Community Reflects on Native and Indigenous Studies Symposium

This year's Five College Native American and Indigenous Studies Symposium, “Gathering at the Crossroads: Abya Yala & Activism,” drew upon and generated academic and cultural community on campus.

Community Reflects on Native and Indigenous Studies Symposium
Attendees of the Five College Native American and Indigenous Studies Symposium listen to Linda Coombs speak. Photo courtesy of the Five College Consortium.

On the evening of Oct. 12, a crowd gathered around the new pavilion at Book & Plow Farm. Attendees, some of whom helped bring supplies and cook food, started the event by filling up on fresh roast corn with cheese in a pampa mesa, a communal eating tradition of Indigenous communities in Ecuador. They then settled down under the cover of the pavilion. As the autumn sky colored, then darkened, they listened to an array of poetry and stories by Indigenous writers and activists that spanned genres, topics, and languages. With this, the readers, Carlos Flores Quispe, Madeleine Hutchins, Irma Álvarez Ccoscco, and Heid E. Erdrich, kicked off this year’s Five College Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS) Symposium.

“There was such a flow between the different readers of poetry,” recalled Professor of English and American Studies Lisa Brooks, “and a flow where … the stars came out, the crickets started chirping. A lot of the speakers … talked about land and waters. And there we were. We were on the land and listening, and the mix of languages and song and poetry together, it was beyond moving.”

As an introduction to this year’s symposium, the event captured some of its central elements. “We did the corn roast the night before,” said Jacqueline Cabarrubia ’25, president of the Native and Indigenous Student Association (NISA). “[It had] that type of community because you can just see everyone bring dishes … and then it just leads into the more formal panel the next day. But you had that community first.”

The NAIS Symposium is held annually, alternating among five college hosts. This year’s title, “Gathering at the Crossroads: Abya Yala & Activism,” denotes the theme — connections across Abiayala/Abya Yala, a Kuna/Guna term that refers to the American continent(s) in totality. In the words of the symposium’s introduction, this year’s conference gathered “activists/writers/scholars from Indigenous homelands in the Northeast with those from across Abya Yala to foster dialogue and potentially, create alliances,” as “Abya Yala represents the many crossroads that connect the Indigenous peoples of the continent, including the Connecticut River Valley.”

NAIS Symposium organizers and attendees share food at the pampa mesa. Photo courtesy of the Five College Consortium.

Brooks reflected on how this theme played out at the symposium. “The symposium allowed us to really highlight the range and diversity of Abiayala. And yet also the connections and the commonalities, all at the same time.”

Attendees, participants, and organizers reflected on how the symposium drew upon and generated community, weaving academic and cultural spaces and fostering meaningful connections.

Generation and Construction

The NAIS Symposiums have occurred annually since 2015, when Kathleen Brown-Pérez, a faculty member at UMass and the current chair of the Five College NAIS Certificate Program, opened up the idea.

The focus of this year’s symposium was conceived at a dinner hosted by Professor of Spanish Paul Schroeder-Rodriguez, which included Brooks, Lecturer in Spanish Daniela Narvaez Burbano, Senior Lecturer in Political Science Manuela Picq, Associate Professor of American Studies Kiara Vigil, and Emory University Professor Emil’ Keme.

The theme was partially based on the work of Keme, an Indigenous K’iche’ Maya scholar and activist. Keme’s 2018 article “For Abiayala to Live, the Americas Must Die: Toward a Transhemispheric Indigeneity” served as major inspiration for the symposium’s goal of building toward transhemispheric indigeneity and solidarity. “It was a very generative conversation,” said Brooks, “and then that idea kind of sprung from it.”

Each year, the NAIS symposium aims to bring speakers from beyond the Five College community. This year, informed by the Abiayala theme, the symposium’s guests came from a particularly wide range, spanning from nearby in the Northeast to both north and south of the United States border.

“Giving space to Indigenous languages to be spoken on campus was really important too,” Narvaez Burbano said, “so we don’t only listen to English or Spanish, but also the languages [activists] are fighting for.”

Many speakers joined the event at the suggestion of faculty in the NAIS program. “We wanted to have people [where] there was crossover and connections,” said Brooks, speaking about participants whose work has overlapped. “Emil’ Keme has written about Rosa Chávez’s work. And Natali Segovia, she’s a Quechua lawyer who works on issues in Abiayala, but also issues in the United States.”

“Thinking about the politics in Abiayala, we really felt that, for example, [inviting] Rosa Chávez was imperative because of the movement that is going on in Guatemala,” said Narvaez Burbano. Chávez, who spoke in the afternoon at the symposium remotely from Guatemala, is a Maya K’iche’ and Kaqchikel poet and activist and the Guatemala program coordinator for the feminist organization JASS Mesoamerica.

