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  • Debra Lynch-Rothstein

IOH 4: "With a Little Help from My Friends (Song by The Beatles, 1967)

Corn = Life • Jeffrey M. Thomas, Urban-Iroquois/Onondaga Archival pigment print Courtesy of the artist ©Jeffrey M. Thomas

As I prepared for my student tours of In Our Hands, I was lucky to have amazing help: from teachers, a guard, and a fellow guide, Marne Zafar.


I led three tours, and the first included 5th graders. The teacher emailed me that she had just finished a unit on Native American history in America: boarding schools, relocations, broken treaties, and respect for all “earthly things.” Knowing that, I used Jaida Grey Eagle’s quote, “Being a Native person, you learn from a young age of the two worlds you have to live in and navigate, and both of those worlds declaring they are the truth of what happened to your people.” I selected works that included the topics the students had studied, and there was a lot of participation. One piece surprised me, Jeffrey M. Thomas’s Corn=Life. The teacher was excited about this object and shared with her students the sacredness of corn to Native people, and its representation of the cycle of life, as depicted by a child and an elder, framing braided corn stalks.   


My second tour included 2nd graders, and I knew I needed to rework my tour to resonate with them. To prepare, I walked the galleries and noticed works that depicted animal imagery. I talked with a guard about her observations of young student tours and an animal theme. She shared her thoughts and also mentioned that Marne Zafar was in the galleries and she could help. To make a long story very short, I found Marne and she delivered a “master class” on animal symbolism and how “all things are connected.” I was thankful, because I learned so much from her, and my animal-focused tour worked well for those young students.

We Are Still Here, 2014 • Frank Big Bear, White Earth Nation Collage on found paper Courtesy of the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Overland, Kansas, 2014.37 Photo: EG Schempf G2022 Frank Big Bear

My last tour for 8th graders was a combination of the other two tours. I was lucky to have the art teacher on this tour, and the students had been making collages in class. They gravitated to all collages in the exhibition, and their favorite was Frank Big Bear’s We are Still Here. I think they liked this work because it’s large and has a lot of variety in places and themes. They also recognized that that there were sub-collages that make up this large work. They could look at just a “block” of eight images and see a theme that was different from another block of images.


Lastly, I included the work Rotinonhsyón:ni style masks and their makers by Shelby Lisk in all my tours. I found that this work reminded visitors of our shared experience during Covid.

Tours are not a solo activity — sharing ideas when preparing, and interacting with energized participants, are what make it all work.

Rotinonhsyón:ni style masks and their makers, 2020 (from Breathe series) Shelby Lisk, Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory Courtesy of the artist ©Shelby Lisk

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