Open Letter to Colby

In his last article as Lantern Writer-in-Residence, Dominic Bellido ’24 writes to the larger Colby community about a collection of Indigenous artifacts found on Allen Island, Colby’s new “island campus”. 


Secret History of Mayflower Hill, 2023. Ballpoint pen drawing by Dominic Bellido ’24


       Dear Colby,

Spring has settled upon us, and its sun must now give light to a story involving our community and the Wabanaki people of the land we now call Maine. Last week, I learned about a collection of archaeological findings currently sitting on Colby College’s newly acquired Allen Island.1 In 2005, the Wyeth Foundation (previous stewards of the island) commissioned Dr. Arthur Spiess from the Maine Historic Preservation Commission to survey parts of the landscape. His team excavated artifacts ranging from arrow heads to fragments of a stone tobacco pipe bowl described as “prehistoric (or pre-European) items of Native manufacture.”2 After spending nearly fifteen years in cardboard boxes, these objects are now under the care of Colby’s Chemistry Professor Whitney King, who intends to move each one to a conservation vault on Allen Island this summer.

I come to you with this story because the Colby student body is perpetually uninformed about events occurring on our campus. In speaking with Professor King, I was told I am the first student to come to him and raise concerns about the ownership and treatment of these artifacts. I hope this writing will at least disrupt the student body’s limited access to information regarding Wabanaki and Indigenous issues at our school.

Above all, I come to you because these Allen Island artifacts will now undergo a process similar to that undergone by the African masks and pre-Columbian sculptures collected by the Colby College Museum of Art. Much like their museum counterparts, Professor King has begun to catalog and preserve these artifacts. It is quite likely that they will also be displayed in glass cases for curious visitors of the isle.

But our possession of these objects requires us to recognize the exclusion of Indigenous voices in the narrative thus far. As of the publishing of this letter, there is no formal plan in place to notify local Wabanaki people about the existence of the Allen Island artifacts. Likewise, there is no formal plan to collaborate with or seek paid counsel from local Wabanaki experts regarding the objects. If we are to honor Wabanaki sovereignty and the territory this college occupies, we must live up to the school’s Land Acknowledgement statement and defer to the descendants of the unceded Wabanaki territories on which we stand.3 We must hold the school accountable for the ways in which it falters in communicating with Wabanaki people.

While these processes certainly take time, they deserve to be prioritized as a first step in the larger preservation plan. Space must be made for the Wabanaki people who wish to be informed about the way we use their land and resources. At the very least, the Critical Indigenous Studies Initiative (CISI) should be well supported by contacting Wabanaki scholars and culture bearers to combat the anti-Indigenous protocol fused into every arm of this institution.4 The Allen Island findings provide Colby a critical chance to change trajectory. Now is the time to re-examine the histories of cultural belongings that otherwise spend years sitting in our school’s storage facilities.

This letter is not a concrete proposal. I do not speak for Wabanaki people. But I will not be a bystander to our school’s land expansion and Wabanaki exclusion, intentional or not. Take my words as frustration aimed at our past negligence and inaction. Take my words as a signal, like the smell of rain or rising smoke. The way we act now will be recorded in the pages of a history that “will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing. . .”5

Future Colby students will inherit both our achievements and failures, just as we have been handed the hot coals of its colonialist legacy. In many ways, we’ve begun to disassemble these anti-Indigenous mechanisms embedded into Colby’s founding. For example, I am excited to see the Colby Museum’s unveiling of the Painted: Our Bodies, Hearts, and Village exhibition. This show will put Pueblo pottery, paintings, and digital art in dialogue with works by the Taos Society of Artists (TSA), a group of Anglo-American painters. This new exhibition is co-created with Pueblo and other Native contributors, and will build upon the ideas of Indigenous artistry from the museum’s 2019 Wíwənikan. . . the beauty we carry exhibition. All of this action realizes the Colby College Museum of Art’s own Land Acknowledgement statement. However, honoring our “ongoing commitment to building relationships with the Wabanaki” means we cannot mistake the temporary for the permanent.6

Outside of the Painted exhibition, what is the long-term strategy to maintain college relations with Indigenous nations and communities? The problems of representation and collaboration stretch beyond the gallery walls as well. Outside of the Colby Museum, there is little to no Indigenous or Wabanaki representation in the Colby faculty. The student body is much the same. Such disparities are mirrored in Colby’s sporadic offering of Indigenous-centered courses.

I am not the first student to confront these issues: in fact, Colby students and faculty have reckoned with these same questions for decades. Most recently, the Oak Institute for Human Rights brought on two fellows, Michelle Cook and Ana Lucía Ixchíu Hernández, to lead discussions and raise awareness on issues of Indigenous rights. At the student level, I think of Blythe C. Romano ‘21 and Vanessa L. Verri ‘04, who both dedicated their senior theses to analyzing the social and educational roles that museums take on when presenting Indigenous culture. In regards to the Colby Museum, Verri highlights how a large collection of multicultural art and artifacts “possess[es] the power to revitalize relations between dominant society and [I]ndigenous populations.”7 Additionally, students have cited Indigenous scholarship and philosophies to reconceptualize the relationship between display practices and colonialism—this is exemplified in Romano’s point that “the idea that the best place for cultural artifacts is placed behind glass walls is a very Western one.”8

The burden is on all of us to ensure that the Colby Museum and the college as a whole continue to “recognize the legacies of settler colonialism.”9 While I am comforted by the efforts of these students, their labor does not absolve the Colby Museum (and Colby, in general) of its moral duty to the Wabanaki people. While I hope that these same student awareness and institutional resources will continue to be applied to the Indigenous cause, the future of the college remains uncertain. Romano puts it best when she solemnly states in her thesis:

              Although each Colby Museum staff member I spoke to was
              passionate, committed, and receptive to Indigenous
              representation in the museum space, there was a lack of unity
              and clarity regarding future initiatives which made certain     
              assertions seem like empty promises.10

This “lack of unity and clarity” comes to the detriment of other disciplines as well, such as the often-overlooked African-American Studies Program at Colby and its singular full-time professor, Sonya Donaldson. I can personally attest that my own research experience has been hampered by our school’s understaffed and overworked Black and Indigenous faculty. 