The symposium was mainly planned by Narvaez Burbano, Brooks, Picq, Brown-Pérez, Five College Consortium Administrative Assistant Bea Cusin, and two doctoral students at UMass, Tyler Smart and Angela D'Souza, who both work with the Five Colleges on NAIS curriculum development. As they gathered speakers to make the trip to the Kwinitekw/Connecticut River Valley, the organizers considered who their audience would be. Of course, this included students, many of whom came from classes taught by the symposium’s organizers and participants. Brooks also mentioned that the organizers hoped faculty and staff from across the five colleges would benefit from the learning and discussion that the symposium had to offer.

The symposium’s intended audience also extended beyond the Five Colleges. Similarly to the Mead Museum’s September opening of its Boundless exhibit, the symposium was “a space for Native communities from the region to come,” Brooks said. “That’s one of the reasons, too … [that] we always have food. Because we want to be the hosts on that day. And we were very clear, all of us together, that whoever shows up, it’s an open door.”

This open invitation even reached a group of younger students from Holyoke Junior High School, brought by their teacher, D'Souza.

Programs for the symposium included artwork sourced from Archives & Special Collections. Photo courtesy of the Five College Consortium.

Ideas & Community at the Symposium

On the morning of Oct. 13, the symposium continued inside of the light-filled Eighmy Powerhouse. Brown-Pérez and President Michael Elliott offered opening remarks. Then Troy Phillips, Chairperson and commissioner of the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs (MCIA) and sub-chief and council member of Hassanamisco Indian Tribe, took the stage to “ground people in this place,” in Brooks’ words, with a recognition of the Native homelands on which the symposium took place, and in the surrounding areas. Phillips offered an opening prayer in the Nipmuc language, and shared some of what the MCIA has been working on in regards to Native communities nearby in Massachusetts

After Phillips spoke, attendees heard from Linda Coombs, a Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah historian, author, and community leader, and Keme himself, who gave a talk called “We Are Also Here: Maya Migrant Stories From Turtle Island.”

Also during the morning was a panel titled “Knots That Unite Us: Transnational Indigeneity, Materiality, and Abya Yala Confluences,” which featured three speakers: Chimaway Lopez ’20, a Chumash doctoral student at University of California Davis; Kohar Avakian, who is a Black, Nipmuc, and Armenian student at Yale University; and Carlos Flores Quispe, a Quechua doctoral student at UMass Amherst. The panel was facilitated by Narvaez Burbano.

From left to right, Anika Lopes, Kohar Avakian, and Daniela Narvaez Burbano at the NAIS Symposium. Photo courtesy of the Five College Consortium.

The panel’s format was generated prior to the symposium and emphasized some of the qualities that the organizers imbued in the symposium’s planning. The participants thought through ways to change the standard panel format to “something that’s a little more collaborative, something that kind of has a particular methodological ethos of Native studies,” as Lopez put it.

For example, according to Narvaez Burbano, Avakian recommended starting the panel with the question “Where do you know from?” rather than something like “Where are you from?” This enabled the speakers to share their backgrounds and positions, the perspectives informing their work.

“Each of them brought their families with them up on stage,” Cabarrubia reflected. “Every panelist did highlight where they come from, and they said, ‘This is where my perspective comes from.’ You don’t really get that in academia, you get all right to the subject and you just go to what they’re presenting instead of let[ting] it organically flow into your perspective.”

At lunchtime, symposium attendees moved chairs, tables, and a bounty of food from El Comalito into the sun on the Powerhouse patio.

In the afternoon, participants heard from Kahente Horn-Miller, a Kahnawake Mohawk associate professor and assistant Vice-President of Indigenous Initiatives at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, as well as Natali Segovia, a Quechua human rights attorney and the Executive Director of the Water Protector Legal Collective.

Chávez also spoke to the crowd via Zoom. Her speech was entirely in Spanish, with live translation provided by Antonia Carcelén-Estrada. Narvaez Burbano credited Carcelén-Estrada for her remarkable ability to quickly translate distinctive words that Chávez has created in Spanish to describe her scholarship.

“In Ecuador, we already have Indigenous interpreters and sign language all the time,” said Narvaez Burbano, “And who knows, this can be like setting that pace, right? Of having interpreters for several languages.”

Throughout the symposium, at least 12 languages were spoken in the Powerhouse and at Book and Plow: Quechua, Spanish, English, Aymara, Nipmuc, Wôpanâak, Mohegan, Kanienkehaka, Abenaki, Anishinaabemowin, Kʼicheʼ, and Šmuwič Chumash.

At the symposium, at least 12 languages filled Book & Plow Farm and the Powerhouse. Graphic courtesy of Nina Aagaard ’26.

Irma Álvarez Ccoscco, for example, spoke in English, Spanish, and Quechua — “and chose very carefully when she wanted to use each,” Brooks said, describing Álvarex Ccoscco’s oration as “wonderful.”

Referring to herself as “on my own language journey,” Cabarrubia said she appreciated the opportunity to listen to both language learners and those who have always spoken indigenous languages. “Each of us has a different cadence to the way we speak,” she said, “And so, to me, that was the language.”

