Campus News

Henry Owl, first American Indian student at Carolina

The University announced today that it will honor the Cherokee historian and teacher by placing his name on the Student Affairs building.

Henry Owl
Henry Owl (1896-1980) was the first American Indian and the first person of color to enroll at the University, as a graduate student in history in 1928.

Here is the biography the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Naming University Facilities and Units prepared in support of the naming honor:

Henry Owl circa 1918. (photo courtesy of Gladys Cardiff)

Henry Owl enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1918. (Photo courtesy of Gladys Cardiff)

Henry McClain Owl was born on the Cherokee Indian reservation, formally known as the Qualla Boundary, in western North Carolina on Aug. 1, 1896. His father, Lloyd Owl, was a Cherokee blacksmith; his mother, Nettie Harris Owl, was a Catawba Indian from the Catawba reservation near Rock Hill, South Carolina. The couple met at the Cherokee Boarding School, operated by the federal government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1880 to 1954. Throughout much of its history, the school sought to separate Indian children from their language and culture, and by doing so, “remake them ‘in the image of the white man.’” Lloyd Owl died when Henry was 14 years old, leaving Nettie with 10 children to support. She did so by cleaning white people’s homes and selling her handmade baskets and pottery to tourists.

In 1912, Henry Owl enrolled at Hampton Institute in Virginia, a school founded shortly after the Civil War by the American Missionary Association. Its purpose was to train Blacks, newly emancipated from slavery, as teachers and skilled tradesmen. A decade later, near the end of the American Indian Wars, Hampton also admitted Native students as part of the federal government’s program of forced assimilation. Owl played on the school’s football team and published articles in its student newspaper, The Southern Workman. In 1918, he penned two essays, one, a celebration of “Successful Indians” to mark Indian Citizenship Day, and the other, an account of Indians’ military service in World War I. Later that same year, Owl graduated with a degree in carpentry and enlisted in the army. He served at Camp Jackson in South Carolina, where he rose to the rank of sergeant. The army base was named for President Andrew Jackson, who signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which led to the deaths of more than 4,000 Cherokee people on the long march westward that came to be known as the Trail of Tears.

Naming a campus building for Henry Owl will affirm the principles of democracy, justice and equality that defined his life and career. As alumna Mary McCall Leland ’20 has noted, honoring Henry Owl will also point the way forward for our University. “We cannot right the wrongs of our past,” she explains, “but we can address them and acknowledge that we are a University willing to change and move into the 21st century as a more inclusive and welcoming institution.”

— Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Naming University Facilities and Units

After the war, Owl taught briefly at the Cherokee Boarding School on the Qualla Boundary. Then, in 1923, he accepted a position at Bacone College, a school established in Indian Territory in the 1880s by the American Baptist Home Mission Society. There, Owl taught courses in agriculture, carpentry and the “mechanic arts.” He left Bacone in 1925 to enroll at Lenoir-Rhyne College, a private Lutheran institution in Hickory. He excelled as a sportsman, sang in the glee club and, in his senior year, won the college’s prize for oratory. According to local newspaper accounts, his address showed fellow students how “his own people, the Cherokees of North Carolina,” had been “mistreated” and laid out “the great discouraging and horrible challenge[s]” they faced nearly a century after the Trail of Tears. Owl received his bachelor’s degree in the spring of 1928, and later in the year, enrolled at the University of North Carolina as a graduate student in history, becoming the first American Indian and the first person of color to attend Carolina.

Owl received a master of arts degree in history in 1929. He wrote his thesis on “The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Before and After the Removal.” Over the span of 175 pages, Owl  documented the “exterminating spirit” that animated white encounters with the Cherokees, from the time of first colonial contact to the modern day. His purpose, self-declared, was to correct the racist myths and “misconceptions” that informed most Americans’ understanding of Indigenous Peoples and “befogged the underlying facts” of history. One of his work’s most remarkable characteristics was its reliance on “the tradition[s] of the reservation” — stories, largely unknown to white scholars, that had been passed from one generation to the next by the keepers of tribal memory.

In 1930, Owl made his mark on the history of Indian civil rights when he attempted to register to vote in Swain County, where a large section of the Cherokee reservation is located. According to local lore, he arrived at the registrar’s office with his master’s thesis in hand, ready to prove that he could pass the literacy test that white supremacists had written into the state constitution in 1900 as a means of disenfranchising Blacks and others who threatened white rule. But the registrar refused even to administer the exam. Despite a federal law, passed in 1924, that granted the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians full citizenship rights, the county official turned Owl away, declaring that the Cherokees were wards of the U.S. government and therefore had no standing to cast a ballot.

Henry Owl and his bride, Mildred, on their way to a boarding school near Cheyenne, Wyoming (photo courtesy of Gladys Cardiff)

Henry Owl and his bride, Mildred, on their way to a boarding school near Cheyenne, Wyoming. (Photo courtesy of Gladys Cardiff)

Owl’s sworn account of the incident, submitted to the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Indian Affairs, sped Congressional approval of legislation that affirmed the Cherokees’ right to vote, so long as they met state residency and literacy requirements. That, however, did not settle the matter. Western North Carolina officials continued to turn members of the Eastern Band away from the polls until the mid 1960s, when passage of the Voting Rights Act gave federal authorities the means to end the practice.

During the 1930s and early 1940s, Owl taught at Bureau of Indian Affairs schools in the West, including those on the Oglala Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Blackfeet reservations in South Dakota and Montana. After World War II, he moved his family to Seattle to take advantage of new economic opportunities. There, he worked as a counselor and vocational trainer for the Veterans Administration and as an inspector at the Boeing Aircraft Company. At some point in this transition, Owl adopted his mother’s maiden surname, Harris, in order to shield his children from the racism that had defined his own life experience. Owl died on March 3, 1980, at age 83.