If you’ve been to the Native Hall at the Springfield Science Museum recently, you may have noticed some changes. They come from Aprell May, a Springfield resident, who is bridging the past and the present through her exhibit entitled “We’re Still Here.”

May’s exhibit honors and recognizes the ongoing history and culture of the Native communities in our region. Zydalis Bauer spoke with May to learn more about her personal connection to the exhibit and more. 

This interview originally aired on October 6, 2022.

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: This fall, you may notice something different in the Native Hall at the Springfield Science Museum.

Aprell May, a Springfield resident, has curated an exhibit entitled “We’re Still Here,” which honors and recognizes the ongoing history and culture of the Native communities in our region.

I spoke with May to learn more about her personal connection to the exhibit and how it bridges the past to the present.

Aprell May, We’re Still Here: So, it was like soul work. My Aunt Gentle Running Dear, my great aunt, is the voice of the gatherer there.

And as a child, that was the only place I could connect with a piece of my heritage. But as an adult, I wondered what would the impact be if my kids could see my great aunt there and the representation of the people that we knew and we see in ceremonies and in events and at powwows, what would the impact be?

And I realized that this is the image that first — that kids see first, because the first place they go to when they’re non-school age is the library and the museum.

Zydalis Bauer: I understand, too, that when you were younger, you didn’t really talk about your Native ancestry that much.

How were you able to reconnect with it after so long?

Aprell May: So, I didn’t talk about it a lot because there was a lot of extinction, propaganda, and rhetoric going around. Still to this day, people don’t believe that Indigenous people are living. And so how I reconnect is by learning from all the people and voices that you’ll see in the exhibit today.

And I just take my guidance from my elders. So, I’m still learning. I’m still getting to know the different people, the different ways, the different communities that they live in. And — and I’m just reconnecting in a different kind of way.

I was introduced back into the circle maybe in about, like, 2018. So, really just immersing myself and researching and learning more and especially talking to my elders.

Zydalis Bauer: You bring up such a good point about people, you know, having that rhetoric of extinction, and I know — I have — my heritage is from Puerto Rico. And so, for the longest time I thought that the Indigenous Taínos there were extinct. And so it is really amazing to learn that, no, these Indigenous people still live on.

What was some of the research that you had to do to curate this exhibit?

Aprell May: So, you know, I was working with the Intertribal Council before I started this exhibit, and then I started meeting more people. So, some of the people I’ve already known, and we have a mission at the Intertribal Council, and that is to get a Native American Peoples Research and Cultural Support center. That mission was started by my cousin Gray Hawke, who passed away suddenly, and so, I was already working with that initiative.

The people that I have added to the exhibit are just other voices with other initiatives in the Native community. So, I really wanted to highlight that living experience and what people are doing for contemporary Native issues and contemporary Native life.

So, that’s what led me to that.

Zydalis Bauer: I can imagine that, you know, not knowing as much when you were younger about your heritage and now curating this project, you must have come across so many interesting facts or revelations.

What have you learned about yourself while curating this exhibit?

Aprell May: So, I realized the reason why I couldn’t talk about my Native heritage is because I didn’t know. And why didn’t I know? I didn’t know because there was an Indian adoption project that my family had gone through for generations before.

My — my grandparents was the end of it, but my grandfather suffered so much in a non-Native foster home. There were 11 of them, and they were separated most of their life. And then while I was reading that in my family history, I was opening up research books with stories just like my family.

And it broke my heart to know that so many kids were…taken, not just boarding schools and residential schools, but in foster homes. And that’s where they were stripped of their culture and their ability to talk about it. And so, that’s why I didn’t know.

And so, I learned that I could speak about it now because I know what happened generationally.

Zydalis Bauer: So, tell us a little bit about the exhibit. I know that it bridges the past to the present, and it also touches on topics such as resilience and identity.

What are some of the aspects in this exhibit that people can expect when they visit?

Aprell May: Each one of the people in my exhibit have different stories, and they’re working on different initiatives. One of the most heart wrenching ones is the first one that you’ll see in the exhibit, and her name is Nayana LaFond, and she’s an artist who is working on a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s project or campaign, if you will, where she’s painting family members who are missing or murdered.

And it kind of connects to one of my other voices, who is also a protector of woman in her band. So, this story about women protecting each other and campaigning for each other when there’s no one else to do it but us. And how can we…. how can other women join in this fight to protect us, if they don’t know that it’s going on because of the extinction rhetoric? So, the bridge is there now. Because now people can see that there are contemporary issues like Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women.

A few years back, a woman from the Mashpee tribe was murdered and they found her in Florida. And so, the artist that — Nayana LaFond that’s in the exhibit paints portraits for the families to use free of charge across the whole North American continent.

Zydalis Bauer: And I know that you’re a Springfield resident. And so, what does it mean to you to see this institution, like the Springfield Museums, really commit to restructuring and remodeling this specific — the Native area that they have?

What does that mean to you?

Aprell May: Educating the public on the living culture is super important because then other Afro-indigenous women don’t have to explain like, “No, but we’re still here. We’re not extinct,” every day of their lives.

So, I think that it’s important that — that they commit to diversity. It’s important that they rethink how stories are being told. It’s important that we reclaim our narrative, and it’s important that there’s proper adequate representation.

Zydalis Bauer: Now, for others out there who may have grown up as a lost bird or a missing feather, as you described it.

What advice would you have to give to them on the importance of connecting with their identity and their heritage and culture?

Aprell May: Everybody has…like if you go back to developmental models, I think everybody has this idea that those developmental models kind of fit everyone psychologically and — and emotionally. I think that once we look back into that and we understand the cultural discontinuity that Afro-Americans and Indigenous Americans have gone through, we can — we can understand more of the cultural loss significance.

And what we want to tell people is we want to let people understand that it’s okay to understand and acknowledge the effects of colonialism and how hard it has hit people. And it’s okay to reconnect, but always do it the proper way, always do it in the right channels. And — and it’ll — it’ll…go a long way for social-emotional well-being.

It feels — it feels really good to connect.