“I’m Odawa, our language is Anishinaabemowin,” she said, “But … the languages out here, [like] Wampanoag … all come from Algonquin language … I’m hearing it, I’m listening to it. But I’m understanding it. And that was cool, because you understand that the languages are in relationship to each other.”

Community reflections

The symposium emphasized the interconnectedness of academic and cultural communities in the Five Colleges and throughout Abiayala.

“I think something that I’ve learned, and that I liked a lot about the symposium, is a word that Manuela uses a lot: weaving,” said Narvaez Burbano, “Like this community weaving, and suddenly I was seeing how everything was connected.”

The symposium seamlessly intertwined the groundbreaking work of these scholars and activists with community-building and celebration. “For me, I always describe it as being with other relatives,” Cabarrubia said.

Speaking about Phillips’ and Coombs’ introductions, Cabarrubia said, “It was open for all of us, listening to these grandmas and grandpas talk. And Linda [Coombs], she’s talking for a while there. That’s what you always get when you’re in community. You don’t put a time stop to it, you put us in a room and we’re just talking forever.”

Cabarrubia reflected on how the symposium’s community elements, from the feeling in the space to the common participation in setup and takedown, mirrored the environment she grew up in more than some academic spaces she has experienced at Amherst.

“Where I come from, … you [never] come empty handed; even if you come empty handed, you help … It was just cool that it was like, it doesn’t have to be one set way when we’re in the space,” Cabarrubia said. “It’s like, we appreciate each other for what we bring and carry and just welcome that. That’s what I experienced.”

Lopez spoke about how, for him, Native Studies has always been intertwined with his upbringing in Chumash territory in California, where he was “just around that kind of activity, cultural revitalization.”

“I witnessed people working to bring the language back from the archives and the songs back from some of the archives,” Lopez said, “Imagining what we needed as a people to come together … I credit … the elders that I grew up being around, as the people that really started me on this intellectual process of coming to understand what Native Studies is. What academic research is, but trying to do it from a community perspective. Something that will help Chumash people, my relatives, my community.”

At Amherst, Lopez was able to refine that perspective of what, exactly, Native Studies could entail. While at the college, he majored in American Studies and Environmental Studies as well as completing his Five-College Native American and Indigenous Studies Certificate.

“Native studies is … neither studying Native people, nor is it Native people studying  academics,” Lopez said. “It’s something more. It’s this accumulation of scholars and publications and intellectual traditions, institutional presences that coalesce into an academic field in an interesting way.”

The certificate program, he reflected, helped connect him to other Five College scholars and students, and even organizing going on on other campuses. “Those are all things that helped me tie my intellectual academic pursuits at the college with a cultural perspective, understanding what’s going on in the community, and bringing that all together,” he said, “So to me, that’s what Native Studies is.”

The symposium itself played a role in this feeling when Lopez was an undergraduate. “It was a big part of my … developing an understanding of myself in relation to academics and research in the field of Native studies in general,” he reflected, “This is a conference that I feel comfortable at, that I feel connected to academically, methodologically, where I feel supported and taking myself seriously as a researcher. That definitely influenced my understanding of my ability and self confidence.”

Lopez graduated Amherst during the onset of the pandemic in 2020, and he was excited to return to campus partially because he left campus abruptly during his senior year and never returned.

Faculty organizers reflected on their excitement for students to take in the knowledge that the guests brought to campus. Narvaez Burbano said she looked forward to her students hearing from Indigenous scholars and considering “different ways of learning and being part of a community,” exploring methodologies that they may have been previously unfamiliar with.

Brooks reflected on how Phillips’ opening talk “addressed the issues that the MCIA and Native nations in Massachusetts are working on, so that students can see that, right here, in Massachusetts, here are the Native communities and here are the issues that can be addressed, that we can all participate in addressing.”

Cabarrubia said that it was meaningful to be in a space where people from within the Indigenous community and beyond could learn together, without the “heavy lifting” placed on Indigenous students themselves to teach the people around them. “I’m learning, but I know so many other people are learning,” Cabarrubia said, “So that means, as an Indigenous student, I’m not always teaching.”

Brooks and Narvaez Burbano also expressed gratitude for the ways in which different elements of campus came together to support the symposium: Archives & Special Collections, Book & Plow Farm, and the Mead Museum and its Boundless exhibit.

Cabarrubia and Lopez both shared their appreciation for the faculty and staff who have guided them on their academic journeys and who created the space for the symposium.

“It’s cool and beautiful to see our professors take that lead, which they’ve always done, but like it’s just like, to do it so selflessly,” Cabarrubia said, “It’s just care.”

Lopez said that that was part of why he was excited to join the symposium as a speaker this year. “I wanted to support the Five College Indigenous Studies Association …  I want to support the professors that helped me out.”

“I think for me, it’s all about community building and relationships,” Brooks said, “I know there were relationships that were built through these events, people participating and having conversations with each other.”

Cabarrubia agreed: “We’re woven together in the way we show up.”