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Elon senior curates exhibit on local Native Americans

Anthropology major Erin Mellett researched and organized an exhibit on the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation that opens May 9 at the Mebane Historical Museum.

Elon University senior Erin Mellett

An Elon University senior led efforts this spring to create an Alamance County museum exhibit to share the story of a small tribe of Native Americans who have called the region home for the better part of three centuries.

“Welcome to Our Land: The Occaneechi Yesterday & Today” opens May 9. Conceptualized and researched by anthropology major Erin Mellett, it is described as a visual tale “of struggle and perseverance as well as ultimate triumph.”

The exhibit’s opening reception is from 5-7 p.m. at the Mebane Historical Society & Museum at 209 W. Jackson Street in Mebane, N.C. The museum phone number is (919) 563-5054.

The Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation is one of eight state-recognized tribes of North Carolina with most of its approximately 800 living members in Alamance and Orange counties.

“They’re an underrepresented group throughout history and they live in this area, but no one knows about them,” said Mellett, who came to Elon from Walpole, Mass. “If you asked somebody if they’ve heard of the Occaneechi, usually they haven’t."

The project originated from Mellett’s undergraduate research as an Elon College Fellow in which she produced a journal-length article based on ethnographic fieldwork. She interviewed various members of the tribe, earning their trust, and when members of the tribal council suggested that her work studying tourism among the tribe might lead towards developing additional opportunities for tourism, Mellett made sure her work was relevant and beneficial.

“I wanted to do something more and give back to the tribe to help them with their tourism and publicity efforts,” she said, describing the tribe’s tourism efforts as a way to educate both the general public as well as its own members.

The museum exhibit consists of photos, text and artifacts such as tribal regalia, projectile points, drums and a deer hide. It focuses on both the history of the Occaneechi as well as cultural practices still celebrated today.

“Students like Erin don't come along very often. She tackled this museum exhibit fearlessly, as if it was simply one more thing she was working on, one more thing she would produce with amazing acuity and skill,” said Associate Professor Tom Mould, Mellett’s research mentor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. “Her work ethic is bar none and she's been simply wonderful to work with. As a faculty member and research mentor, I am always anxious about sending students into the local community, but I don't think I've ever felt more comfortable than I have sending Erin out.

“She is a natural fieldworker and her honesty and kindness are immediately apparent.”

The exhibit was made possible through a $1,200 grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council. Mellett worked with Mould and Ethan Moore, coordinator of the University Art Collection, on the grant application.

After her college graduation, Mellett plans to work for a year and visit Australia, where she spent a semester abroad during her studies, before applying to anthropology graduate programs for the fall of 2014.

“It has been a joy working with Erin. She has been respectful and has come with a high degree of integrity, not only for who she is but for who we are,” said Tammy Hill, a program assistant in Elon’s Residence Life Office and the social media coordinator for the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation. “Speaking on behalf of the tribe, we wish her well in everything she does. We’ve enjoyed the time we spent with Erin and we know she’s going to go on to do great things.”

Eric Townsend,
Staff
5/8/2013 12:40 PM