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Student’s documentary helps her family heal from intergenerational trauma

Cecilia Mellieon and her daughter sit outdoors at Fortaleza Indian Ruins, homeland of their ancestors, near the Tohono O’odham Nation’s San Lucy Village outside of Gila Bend, Arizona. Photo from 2001.

Grad student Cecilia Mellieon utilizes visual anthropology, a field of study founded at SF State, to tell stories of urban Native American life 

With a video camera in her hands and empathy in her heart, one San Francisco State University student is focusing her capstone project on a subject many families prefer to avoid: their intergenerational trauma.  

Cecilia Mellieon, a graduate student in Anthropology at San Francisco State, is the director of a documentary titled “He told us the sky is blue.” It traces her family’s trauma to Native American oppression, focusing on the Indian boarding school her father attended in Fort Apache, Arizona.  

“If it hadn’t been for his experience there, he would have never left his family or his village,” said Mellieon, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation. “He would have never moved to the Bay Area, and so I would not even be here if it wasn’t for him making those decisions to get away from them.” 

The U.S. government established the boarding schools to teach English and trade skills to Native American children. Violent corporal punishment occurred often.  

“The ultimate goal was to have fully assimilated second-generation children — children who were removed from their lands, children who didn’t grow up with their culture or their language or their family members,” Mellieon said. 

In her 55-minute film, Mellieon’s family recalls surviving an abusive household. They share feelings of sadness and regret as they also work to resolve their anger. 

“These are stories that I know too well, because I was there,” Mellieon said. “There are scenes where my brother and my mom are breaking down crying. I was crying with them.” 

Cecilia Mellieon headshot

Born and raised in San Francisco, Mellieon is passionate about telling stories of urban Native American life with nuance and sensitivity. She uses a supportive, collaborative approach that aims to not only create an ethnography, but also a work that will benefit the subjects. 

Her approach is an application of visual anthropology, a field of study that was founded by late SF State faculty members John Adair and John Collier. SF State Anthropology Professor Peter Biella (B.A., ’72; M.A., ’75) was one of Collier’s students, and today he is Mellieon’s adviser. 

Mellieon entered SF State as an undergraduate in 2018 at age 42. She had just completed her associate’s degree from Los Medanos College while her third child had yet to start kindergarten.  

A new Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) extension to near her home in Antioch made the 50-mile commute to SF State feasible, with family help on child care. Now, one of her children, Tatihn Mellieon, also attends SF State, as a Creative Writing major and a student assistant in The Poetry Center. 

“It was the perfect grouping of coincidences that led to me to be able to go to State,” Cecilia Mellieon said. “If I had tried this at any other point in my life, I don’t think I would have had the life experiences. I don’t think I would have had the growth that I needed to be a confident student and be able to feel like I could tackle this.” 

Mellieon premiered “He told us the sky is blue” in November at Los Medanos College. She plans to take it to film festivals and make more anthropological films about big-city Indigenous life. 

Learn more about the Anthropology Department

SF State students write Wikipedia bios for unsung heroes of STEM

Humanities class helps fill in equity gaps among STEM professionals from underrepresented groups 

Wikipedia is among the most visited websites in the world, with information on over 6 million topics. But much is missing, particularly in diversity. Through a partnership with the user-moderated online encyclopedia, students at San Francisco State University recently wrote original biographies for notable professionals in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) from underrepresented groups. 

Scientists from traditionally underrepresented groups comprise a small minority on Wikipedia. According to Wikipedia, only about 8% of the site’s 275,000 biographies of scientists are women, with similar gaps across race and ethnicity. 

With support from the Broadcom Foundation, the Wikipedia Education group selected the San Francisco State Humanities class “History of Science from the Scientific Revolution,” taught by Associate Professor David M. Peña-Guzmán from the Department of Humanities and Comparative World Literature, as one of its partners this past summer. Wikipedia Education is a nonprofit organization that serves as the bridge between academia and Wikipedia throughout the U.S. and Canada. 

Nine of the biographies compiled by SF State students are live on Wikipedia. The students’ writing brings visibility to living professionals whose legacies have yet to be completed. They include chemical engineer Miguel Modestino, sustainable industrial engineer Enrique Lomnitz and Procter & Gamble executive and microbiologist Adrian Land. 

Maxwell Stephen Williams, a History graduate student who took the class, helped contribute the bio on Aaron Streets, a UC Berkeley bioengineering professor. Williams says the class taught him different ways to utilize Wikipedia in academic research. 

“It’s somewhat frowned upon to use Wikipedia as a source. But what’s not frowned upon, I found, was the sources that the people used for the Wikipedia article,” Williams said. “I don’t know if you should cite Wikipedia for a research paper, but it offers a general baseline. It gives you scholarly sources to further your own research.” 

Peña-Guzmán applied for the class to participate in the Wikipedia Student Program because it aligned with the themes he wanted to impart to students about the complex relationship between science and the histories of patriarchy, colonialism, classism and social bias. Writing the biographies of scientists of color who have made an impact in a scientific or technological domain was the class’ culminating project.  

“From the very beginning of the class, I built in questions about the politics of science,” he said. “Filling Wikipedia’s race gap through these biographies gave my students a very real, if minor, way of making a difference.” 

Peña-Guzmán will discuss his students’ projects on Wednesday, Dec. 13, at “Closing the gap for Black and Hispanic STEM professionals on Wikipedia,” a free virtual seminar presented by Wikipedia Education. 

The Wikipedia Student Program aims to make the broadly referenced site more inclusive and diverse. Since 2010, students from over 800 universities in the U.S. and Canada have worked on over 135,000 articles.  

“Evidence suggests that Wikipedia can influence trials in courts of law and significantly shape the world of science,” says Wikipedia Education Equity Outreach Coordinator Andrés Vera, citing two research papers led by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology faculty member. “Teaching with Wikipedia can help spread awareness about any topic to a wide audience.” 

Learn more about the Department of Humanities and Comparative World Literature