2023 and another in June 2024. 

This summer, Professor Tayac led a group of eight students--mostly undergraduates--on a series of site visits and field trips with the stated goal of "uplifting local Native history and contemporary Indigenous intertribal, Andean, and Central American communities." Students were encouraged to experience the local landscape through Indigenous perspectives. The institute provided students with a hands-on experience of community-engaged, public history.

Some program highlights follow.

During the first morning of the institute, students visited Piscataway Park in Maryland. This rich and protected landscape includes a peaceful shoreline with an elevated, accessible walkway, dense forests, and sacred Indigenous sites. From the walkway, Mt. Vernon is visible just across the river, inspiring reflection on the troubled history of our country's founding, competing narratives (new and old), and the way colonial power continues to dominate the regional landscape.

Students then continued on to Nanjemoy, Maryland, where they had the chance to reflect upon and discuss impressions from the morning field trip outside in the sunshine, over lunch.

On the second day of the institute, the group traveled to Woodlawn, in Virginia. There, with James Wells, a George Mason alumnus, as their guide, they toured the historic home, with newly updated context and signage that highlights populations (including enslaved and Indigenous people) not previously highlighted at the property. They also visited a special exhibit put together by Mason public history students and curated in collaboration with local Indigenous partners called "Offerings for Tauxenent: Acknowledging Indigenous Place ." The exhibit opened in April 2024 and was covered by NBC. As Professor Tayac explains, "'Offerings' introduces the ancestral Doeg tribe and highlights contemporary local tribal people, immigrant Andean (mostly orginiating in Peru and Bolivia) Quechua and Aymara communities, and the newly expanding Mayan (primarily from Guatemala) community in Northern Virginia. Community based artists and knowledge holders contributed artwork, poetry, and traditional items to express their identities and give thanks to the ancestors of the land." Many items were commissioned specifically for the show.

Several of the institute students had contributed to the conception and design of the exhibit. These students spoke about their research in front of the objects they had studied and produced museum labels for. They instructed the others about the context and use of the items on display, but also shared insights gleaned from interacting with Indigenous community members who had created or loaned the pieces or their stories and voices (the exhibit features offerings of poetry in addition to traditional crafts such as woven bags and baskets). 

Indeed, a common thread that ran through both the exhibition and the institute is the idea that indigeneity is a powerful force in the present, not just the past. Further, while much of the institute focused on local indigeneity, the exhibit reminds us that there is a wider, diasporic indigeneity on display in our region- with people, customs, and culture from Central and South America having found a home here. 

Over lunch, Tosha Carter Potter, a Black documentary filmmaker whose family has a wealth of oral history about their Doeg ancestry, spoke to the group about how being Indigenous impacts her life and work.

In the afternoon, the group traveled back to George Mason's Fairfax campus to discuss how the special exhibit would be transformed, expanded, and eventually mounted in the Buchanan Atrium Gallery, in partnership with Mason Exhibitions. The opening of this next iteration of the exhibit is set for spring 2025.

While back on campus, the students also had the chance to think about how exhibitions like theirs might evoke memory and instruct visitors in powerful ways, both experiential and sensory. CHR Director Alison Landsberg (Professor, History and Art History; Cultural Studies) led a seminar-style discussion about how museum exhibits, especially those that use experiential design strategies, can produce what she calls “prosthetic memories” in their visitors. These memories are part of the way in which museums can impart historical knowledge and inspire empathy, both of which might shape the way visitors think about the present. She encouraged students to consider how the exhibit they create might pass on living memory, even to those visitors who have no ancestral connection to indigeneity.

The final day of the institute was dedicated to "community connections." Students were invited into the family home of community organizer and activist Juan Pacheco (Barrios Unidos) for a traditional "circulo" gathering, in which feelings of goodwill, openness, and mutual respect are essential, sharing cacao from Juan's farm in Chinameca, El Salvador. The discussion centered on preventing youth violence and fostering a sense of purpose and belonging in migrant populations. 


In the afternoon, the students shared a plentiful meal at LuzMary’s Bolivian Restaurant before heading back to Horizon Hall on the Fairfax campus to deepen connections with another Indigenous community member--Nana Teresa Lopez (Maya Mam), a Mayan spiritual leader, knowledge keeper, and co-founder of the International Mayan League originally from Guatemala. The students reflected on concepts like healing, equilibrium, and balance, especially as applied to nature and the land. 

At the end of the institute, the group developed a set of recommendations for the evolving exhibit. The students will continue to work together throughout this summer and into the fall on preparing the show for the George Mason community.

The CHR will share news about the exhibit opening (slotted for January/February 2025) during the fall 2024 semester.

If you are an interested in learning more about or becoming involved in "IndigenoUs Northern Virginia," in any way, please contact the us at We welcome involvement from the George Mason community and beyond!

Photos by Hayley Madl and Catherine Olien

Recommended reading, compiled by Professor Tayac: