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Sculptor, writer, and filmmaker Nora Naranjo Morse talked about her project she had worked on for the last ten years, "Numbe Whageh." Morse spoke on behalf of the Phi Beta Kappa Society's Visiting Scholar Program at the Spencer Museum of Art Thursday afternoon.

During a talk about the struggles of the indigenous people of New Mexico, a visiting Phi Beta Kappa scholar illustrated the struggle she faced in the 10-year span of creating her land art piece Numbe Whageh

The talk took place at the Spencer Museum of Art, Thursday night. The artist, sculptor and writer, Nora Naranjo Morse, spoke to the Lawrence community during a visit to the University on Feb. 9 and 10.

As Albuquerque’s first land art piece, Numbe Whageh is based on the love and respect for the Earth, Morse said. This stretch of land is 60 feet by 60 feet, and at its highest point is nine feet above sidewalk level, and six feet below sidewalk level at the lowest point. It was meant to represent a kiva, which was historically a place, in Pueblo culture, where ceremonies for restoring one's self were held. Morse said it was important to her for this to be a place of restoration and peace. 

“This place is wild with all of this life,” Morse said.

The words "numbe whageh" Morse said come from the Tewa language that is indigenous to six Pueblo tribes found in the New Mexico area. Numbe means "us" or "our." Whageh means "the center of one's self," which can be a person’s soul or the physical center of something. 

She said she collected rocks from different tribes and indigenous plants to place in the whageh, and even had native female artists carve into a few of them, since she said traditionally Pueblo people are a matriarchal society. 

As an indigenous woman, Morse was asked by the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico to collaborate on a public art piece with an Anglo artist and Hispanic artist for the city. The goal, she said, was to bring together the three different cultures. After agreeing to do the project, she said she quickly realized that this would be an uphill battle due to the history between the groups. 

In the 16th century, conquistador Don Juan de Oñate was creating European settlements in northern New Mexico where many of these Pueblo tribes resided.

The city wanted to romanticize Oñate, who historically brought few positive things to the state, but those positives were greatly overshadowed, she said, by the anguish and slavery that were also brought into these communities.

After conducting research that included talking to members of indigenous communities, Morse said she needed to come to terms with a lot of internal grief before she could bring the project to the public.  

“Different suits, different time, but same colonization, same oppression,” Morse said. 

Morse said the city wanted her to get on board with the idea even though it was deeply distressing to the indigenous people who lived in that area, so she split paths with the other artists and decided to create her own work of art.

She prolonged and resisted the idea for the collaborative art piece for so long because she didn’t want to contribute and continue the trend of oppression to her people. 

“How to navigate [the struggles of the project] as a native person was intriguing to me, because I not only had to deal with bureaucracy and administration aspects, but also my community and different people’s perceptions of one another,” Morse said. 

Though the present times are slightly different, Morse said that it is still easy to be seen as the "other" and often be marginalized.

“What Phi Beta Kappa has done is made me move forward with that. What I have to offer is important. I think that is huge for us, so that we can start dealing with each other as human beings, not the 'other',” Morse said.

Norman Akers, an associate professor in the Department of Visual Arts, is a friend of Morse’s and introduced her talk at the Spencer.

“Her work enriches people," Akers said. "It comes from the Earth, the place indigenous people call home.” 

During the talk, Morse said the sculpture that the other artists created is of Oñate, and it casts a shadow near the exit of Numbe Whageh. To her, it represents that Oñate’s destruction to these communities will always be present in their history. Although their heritage will always be shadowed by the past, Morse said she remains hopeful. 

“I am a woman of color. I am a native woman who has taken her own path and I’ve had to deal with the cards that have been arbitrarily dealt," Morse said. "I will always resist.” 

— Edited by Paola Alor