Scholars of religion often approach their subject as a cultural phenomenon, investigating the stories that prescribe values and influence identity, group cohesion and intergroup relations, says Phil Arnold, associate professor and chair of the Department of Religion in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences .
It is through this lens that Grace Fritzke G’21, who recently earned her master’s degree in religion, focused her studies of monuments commemorating European explorers like Christopher Columbus. Such monuments represent a certain narrative of America—one that underpins dominant cultural perspectives and power structures, she explains. “I am really interested in how these memorials, as symbols of those narratives, become like religious objects,” she says.
Fritzke, who grew up near Portland, Oregon, was drawn to Syracuse University in large part for the opportunity to work with Arnold, whose scholarship focuses on Native American and Indigenous studies. For decades he has worked to promote education about Haudenosaunee culture, values and history, often in collaboration with his wife, Sandy Bigtree, a citizen of the Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne.
Arnold is founding director of the Skä·noñh—Great Law of Peace Center , which is dedicated to telling the story of the Native peoples of Central New York and their formative influence on the political and cultural identity of the United States. “Our work at the center gives some historic context to the land acknowledgment we say at the University commemorating our placement on Onondaga Nation ancestral land, the ‘Central Fire’ of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy,” says Arnold.
Fritzke became interested in Indigenous peoples’ perspectives and experiences while she was an undergraduate at Whitman College in Washington state, where she studied the legacy of the school’s namesake, a 19th-century missionary, from the perspective of the Cayuse people he encountered. In Syracuse, Fritzke sought opportunities to volunteer at the Skä·noñh Center. She served as a tour guide for school-aged visitors to the center, and her volunteer work quickly evolved into an internship and part-time employment helping with communication and outreach.
In a year when many community involvement opportunities were shuttered because of the pandemic, Fritzke especially appreciated her connection with the Skä·noñh Center—and she found other ways to get involved too. A professionally trained dancer who performed extensively throughout her high school and college years, Fritzke joined the University’s Orange Pulse Dance Troupe and offered a weekly ballet class to fellow students. She also taught a section of SEM 100, the University’s six-week course for all first-year and transfer undergraduates, which aims to create thought-provoking discourse around topics of race, identity, inclusion and social equity, and she started volunteering with the local group Women of Italian and Syracuse Heritage , which promotes community education and the value of diverse communities in Central New York.
Working for Change
Fritzke is grateful that her work and interests allow her to participate in conversations on issues related to social inequality and racism. “I believe it is so important to know one’s privilege in order to lessen it and help others in their efforts,” she says. Working for social change is a practice in vulnerability, she adds. “It is about learning how to be held accountable and to hold oneself accountable.” Fritzke says she finds guidance in the values her parents emphasized throughout her childhood—especially those of kindness and activism—and in the doctrines of peace and social responsibility that are central ethics in the Mennonite Church, the denomination Fritzke and her immediate family belong to.
Arnold says the work Fritzke is doing is a valuable contribution to a timely cultural conversation. “It's really about the changing narratives of what it means to be American. The stories we have been told don’t work for the changing demographics of the United States. What will be the new narratives? And how do we change the symbolic touchstones of American culture? Grace is interested in generating conversation about those things,” he says.
Now that she has graduated, Fritzke plans to move back to the West Coast. Looking to the future, she views her diverse interests as independently moving cogs that her newly minted master’s degree helps to connect. “I have been in such an expansive period of my life—learning so much about different ways of doing things,” she says. “My professors have been very supportive, and I can imagine so many ways of moving forward.”