By Dan Grossman
Holly Cusack-McVeigh, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Museum Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, has been recognized by the FBI — along with her graduate students — for her efforts to repatriate stolen artifacts to Haiti and China.
She has also researched the importance of place among the Yup’ik Eskimos on the Bering Sea Coast. In South Africa, her work had a different focus. In 2018, she collaborated with Zulu villagers and students to assist them in interpreting their own histories — so that they could fulfill their own dreams.
This last project “Valley of a Thousand Dreams: Collaboration in Three Zulu Communities” was funded by the IUPUI Arts & Humanities Institute. Cusack-McVeigh also received crucial support and guidance from Sbusisiwe Myeni, the CEO of IMBELEKO Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in the Valley of a Thousand Hills located between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. The organization is dedicated to bettering the lives of Zulu youth.
“Our project was tied to this larger discussion that we’re having in the Zulu communities where we have been working,” said Cusack-Mcveigh. “They were interested in interpretation of their own local histories through the voices of their youth rather than an external explanation for their history, for their oral tradition.”
Their focus was to get youth engaged in doing their own tribal histories, their own oral histories, and controlling the story at the local level.
“This is in sharp contrast to the kinds of external interpretation that museums have done for many many years, where the official representative of the museum or a historian is telling their story,” said Cusack-McVeigh.
Her work takes place against a fraught background. While the racially-segregated Apartheid system ended in the early 1990’s, the wealth disparities between white and black South Africans continues.
In giving local residents the tools to interpret their own stories, Cusack-McVeigh is helping provide them with means of self-empowerment.
“I was able to really work with young Zulu students who were interested in questions of authenticity; how to collect their own oral traditions in South Africa,” she said.
The goal was to have these students serve as interpreters, leading tours and telling the stories of their own culture. This is in contrast to many tour groups in South Africa, that travel to Zulu areas, organized in cities rather than villages. Cusack-McVeigh hopes that her work will ultimately help the Zulu residents of the Valley of a Thousand Hills develop tourism as a means of economic empowerment.
Doing so does not necessarily involve shepherding tourists to well-trodden tourist sites from cities as is done currently.
For the Zulu grandmothers who tended the local community garden that Cusack-McVeigh visited and had tea with, their idea of authenticity didn’t involve a complicated academic discussion.
“For them, they laughed and it was very simple,” said Cusack-McVeigh. “They said we don’t need a fancy building to do this. Build us a museum that looks like our mud house that we live in and we can share with people what life is like in a rural Zulu village.”