Books displayed on a table. Two sets of hands are visible touching the books.
Boxes of Native American literature from the Eisenberg collection are analyzed by Amherst College staff and students.

An archive isn’t a vault. Since 2013, when Amherst acquired the Kim-Wait/Eisenberg Native American Literature Collection, researchers from Amherst and well beyond have come to campus to examine the materials.

Now, thanks to a pair of grants from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the College’s reputation as a destination for Native American studies is being given a generous boost.

In December, the Mellon Foundation awarded President Biddy Martin a senior president’s grant of $250,000, to be paid out over three years, to enhance scholarly and community access to the collection.

It complements a larger, $2.5 million grant from Mellon to Five Colleges Inc., also awarded in December, that will support new faculty and new courses in Native American and indigenous studies at the member campuses, including Amherst. The Five Colleges grant focuses on teaching, while the Amherst-specific grant focuses on research. Both arrive at a time of growth—in the number of Five College students pursuing the interdisciplinary field of study, and in indigenous student enrollments.  

The $250,000 grant will help Amherst to further develop a regional network of tribal community representatives, library and museum specialists, and information specialists interested in linking collections and communities. 

“That’s been a part of the project from the beginning,” says Lisa Brooks, professor of English and American studies, who—with Mike Kelly, Amherst’s head of archives and special collections, and Kiara Vigil, assistant professor of American studies—has been cultivating and promoting the collection, linking it to campus courses and networking with Native American communities.

Notably, this smaller grant will allow Kelly to hire a dedicated program director for this work.

“When I’m interacting with community members, I’m always making sure that people know about the collection,” Brooks says. “And Mike deliberately has gone out to visit other tribal archives to see what they’re doing. The shift is that we’re going to be more deliberate about it.”

A new, dedicated website, for example, will enable users to access and understand the context of books in the Kim Wait/Eisenberg Collection. Native authors and communities will be able to comment and provide information about the texts, and their input will play a role in how the holdings are categorized.

“What we’re really trying to gather is what are the real needs of these tribal communities, and what can we do to meet those needs,” Kelly says.

This website will be inspired by, though it may look quite different from, Mukurtu, an open-source platform used by many indigenous communities to manage and share digital holdings. A student using the collection to do research on Mohawk writers, for example, might see a note saying, “The Mohawk nation recommends these two books,” Kelly says.

“I enjoy using the resources at Amherst College, and reading there at the archives has really helped me generate some good questions,” says Elizabeth James Perry, a tribal scholar and artist from the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah. “The material brings history to life.” Perry is part of another Mellon-funded group. That group is digitizing Native American petitions to the Massachusetts legislature before 1870.

Scholars aren’t the only people using the collection: Amherst students are, too. “Pretty much every single Native studies class I’ve taken so far has had at least one trip to the archives to do work,” says Alexis Scalese ’22, an American studies major whose family is from the Pueblo of Isleta in New Mexico. The collection has been key to her research on Native creation stories of the Corn Mother. Scalese has a student job in the Archives and was a research assistant for Vigil on her upcoming book.

For Chimaway Lopez ’20—a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow who hopes to eventually return to his Chumash community in California to teach indigenous studies—the collection has also helped create a community. “The collection, as well as the College’s support for Native students and Native studies, is unique,” says the environmental studies and American studies major, “and has allowed students, staff and faculty to build a center for Native studies that is very rare for an institution like Amherst.”