Campus News

Exploring Carolina’s American Indian connections

With an emphasis on listening to North Carolina’s Indigenous population, the Commission on History, Race and a Way Forward is focusing on Carolina’s historical and current connections to American Indians.

Three students walk across campus near the Old Well.
Three students walk near the Old Well on UNC-Chapel Hill's campus.

The Commission on History, Race and a Way Forward has begun to explore how the University should properly recognize the roles that Indigenous people played and continue to play in the history of the nation and Carolina.

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz asked the commission to open this next chapter of its work with attention on appropriate language for a University land acknowledgment. The 19-member group got to work during its regular Nov. 5 meeting. Members quickly noted that many University departments, including the American Indian Center, and individuals have done similar work that will aid the commission’s effort.

Commission member Larry Chavis, AIC director and member of the Lumbee Tribe, sees the commission’s work aligning with what tribal leaders and community members have asked of the University.

“The American Indian community views the center as Carolina’s front door, and they’ve asked for our stories to be told on campus, to represent the state’s history so that, ideally, a student wouldn’t graduate from the University and not know about the North Carolina tribes.”

The State of North Carolina recognizes eight tribes: Coharie, Eastern Band of Cherokee, Haliwa-Saponi, Lumbee, Meherrin, Occaneechi Band of Saponi Nation, Sappony and Waccamaw-Siouan.

“We’re open to collaborating with people who are already working on similar efforts,” said commission co-chair Pat Parker. “This is multilayered and complex work.”

The commission discussed land acknowledgments by other universities, foundational work by campus units such as the American Indian Center, the First Nations Council, the Task Force on UNC-Chapel Hill History, other groups and individuals, and the need for a broad process of consulting with Indigenous people in North Carolina and other relevant stakeholders.

Some questions the commission will consider answering include:

  • What is the history of the local territory and effects of colonialism on it?
  • What is UNC’s relationship with the territory and how did the University come to be here?
  • How does UNC intend to address colonialism beyond an acknowledgement?

“The land acknowledgement is an important first step, but it will need more context,” Chavis said. “We’ll need more classes, more ways, more outlets to tell that story on campus in addition to what’s already happening through student groups like the Carolina Indian Circle and events throughout the year.”

Chavis said that the commission will “really dig in and learn more and eventually rely on the commission’s curriculum committee to figure out how to best share what we learn with the community and engage the community.

“Carolina has done an excellent job of listening and giving access over the last few years,” Chavis said. “The Office of Undergraduate Admissions has dedicated itself to engaging our community and recruiting students, and a range of folks across campus support students once they’re here.”

During the meeting, Amy Hertel, the chancellor’s chief of staff, said that language drafted during her time as AIC director may be helpful. She advocated for consulting with area tribes and considering the resiliency, strength and great pride of the people from those tribes who are alive today.

Co-chair Jim Leloudis agreed. “Forthright words are important, and Amy reminds us that people are not just of the past, but today.”

Among those who have done foundational work and advised the commission on the history of American Indians in North Carolina and local archaeology is Steve Davis, associate director and research archaeologist in Carolina’s Research Laboratories of Archaeology. Davis said that any statements by the commission should be “grounded in fact as best we know it.”

Chavis said that fluidly thinking about a University land acknowledgment may lead to other work, such as statements by individual campus units that emphasize information that is important to their history and audiences.

“We definitely know that the work ahead will be complex, and we will be attentive to staying connected to the Indigenous community,” Parker said. “We can begin with thinking about the people who are most impacted by a system of oppression. They should be the ones leading the way in terms of defining outcomes and what a quality effort looks like.”

The commission’s next meeting on Dec. 7 at 3:30 p.m. will be livestreamed on YouTube.

Learn more about the 15,000-year history of North Carolina’s Indigenous populations through the University’s interactive website, Ancient North Carolinians: A Virtual Museum of North Carolina Archaeology.