Bambana Mask
Bambana mask, 19th century. Maker once known. Wood, 28 in. x 7 in. (71.12 cm x 17.78 cm). Gift of Gertrud A. Mellon


Let me share a story, and you will see. This past academic year, I have been looking into the history of one of the first art exhibitions held at the Colby Museum: New Discoveries in West African Art. From March 4 to March 30 of 1962, the now-defunct Museum of Primitive Art from New York loaned its expansive African art collection to Colby College, in an effort to help develop Colby’s newly-formed art museum. Along with the sparse records of this show, I’ve been fascinated by an African Bambana Mask that Mrs. Gertrud Mellon donated to Colby in 1963. The parallel lines structuring the top of the mask possibly link it to the Ntomo tradition, an association of Bamana peoples whose “membership has usually consisted of young boys in the process of learning adult responsibilities.”11 

While looking through the descriptions attached to the mask’s object file, I noticed a note kept from the time of the mask’s initial donation. It read:

                                    Bamana Mask, H. 28″
                                    Possibly 19th century.
                                     A gift to the Colby College 
                                    Museum of Art by Mrs. Gertrud
                                    Mellon. We know nothing
                                     more about this piece.12

In all of my visits to the Colby Museum, I have yet to encounter a staff member or professor who has dedicated themselves to the studies of African masks. My interviews with former art professors Abbott Meader and Harriett Matthews also confirm that previous Colby students have usually remained unaware of the masks. Although students have recently expressed interest in learning more about these pieces, the lack of institutional expertise makes it difficult for me to pursue further research and adequately interrogate the context of the 1962 West African Art show. I cannot find a more succinct and nearly-poetic example of Colby’s institutional lack of knowledge than in the last line of the description above. 

Where is the structural support for this critical scholarship? The history of this piece makes us rethink our ownership over such objects. This discussion of return is warranted, since our school has not yet conducted official surveys into whether or not the objects would qualify as sacred or funerary objects. The Native American Graves and Repatriation Act, for instance, provides museums with a respectful structure to contact source communities and return funerary objects or human remains. Models like the Smithsonian’s partnership with the Poeh Cultural Center to return Pueblo pottery present alternative ways for Colby to address these questions of cultural patrimony and educational authority. 

None of this can occur without a unified, institutional focus. Without the proper resources and community awareness, the educational potential of the Allen Island artifacts can fade into the growing realm of missed chances. Without immediate action, these cultural belongings will sit on the margins of Colby College’s teaching mission. For it is all too easy for our school to reconfirm a colonialist mindset of expansion without substance, or collecting without care. 

Celebrating our progress in representing Black and Indigenous life is contingent on our present commitment to action. We must ensure that future generations of Colby students do not leave the Colby Museum or Allen Island “know[ing] nothing more about this piece.” We must endeavor to know as much as we can and address the gaps in our institutional knowledge. We must foreground Wabanaki perspectives when we are the ones handling their cultural belongings. As Romano says, “community collaboration or ‘shared authority’ is essential for these efforts to be successful.”13 

The time has come to honor our obligations and support CISI by contacting the Wabanaki people. The question of the Allen Island artifacts will show whether or not we have indeed learned from our colonial history. In the words of Jennifer Neptune, a Penobscot artist and the co-curator of Wíwənikan, we must “listen to the whispers of the past, combine them with our creativity in the present, and hope that what we leave behind will speak to the hearts of our people in the future.”14 

       Dominic Bellido
       2022-23 Lantern Writer in Residence

1. Wulf, Isabel Quintana, “Looking for Indigenous Presence in Allen Island,” May 7, 2018.
2. Spiess, Arthur, “An Album of Allen Island Artifacts,” Maine Historic Preservation Commission, June 9, 2005.
3. “Unceded Wabanaki territories” taken from the Land Acknowledgement statements contained within a majority of the Colby faculty’s email signatures, circa 2023.
4. More information on CISI can be found on their website:
5. King James version of the Bible, Ecclesiastes 12:14. Taken from public domain.
6. From the Colby College Museum of Art’s Land Acknowledgement statement.
7. Verri, Vanessa L., “How Natural History Museums Fell from Grace, And Why They Shouldn’t Have or, Defending Museums during the Age of Hypersensitivity” (2004). Honors Theses, page 66.
8. Romano, Blythe C., “The Museum as a Mirror: Reinterpreting and Delinking American Landscape Art from Colonial Narratives” (2021). Honors Theses, page 13.
9. From the Colby Museum’s Land Acknowledgement Statement.
10. Romano, page 61
11. Gagliardi, Susan Elizabeth, “Mask (Ntomo) | Bamana peoples, 19th-20th century.” Emory University, 2016.
12. Author unknown. Description of the Bamana Mask (1963.171), taken from the object file in the Colby College Museum of Art’s archives.
13. Romano, page 62
14. Words of Jennifer Neptune taken from the catalog publication for Wíwənikan. . . the beauty we carry. 2019.