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Spotlight On: Dr. Gabrielle Tayac

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    Spotlight on -- Dr. Gabrielle Tayac Dr. Gabrielle Tayac (Piscataway Indian Nation) is a historian in the Research Unit at the Smithsonian - National Museum of
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 11, 2010
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      Spotlight on -- Dr. Gabrielle Tayac
       

               


      Dr. Gabrielle Tayac
       (Piscataway Indian Nation) is a historian in the
      Research Unit at the 'Smithsonian - National Museum of the American Indian'.

      With a doctorate in sociology and a background in international human rights, Tayac
      conducts research focused on Native American identity issues across the Americas.

      She also has an area of specialization on the Chesapeake Bay region.

      At NMAI, Tayac curated 
      Return to a Native Place: Algonquian Peoples of the Chesapeake 
      and co-curated the inaugural exhibition 
      Our Lives: Contemporary Life and Identity.

      She lectures widely and has published numerous articles as well as an
      award-winning children's book, 
      Meet Naiche: A Native Boy of the Chesapeake Region


      Gabrielle Tayac: preserving indigenous cultures



      --by LISA MACKIE

      Gabrielle Tayac and family
      Photo: Eric Bond
      Gabrielle Tayac with her daughter, Jansikwe, son, Sebastian Alenkwis, and husband, Daniel Medina.

      "Like any immigrant family," explains Gabrielle Tayac, her
      family's native language and traditions slipped away when younger
      generations lost interest and parents failed to share all they knew.

      But they were not immigrants.

      Tayac's family members are descended from the
      Piscataway people who lived in the Chesapeake
      Bay region before the Spanish arrived in the 1500's.

      Gabrielle Tayac is trying to reverse the trend of cultural loss
      through her work as a sociologist and Museum Program
      Specialist for the National Museum of the American
      Indian, where she conducts research for exhibitions.

      Tayac is currently working on "Our Lives," an exhibition
      for the opening of the museum's National Mall facility ...
      The exhibition explores the contemporary identity
      of indigenous peoples across the Americas and Hawaii.

      While the gallery is organized so that each tribe can speak for itself, Tayac
      works on the historical and society-wide issues relevant to the exhibition.

      Tayac originally came to the museumthrough her sociological
      work gathering information "On native peoples of the
      Chesapeake region, a subject of personal significance.

      She is the granddaughter of Turkey Tayac, known as
      the last traditional Piscataway chief and medicine man.

      He began the revitalization effort that Gabrielle continues today.

      But it was not always so certain that anyone
      would take up the vocation of her grandfather.

      Her father grew up in this region but left at
      the age of 16 to become a merchant marine.

      Turkey Tayac

      Gabrielle Tayac's grandfather, Chief Turkey Tayac, known as the last traditional Piscataway medicine man.

      Tayac says, "Maryland wasn't so progressive.
      When my father left, it was a harsh environment.
      A lot of people left because of racism or economics."

      While attending college at Cornell, Tayac met her
      future husband, Daniel Medina, from Colombia.

      After a stint in Boston, where she earned a PhD. in Sociology
      from Harvard, she convinced him to settle in the Washington
      DC region so she could pursue her research on the Piscataway.

      "I wanted to settle and connect with history, community, and family,
      but" she says jokingly, she had to compromise on one thing.

      Most of her extended family lives in Southern Maryland, but her
      husband wanted to live somewhere where he could find a mango.

      There is very little information available on the Piscataway
      tribe, the people indigenous to this region who were
      among the first contacted by Spanish explorers.

      In the 1630's and 1640's many Piscataway ... died
      from diseases brought by the colonists and missionaries.

      As a result, "the language was decimated"
      and much cultural knowledge was lost.

      While many people were dispersed among other tribes, a few remained.

      About 100 years ago, Tayac's grandfather began the revitalization effort.

      "Grandad had a 3rd grade education–he held
      on to what he knew and tried to find out more.

      He hitchhiked up and down the coast to find people,"
      Tayac explains.
      "If he had not held on [to traditional
      knowledge], we wouldn't know anything."

      When Turkey Tayac was in his 70s, he became increasingly worried
      that the knowledge he possessed would not be passed on.

      He "started to write down [Piscataway] words on pieces of
      paper, on napkins, envelopes, in margins," and tried to teach
      the language to Gabrielle's uncle Billy (the current chief).

      For many years, the scraps of paper were kept in a drawer–"
      an important drawer," she adds, and "valued as a relic."

      Then, when Tayac was starting her own research about
      15 years ago, she made copies of the papers and took them
      to linguists knowledgeable about the Algonquian language family.

      They determined that the 70 words are indeed part of
      the Algonquian family, closely related to the Delaware
      Lenape language, but that the words are unique.

      Tayac comments that people often say, "I can't believe
      you only have 70 words," but it gives her hope.

      "That's more than a lot of other people have.

      The status of [Native American] languages is highly threatened."

      At the current rate of language loss, she says, in 60
      years there will be only three indigenous languages
      remaining in Canada and eleven in the United States.

      She says, "It's been nearly 400 years, you've got 70 words–it's ok.
      It makes us able to do some language reconstruction."

      Other aspects of native culture are also in danger.

      Tayac explains that in the 1940's, very few people
      attended regular ceremonies–there was little interest.

      Now, hundreds attend.

      "We're highly fortunate to have what we have.
      We have four ceremonies a year, not all the songs.
      But it shows how resilient people can be."

      She adds that revitalization is not unique to this area.

      Across the hemisphere, "there's an open interest
      in native culture and indigenous people."

      Tayac sees a progression in the revitalization movement.

      "People in my generation are feeling like it's time to take
      this to the next step, come back home and reconnect."

      The change with the past is evident at the museum, where
      "now native people are archeologists and sociologists,"
      positions that used to be held by non-native "experts."

      The current phase is one of reflection and documentation.

      "We work intellectually, take an examining route.
      [We] write about it and produce books."

      One of the projects Tayac proposed to the museum was a
      children's book to dispel the misinformation, stereotypes,
      and myths that many people have, especially children
      .

      As an example, she tells this story:

      "I went to my son's 2nd grade class in Takoma Park and
      when I spoke to the class about the fact that our family is
      part Indian
      , I asked, `What kind of house do you think we live in?'

      They answered, a teepee.

      I asked my son's friends,
      `You've been to our house, what does it look like?'

      They were afraid to give the wrong answer."

      The book project was picked up by Beyond
      Words Publishers who wanted to do a series.

      The first, published in 2003, was Tayac's Meet Naiche:
      A Native Boy from the Chesapeake Bay Area
      ,
      which follows a weekend in the life of her young cousin
      Naiche (a real boy) who lives in Southern Maryland.



      The series shows Native American children dealing with the same issues
      as other children but also incorporates elements of their unique culture.

      Tayac says, "Native Americans, like everybody, lead complicated lives.

      They carry these historical and cultural issues with them as well."

      One of the problems that compels Tayac is that, "native
      people in the cities and in this region are very invisible.
      Most people don't think there are Indians,
      because we don't [fit the stereotypes]."

      Through her work, Tayac confronts these
      stereotypes and offers alternatives
      .

      "You don't have to be far away to experience it
      ---–there is a native presence."


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      For more information about the National Museum
      of the American Indian, visit the website:
       
      http://www.nmai.si.edu.

      For information on the Piscataway, visit:
       
      http://www.piscatawaynation.org/


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      SOURCE: http://www.takoma.com/archives/copy/2004/01/tayac.html.


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