Skip navigation

You are here

Michigan State University Press To Release New Book by O'Leary ’15

Nina Downer OLeary presenting at the 2015 UMN Morris Undergraduate Research Symposium
Jenna Ray
Publication date: 
November 20, 2018

Update: Featuring stories and photos of UMN Morris students, Native Enough is set for release on December 1. 

This story originally ran on May 15, 2015. 

Work by Nina Downer O’Leary ’15 will be published by Michigan State University Press. O’Leary was offered the book deal after presenting her portraiture series “Native Enough” at the Native American Literature Symposium earlier this spring.

O’Leary designed the series, which features portraits of Morris’s American Indian students accompanied by historical context, analysis, and subject interviews, for her studio art capstone. Inspired by Edward Curtis’s ethnocentric portraits that historicized Native subjects and by her own experiences as a Native student, O’Leary’s work acknowledges the complexity of Indian identity.

“The photos and personal statements are borne of the anxiety I felt in my first few years at Morris regarding the tuition waiver for Native American students,” says O’Leary. “I felt like I didn't deserve it because of my lack of experience with my Cherokee culture. It wasn't until the last couple of years that I began to realize that there are many students at Morris who were and are ‘hiding out’ like I was, thinking that they are not allowed to embrace the Native part of themselves because they don't look it.”

O’Leary’s project asks audiences to understand that phenotype does not dictate identity—that if a student’s physical appearance contradicts popular culture's assumptions of what it means to be a Native person, it does not take away from his or her Native identity. In doing so, it tackles identity questions that are central to Native studies.

“As a member of the overarching culture of indigenous people defining the culture, it was my goal to expand the understanding of Native identity visually to increase the complexity of the idea,” she says.

One of O’Leary’s mentors, Associate Professor of English and Native American and Indigenous Studies Becca Gercken, connected O’Leary with her editor at Michigan State University Press. Gercken was “blown away” by O’Leary’s work—in fact, she has never heard of an undergraduate securing a book deal.

“The idea of the project is so important and so valuable, and I know it will resonate with audiences,” says Gercken. “Her photographs and interviews speak to the most crucial issues in American Indian identity politics.”

While O’Leary might not have expected to publish a book of portraiture as an undergraduate, the idea was always in the back of her mind. Encouraged by responses from her mentors and peers, she conducted her work with the conviction that it could—and should—be shared on a broader scale. The entire process, she says, stems from her Morris experience and liberal arts education.

“Without Morris, none of this would have happened,” she says. “Writing strong interview questions, taking classes in multiple disciplines, learning about the history of portraiture: all of these things happened at Morris, which equipped me to be able to present this project well to others.”

O’Leary will spend the summer writing grant applications to fund her travel to another land-grant tuition-waiver institution, Fort Lewis College in Colorado. There she will photograph and interview tuition-waiver recipients. In total, O’Leary will complete approximately 200 portraits and interviews for her book.

Pictured: Nina Downer O'Leary ’15 presenting "Native Enough" at the 2015 UMN Morris Undergraduate Research Symposium