Doctoral student weaves together threads of community’s history: Elena Sesma’s work draws from oral history, archaeology, and community-engaged participation

Elena Sesma is documenting community history using cutting-edge research methods. Through techniques like panoramic photography, community-engaged participation, oral history, as well as traditional archaeology, Sesma, a doctoral candidate in Anthropology, is researching the history and changing landscape in the communities at the former Millars Plantation in the Bahamas. The 2,000-acre plantation on the island of Eleuthera was given to former slaves and servants living there by the last plantation owner, Ann Millar, in 1871.

Eleuthera has the earliest history of European settlement in the Bahamas, and was once called the “bread basket” of the islands because it produced food for the rest of the Caribbean country.

Sesma is studying the ways residents have used the land over time to understand how the community has conveyed their shared identity and collective memory through the generations. The goal, she explains, is to “get an idea of how this landscape has changed from one of a plantation, to one that today is really representative of home for a lot of people.”

Effects of tourism industry

University of Massachusetts Anthropology doctoral candidate Elena Sesma

“In the past 100 years there’s been a turn away from that heavy agricultural production. People have left to find jobs in the tourism economy. So residents are really concerned that the young people who are leaving to find jobs are becoming disconnected from their heritage, and from the land where they grew up,” Sesma explains.

Tourism is also generating tension in the community as developers make proposals for resorts and other businesses in the area to attract more travelers. Although Ann Millar’s will specified that the land on her former plantation would be owned by her former slaves and their descendants, a developer has been fighting in court for several years for the right to claim the property, arguing that the families of Millars Plantation had not physically occupied the property since the 1960s.

“Residents are constantly adapting and making their own ways of living in a system that often seems entirely out of their control. What is so interesting right now with this development of new resorts on the island is how people are trying to demand that, if that happens, they have a say in how tourism is developed,” Sesma says.

“Previously it hasn't been that way. It's been foreign investors coming in, building a hotel that lasts for a decade until a hurricane comes along and destroys it, and then they don't rebuild. Locals are really trying to play a big role in determining the future of what tourism does look like there, since it’s kind of inescapable,” she adds.

Cutting edge research techniques in Anthropology

Sesma came to UMass with experience at archaeological digs on plantations in the southeast US, but her courses and mentors on campus have led her in a different direction for the Millars Plantation project. A member of the UMass Community Archaeology Lab, led by Associate Professor Whitney Battle-Baptiste, she notes that her skills have expanded to include community-based participatory research, collaborative research, and other ethnographic methods.

“I really picked up a lot of skills that I would not have otherwise. That's why I came up with the ideas for the focus groups and for some of the photo elicitation methods that I've done in my interviews,” she explains.

University of Massachusetts Anthropology researchers created this panorama of the Bannerman Town churchSpecifically in her work in the Bahamas, Sesma has been using a 360-degree camera to create images of features at Millars Plantation that she can display in virtual reality mode on her computer when she records oral histories with residents.

“In an interview someone can hold it up and ‘virtually’ walk around in a circle and be in that place. That was inspired by the photo elicitation techniques that I learned through classes and through [Associate Professor] Krista Harper's work,” she says.

She’s also working with a number of community groups active in the communities at Millar’s Plantation, including the One Eleuthera Foundation, which works to create sustainable regional planning on the island; the Bannerman Town, Millars and John Millars Eleuthera Association, which represents descendants of the original Millar’s Plantation inhabitants; and the Wemyss Bight Community Library, which offers library services to residents of southern Eleuthera.

“That’s this move towards contemporary archeology, which isn't necessarily excavating and taking artifacts out of the ground and analyzing them, but thinking about how contemporary communities put value on certain things in the past. So whether that's artifacts, or standing structures from 200 years ago, or the landscape itself, the way that people think of and use history and cultural heritage today,” Sesma explains.

She has been working on the Millars Plantation research since 2013, with support from several grants during that time. A National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship provided approximately $32,000 a year during the period of 2013-2016. Sesma’s travel to the Bahamas in 2015 was funded through a $19,000 Wenner-Gren Foundation Dissertation Fieldwork grant. She recently traveled to do archival research in London in part through a $2,500 NSF Cultural Heritage and European Societies and Spaces grant.

Over the summer of 2018 Sesma has been in the process of sharing a report with communities around Millars Plantation and working with research partners on the island to determine how to make this information accessible and useful for future planning on the island. She expects her dissertation work will be complete in December.

-- By Matthew Medeiros, UMass College of Social and Behavioral Sciences Commmunications Manager