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On the road to my Ph.D.

TU archaeology doctoral student, Nkem Ike shares how her research experience in St. Croix and training at Helmerich Center for American Research has prepared her to explore the roles of women within enslaved communities in the Caribbean and those enslaved to North American Indian tribes. 

This summer I began my doctoral program in Archaeology under the direction of Dr. Alicia Odewale (MMM ’12, Phd ’16). Her guidance allowed me to open new doors that seemed beyond what I could ever have imagined. This summer, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands twice for coursework and research, undertake a new Graduate Assistantship at the Helmerich Center for American Research (HCAR), and gain access to professional training from top researchers at the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (DAACS). My experiences this summer at the start of my Ph.D. program, both abroad in St. Croix and here in Tulsa, gave me the chance to explore my own research interests—a comparative study into the roles of women within enslaved communities in the Caribbean and those enslaved to North American Indian tribes. These experiences sparked ideas for new projects that I have only begun to explore.

First Trip to St. Croix

My first trip to St. Croix this summer was for the TU Roots of Hamilton class, co-taught by Drs. Odewale and Kristen Oertel. This trip provided a great introduction to the island, its culture and history. During our time there we visited the Estate Whim, now home to the St. Croix historical archives, Estate St. George, now St Croix’s botanical gardens, and Estate Little Princess, now the headquarters of the Nature Conservancy— all former sugar plantations.

My most impactful experiences on the island involved physically occupying spaces that had been inhabited by those who had fled from their enslavement. The four-hour hike to Maroon Ridge, which served as a former maroon settlement for self-liberated Africans, and watching the sunrise at Point Udall, the easternmost point in the United States, were powerful reminders of what once was and how far we’ve come. This trip served as a preview into the way I want to study enslaved people, showing me that I could study the enslavement of African women in an interdisciplinary way, that is not only through the lens of history, but through the practice of archeology I can access their tangible remains to recreate a far richer narrative of their lived experiences.

Returning to St. Croix

The second time I went to St. Croix was incredible! This was my first experience participating in a field school and seeing community engaged research at work. The field school I participated in was named the Estate Little Princess Archaeological Field School, located at Estate Little Princess. This intensive field training was offered to students free of charge through the work of the Society of Black Archaeologists (SBA). The Estate Little Princess site itself is heavy with brush and thick greenery but the labor intensity of archaeology was one of my favorite parts about field school. Another aspect of the SBA field school was their community based approach to archaeology, which is the way I want to practice archaeology now and in the future. It was important for me to see this as an example of how a community-centered approach can be practiced in a way that still merits academic success and advancements in scientific discovery. Our interactions with the island’s community illustrated how the past informs the present. I was also able to do my own research while I was on island, including a developing interest of mine, a comparative study into the commemoration and after-math of important events that gravely affected black lives in St. Croix and Tulsa, OK, now 100 years has passed for Virgin Islands Transfer Day in 1917, and the centennial for the 1921 Race Massacre is quickly approaching, how has the recognition of these events changed after 100 years. This experience helped to formulate my future approaches to archaeology and I am incredibly thankful for that.

Working with Helmerich Center for American Research

One of the most rewarding aspects about this summer has been to undertake my graduate assistantship at the Helmerich Center for American Research.  My work there focuses on the creation of a female centered finding aid to allow scholars navigating the Helmerich collection to more easily identify the voices and contributions of women across the archive. I’m passionate about this work because researchers with a focus on women and genders studies—like myself— look to Gilcrease for information about women within their collection, and it is an honor to be able to help them create this much needed research tool.

I have been fortunate, through TU, to begin my doctoral studies with an amazing summer full of opportunities for inspiration as well as for real world training.

Nkem with Dr. Alicia Odewale