New Artwork Brings ‘Living Indigenous Presence’ to Harvard Divinity School

September 22, 2022
Ramona Peters holding and looking at a brown clay pot with white inlay gliphs
Artist and Mashpee Wampanoag tribal member Ramona Peters, whose Indigenous name is Nosapocket, sits in her Mashpee, Massachusetts home holding her latest original piece, an ahkuhq or cooking vessel titled “Earth Bound,” which will have a permanent home on display inside Harvard Divinity School’s Swartz Hall. The new artwork offers a “living Indigenous presence at HDS.” Photo by Anthony Trujillo

Artist and Mashpee Wampanoag tribal member Ramona Peters is very crafty with her hands. So much so that she has completed everything from detailed artifact reproductions to stunning artistic commissions, with materials including wood, metal, leather, and even porcupine quills.

Clay, however, wasn’t a medium she really worked with until a museum approached her to reproduce a piece of pottery.

“They gave me a picture of the shard, just a piece,” said Peters, whose Indigenous name is Nosapocket. “So I took that and I got some clay and in the process of making that piece something inside me shifted, and I’ve never been the same. I feel it to this day. It was a connection with the Earth that I had not had. … I’m so grateful for that opportunity, to actually be allowed to shape, or participate in the shape of the Earth.”

That connection to the Earth is visible in one of Peters’s latest original pieces, an ahkuhq or cooking vessel titled “Earth Bound,” which will have a permanent home on display inside Harvard Divinity School’s Swartz Hall. The work was commissioned by HDS and the Swartz Hall Art Committee, with support from the Harvard Culture Lab Innovation Fund.

“The idea is to have a living Indigenous presence at HDS,” said Ann Braude, Senior Lecturer on American Religious History and director of the Women’s Studies in Religion Program at HDS. Braude was also a member of the committee that worked to commission the piece. “Indigenous presence in the Northeast is not something of the past. It is very much alive now. We are on Native land now. This pot is a substantiation of that.”

On September 19, HDS held an unveiling ceremony for Peters’s work. The event brought together community members from across and beyond HDS and Harvard, including leaders from both the Harvard University Native American Program and the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. In his remarks during the event, HDS Dean David N. Hempton discussed some of the findings of the Report of the Presidential Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery, which was released a few months after Peters accepted the commission for the artwork. The report’s findings include that “slavery—of Indigenous and of African people—was an integral part of life in Massachusetts and at Harvard during the colonial era,” and it recommended that Harvard should “honor, engage, and support Native communities.”

Hempton recounted the particular impact that Harvard and gifts to the University in support of Christian missionaries had on the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.

“In light of Harvard’s history of disregard for its Indigenous neighbors, Ramona Peters’s vessel ‘Earth Bound,’ makes visible a critical Indigenous presence, which for too long has been ignored,” said Hempton.

Four students gather around the brown clay pottery on display in a glass case inside Swartz Hall

The piece is described as an animate clay-being consisting of clay derived from shell, rock, minerals, memory, experience, and ancestral DNA (animal, plant, human), and intentionally and deliberately pinched, smoothed, and shaped by Peters’s hands. Its shape is that of classic coastal Wampanoag pottery.

Peters said she chose to inlay white clay in the brown vessel as a suggestion about colonial influence.

“The European was imported here into this land. So, I guess you could say the white, that some of that represents that phenomenon or that history—not indigenous to this land like the rest of the clay vessel,” she said.

Toward the top of the piece is a black band that serves as a “time stamp” that comments on anti-Blackness attitudes.

“We're in an era now, for us, for hundreds of years, we've had to also endure and witness that there's a lack of love and appreciation for other beings,” says Peters.

The HDS community, through the School’s Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging, will soon begin its annual year-long Common Read program. This academic year, the School community will engage with the Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery report as part of its commitment to dismantling racism and other systems of oppression. The inclusion of Peters’s work as a permanent part of HDS’s campus builds on that effort.

“The installation will invite all of us who pass by to pause and reflect on our relationship with the local Indigenous people and culture, as well as our responsibilities for the land,” said Maisie Luo, MTS ’22, an artist who served on the committee to commission the work. “We can reimagine a community and culture at Harvard where the learning and dialogues of our histories and diverse stories are ongoing.”

Peters’s respect for Indigenous spirituality and spiritual practices made her feel the Divinity School could be an appropriate home for her work.

“In a school that is dedicated to the study of religion, I thought, sure, include us as well,” she said.

—by Michael Naughton
Material from PhD candidate Anthony Trujillo contributed to this report.