“The takeaway from the exhibit is one example of a life well lived that was dedicated to service that navigated those challenges that we all face in order to do something positive for fellow Natives.” – Jonodev Chaudhuri.
PHOENIX, Arizona – Arizona State University has exhibited several artifact collections from Native Leaders, including Simon Ortiz and now Jean Chaudhuri. The Jean Chaudhuri exhibit, “What’s Life all About,” was featured at ASU from Nov. 9-23.
Jean Chaudhuri was a jack of all trades. She was a writer, storyteller, and political advocate for the Muscogee People and Native Americans. According to Jean Chaudhari’s son Jonodev Chaudhuri (Muscogee), the family accumulated many primary source materials throughout her lifetime.
“Mom really had a very mosaic mind. She would pull ideas from various sources and have documents, photographs, and exhibits that she would pull together for various purposes,” Jonodev Chaudhuri said.
Some of the artifacts on display include poems, playwriting, political advocacy documents, and photographs. Organizing the collection took a team effort.
Jerome Clark (Navajo) is an ASU Assistant Professor of the ASU New College. He lectures on English and Literature at the ASU School of Humanities, Arts, and Cultural Studies. The ASU Interdisciplinary Arts Program manages a showroom that features different exhibits of notable figures. When planning an exhibit for Native American Heritage Month, the departments knew they wanted to feature someone special who had made significant contributions to Native American rights.
“The spirit of her work was always involving people, getting people involved,” Clark said. “One of the jokes that a family friend said was, ‘you couldn’t go near Jean without her getting you to do some work.”
Clark was joined by colleague Vina Begay (Navajo), an assistant librarian, archivist, and curator at ASU. They were also joined by ASU Labriola Center Program Coordinator Yabitza Largo-Anderson and Director Alexander Soto (Tohono O’odham). Over time, they carefully pieced together the exhibit with key artifacts from Jean Chaudhuri’s life. The organization of the collection stems back 20 years. One of the earliest researchers to look into the Jean Chaudhuri collection was ASU student Elizabeth Quiroga (Tohono O’odham).
“I approached it in a way that would tell her story because everything about Jean was in this collection,” Begay said. “I wanted to tell her story from what she provided by her collecting all these documents in her fashion.”
After Jean Chaudhuri’s passing, her life’s documents and materials were kept in unorganized boxes around the family house. A few years later, they would be donated to ASU’s library by Jean Chaudhuri’s sister, Richinda Sands, and Jean’s husband, Dr. Joyotpaul Chaudhuri, to be extensively organized and cataloged.
“He felt that her work and contribution to Indigenous People would benefit the incoming generation,” Begay said, “and probably inspire future activists.”
Initially, the Chaudhuri family was unsure exactly how the exhibit should look. After many Zoom calls with the exhibit’s curators, the family felt confident that Jean Chaudhuri’s life materials were in good hands.
“They told us repeatedly that the same phrase kept coming up that ‘mom was so far ahead of her time,” Jonodev Chaudhuri said.
This phrase would refer to Jean Chaudhuri’s work as an activist throughout her lifetime involving issues like boarding schools, insensitive sports mascots, and healthcare.
Although Jean Chaudhuri served Native People from all tribes across the country, she was proud of her tribal cultural identity.
“She was rooted in Muscogee traditions. Her first language was Muscogee,” Jonodev Chaudhuri said. “By the end of her life, she was such a powerful orator and such a powerful advocate she could talk circles around lawyers and politicians.”
When asked what the best advice his mother gave him was, Jonodev Chaudhuri said it was the life she lived and modeled for others. He also recalled a Muskogee Story she liked to share; the Turtle and the Possum.
The story refers to a time when all animals could speak with one another. The turtle was proud of his appearance and abilities but was not humble about it. One day, his friend Possum could no longer stand the turtle’s incessant bragging and cracked the turtle’s shell into a million pieces. Saddened by this action, the pair went to the medicine man to fix the turtle’s shell. While the medicine man could not restore the turtle’s shell to its original shiny appearance, he restored it to what a turtle’s shell looks like today.
For Jonodev Chaudhuri, what he took from this story was how you will use the gifts the Creator gave you and use them to better your community. He hopes what people will take away from the “What’s Life is All About” exhibit is that while Jean Chaudhuri achieved many things in her lifetime, she was still a normal person with normal struggles.
“Most people can relate to having those types of challenges in their lives,” Jonodev Chaudhuri said. “The takeaway from the exhibit is one example of a life well lived that was dedicated to service that navigated those challenges that we all face in order to do something positive for fellow Natives.”
Jonodev Chaudhuri and his wife, Mary Kathryn Nagle, continue to share Jean Chaudhuri’s legacy. They are currently producing a play, “On the Far End.” The one-woman play details Jean Chaudhuri’s remarkable life and advocacy work. It’s set to run Mar. 28-May. 7 at the Round House Theater in Bethesda, Maryland. Tickets are available for purchase on the Round House Theater website.