In the introduction to their book Indigenous Peoples’ Cultural Heritage: Rights, Debates, Challenges (Brill, 2017), editors Alexandra Xanthaki, Sanna Valkonen, Leena Heinämäki, and Piia Nuorgam noted that “Indigenous rights to heritage have not been at the centre of academic scholarship until quite recently. It became clear that more work needs to be done on this topic, more stones to be uncovered, and more discussion to be had.”
Javeria Piracha ’25 has contributed to the growing study of this issue by conducting research under Assistant Professor of Global Politics and Societies Ashleigh Breske during the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program this past summer. Alongside Breske and fellow student researcher Makda Kalayu, the applied economics major analyzed the interaction between Indigenous peoples and those owning their cultural property, and that research recently earned her a speaking opportunity at a regional International Studies Association academic conference.
Piracha became interested in cultural heritage when she took Breske’s Introduction to International Studies course in the fall of 2021. “That was the first course I took in international studies and I really enjoyed it,” she said. She’s now considering declaring a second major in the subject. “During the course we visited the [Eleanor D.] Wilson Museum at Hollins. We viewed these stone carvings that had been donated to their collection many years ago, and about which they knew very little.”
According to Wilson Museum Director Jenine Culligan, the objects were made by the Taíno people, an Indigenous group in the Caribbean. “We know these carvings are found in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and parts of Mexico, and they’re associated with crops or other plants,” she explained. “Unfortunately, we have no provenance (history of ownership documentation) for these objects, and we haven’t yet been able to identify their country of origin.”
The mystery surrounding the carvings intrigued Breske, who was first introduced to the objects in fall 2018 by Culligan and decided to pursue this research first with her Spring Term 2022 Cultural Property, Museums, and Rights class and then with the two students in the summer of 2022. Piracha’s turned part of this research project into her conference paper, “Economic Impact of Museum Industries: A Study of Provenance and Authenticity of Taíno Zemi Objects.”
“This project is a case study of Taíno sacred stone figurines, known as zemí figures, that are held by institutions and in private collections,” Piracha said. “It makes use of items from the Wilson Museum as well as other items that have either been sold at private auctions or are in the collections of American museums. The project focuses on the ethical obligations we have to return objects to their rightful places because of their heritage value; the diversity, equity, and inclusion claims museums make in the United States; and the reasons it is morally required for cultural objects to be returned after the 1970 UNESCO Convention,” which advocated for ending the illicit trafficking of cultural property. “Looking to the future, this project also explores the various ways repatriation could help the economies of countries in the Caribbean.”
Piracha submitted the project to the International Studies Association (ISA) South regional conference for its 2022 annual conference this fall in St. Augustine, Florida. Established in 1959, the ISA is one of the oldest interdisciplinary associations dedicated to understanding international, transnational, and global affairs. It features more than 7,000 members from around the world, including academics, practitioners, policy experts, private sector workers, and independent researchers.
Breske has encouraged SURF research students to submit abstracts to the ISA regional conferences for the past two years so that they can gain the experience of speaking to academics and professionals in the field. Piracha was invited to deliver her first academic conference presentation at ISA-South. “The people who presented with me and who were in the audience were all professors and all at the Ph.D. level, so I was surprised I got a chance to present,” she said. “They asked excellent questions.”
Another research project related to cultural heritage that Piracha has undertaken and submitted to the ISA-Northeast 2022 Annual Conference in Baltimore, held November 4 and 5, was “A Sense of Belonging: An Analysis of the Afghan Refugee Population in the United States and Ways Their Cultural Identity is Being Kept Alive.”
“It’s an overview and analysis of the Afghan refugee population in the United States and how cultural heritage can help them create a sense of belonging and help in their integration in the host society,” Piracha said. “A refugee often chooses to flee from their home country in hope for a better chance at life. However, they do wish to maintain aspects of their cultural identity.”
“A Sense of Belonging” addresses the underrepresentation of refugee communities in cultural heritage discussions and the different ways their heritage can be preserved. In her research, Piracha explores methods for keeping cultural heritage alive such as preserving oral history, promoting cultural participation, and understanding the significance certain objects carry of memory and ancestral affirmation.
“My case study revolves around refugees from Afghanistan who fled to the United States between 1979 and 1992. The study also examines how the Afghans maintained the production of culture after their arrival in the United States, the difficulties they encountered, and the length of time it took to build a community in the United States.”
The ISA conference presentations, for which she received travel funding from Hollins’ Warren W. Hobbie Ethics and Service Endowment, are part of what is shaping up to be a busy but rewarding academic year for Piracha. She will spend the 2023 Spring Term in London, where she will take economics courses and complete an internship in public policy (she plans to pursue a Ph.D. in the field after graduating from Hollins). It will be her second study abroad experience as a Hollins undergraduate, the first occurring during the 2021 January Short Term when she traveled to France.
“Learning about different cultures, getting to experience various traditions first-hand, and understanding the perspectives a country has to offer have always excited me.” Piracha explained. “As an international student, I have developed a knack for wanting to assimilate different cultural experiences in my own identity to better equip myself to become an intentional, globally aware citizen. Thus, studying abroad in France was the perfect opportunity for me to embark on these cultural journeys. By knowing more about the educational and cultural aspects of other countries, I can use them to shape my future and the communities I want to serve.”
After completing her spring term in London, she will return to the U.S. next summer for an internship with a marketing company in Orlando.
Ultimately, Piracha hopes to work in economics analyzing data that include economic indicators. “My own country, Pakistan, has a declining economy and lately has had a number of internal displacements as a result of the climate issue. With a degree in public policy, I will be able to do research for Pakistan and predict emerging trends that will aid in developing long-term objectives for those who have been internally displaced.”
Piracha will also draw upon her experience working with various nonprofit organizations. “Previously, in Islamabad, I founded and led an organization that focused on destigmatizing taboo topics such as period poverty that affect low-income women in Pakistan.”