By Muni Suleiman
Charitie Ropati, SEAS ’23, first visited the Met in her freshman year, seeking threads of representations of their Native community and home in Alaska in the museum’s art. Now, she speaks with honor and pride of the increasing Indigenous representation she’s witnessed across the city’s museums and cultural centers. The Met, where Ropati and I met on an October afternoon, does call for a particular celebration; upon entering the American Wing, Ropati smiled at the featured list of collaborators on the exhibition Water Memories, and pointed at their name.
On display through April, Water Memories explores Native art, lamps and carvings, and ceremonies as an ever-flowing conversation with the culture of the past and crises of the present. The exhibit celebrates Indigenous knowledge and caretaking of the water as vital to water preservation. Ropati is credited by the Met as a contemporary Indigenous community member who provided insights on the significance of water in their Native communities. With the contributions of other Indigenous activists and community members (including Eva Brander Blackhawk, Western Shoshone, CC ’24, and Logan Shorthair, Navajo Nation, CC ’23), each piece in the exhibition refracts the complex position of water in Indigenous life.
Long shields with mirrored surfaces and black handles, made by Ropati and the other collaborators, frame the exhibition’s entrance and the museum visitor’s experience. Mirror shields, first conceptualized by Cannupa Hanska Luger of the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota tribes in 2016, overlap one another on both sides of the entryway arch. The effect is kaleidoscopic; pausing in front of the collective of shields, Ropati and I saw ourselves at once occupying various positions in space, each mirror shield yielding a different perspective.
In Luger’s original, the shields protected Standing Rock protestors—water protectors—from physical harm while imploring law enforcement officers to view their own violent actions as such. Transposed to the Met, they fulfill a similar function, asking bystanders to consider the intellectual, emotional, and physical space that they occupy before engaging, while reminding museumgoers of the intimate importance of water in Indigenous life.
A Civil Engineering major concentrating in Water Resources and Anthropology, Ropati’s studies focus on water preservation and its intersections with “civil infrastructure, permafrost, plant ecology, and cultural resilience.” Interning at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, they conducted a study that simulated the effects of climate change on fireweed photosynthesis and observed permafrost degradation in coastal Alaskan native communities in the Griffin Lab.
As we both note the misspelling of Sāmoan on the Met’s wall next to Ropati’s name (she is a member of the Native Village of Kongiganak, Alaska and identifies as Yup’ik and Sāmoan), our eyes are drawn along the contours of a birchbark canoe model by Jo Polis as we discuss the dynamism within Columbia’s Indigneous community.
Efforts for the Special Interest Community formerly known as Manhattan House to receive their own brownstone were initiated in 2013 by Julian Brave NoiseCat, Canim Lake Band Tsq'escen, CC ’15, and attempted again in 2019 by Abigail Hickman, Cherokee Nation, CC ’21. Two years later, Ropati, Kianna Pete, Navajo Nation, CC ’23, Hannah Jimenez, Cherokee Nation, CC ’23, and Blackhawk proposed the brownstone as a restorative space for the Columbia Indigenous community. The students’ successful push resulted in Indigehouse, the first residential building dedicated to Columbia’s Indigenous students. The irony and frustration of having to fight for a space, recognition of their history, and “approval” from a predominantly white institution established on Lenapehoking Indigenous land is not lost on Ropati. Still, they expressed real faith in Indigehouse’s ability to be a sustainable home base for students.
Education has been a primary venue for Ropati’s activism since her freshman year of high school. The Alaskan Native and American Indigenous dropout crisis in Anchorage prompted her to look for ways to increase students’ educational engagement, from advocating for the ability of Anchorage School District graduates to wear cultural regalia representing tribal heritage to developing more Indigenous-informed lesson plans. This is, as Ropati says, “indigenizing” education.
Standing in Art of Native America: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection, the exhibition neighboring Water Memories, Ropati supplements the museum’s descriptions of cultural and elemental relevance of masks worn in Yup’ik culture. A mask in front of us depicts a face that represents the spirit of a seal centering a hunter’s kayak. A skull above it represents the natural cycle of life and death while the surrounding fish carry with them the hope for a strong fishing season ahead. Masks like this are used in ceremonies and dances, emphasizing a sense of unity that Ropati described as essential for healing, preservation, and motivation.
But community is often easier said than practiced, especially in activist spaces where differences in members’ socioeconomic statuses make themselves manifest. Campus spaces, too, can tend to adopt hierarchical leadership structures and thus reproduce, rather than resist, the hegemony of the university. So, Ropati does not take community for granted; it must be actively developed and maintained. While developing curricula in Anchorage public schools, for instance, she drew upon readings and lessons from Black radicals to inform the contours of education.
After exploring Water Memories, they ask if there are any other exhibitions I would like to see. Scrambling for an eye-catching title, I admit that this is only my third time at the Met. Ropati assures me that this is far from embarrassing. In fact, they have spent quite some time thinking about the problem the museum poses, as an inaccessible cradle of violently extracted art and presenter of inaccurate representations of Native culture. Native-informed exhibitions such as Water Memories appear as a possible solution, allowing Ropati to at once grieve the atrocities committed against Indigenous communities while celebrating her ancestors.
Understanding Water Memories, and perhaps art itself, as a genealogy—a flowing history of humans and culture—is a throughline of our conversation. Sharing a tweet in which her mother tells her that “Being indigenous is STEM,” she emphasizes that matrilineage is central to her identity. Knowledge of her cultural identity was bestowed by maternal lessons and ancestral stories passed down from her grandmother. An empowerment generated by the women in her community was essential to persevering in STEM fields when facing discrimination based in misogyny and anti-Indigenous rhetoric.
In Ropati’s words: “Indigneous knowledge is not [only] underrepresented in the field of STEM, but is intentionally excluded and invalidated.” Her Native community members, without accreditation from institutions that relied on Native exploitation, are scientists as much as those with doctoral degrees. The legacy of Indigenous people as the original scientists and land caretakers is one that Ropati intends to continue.
Shortly after our visit to the Met, Ropati received in the mail a copy of the Malala Fund’s Dare to Learn: The Power of an Educated Girl, an anthology featuring “25 inspiring stories by young women on their fight to go to school,” of which Ropati is one. Just as water courses through the art within the exhibit, it’s the ancestral power of generations of Indigenous people before and Indigenous people to come that courses through Ropati: healing, restorative, representative.