Sometimes when Cheyenne McNeill meets new people, they don’t believe her heritage.
“I’ve really heard people say, ‘I didn’t know that American Indian people still existed,’ or ‘You’re the first American Indian person I’ve ever met.’”
McNeill, a senior media and journalism major who is a member of the Coharie Tribe, is the president of Carolina Indian Circle, a student organization that works to increase faculty Native representation and raise awareness about American Indian issues.
“We know that a lot of people don’t learn about American Indian history growing up,” she said. “What you learn is probably untrue, or very biased or just scratching the surface of who we are and were as a people, and because of what you learn, people tend to not know that we still exist.”
The presence of Native students on UNC's campus is one of the smallest. In fall 2017, people who identified as American Indian or Alaskan Native made up 0.4 percent of total enrollment at UNC. Only the Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander category is lower, at 0.1 percent.
Events like the Annual Carolina Indian Circle Powwow — the largest collegiate powwow on the East Coast — serve as “coming home” events for Native students and staff, and help increase the visibility of the Native population on campus, McNeill said.
Native peoples are also represented through course offerings. Students can major or minor in the American Indian and Indigenous Studies concentration through the American Studies department.
“There’s a lot of diversity in native America and the indigenous world, and there are a lot of ways to study indigenous peoples,” said Keith Richotte, coordinator for the American Indian and Indigenous Studies concentration. He continued, “You’re not just studying a small group of indigenous peoples, you’re really studying a different way of how to think about and see the world in which we all live."
But for Native students like McNeill, confronting misconceptions or biases about American Indian cultures is a fact of life. McNeill said she and other members of CIC try to turn potentially awkward or insensitive moments into learning opportunities.
“We take the experiences that we’ve had, and we try to turn them into something productive and a way to let our presence be known,” she said.
The primary organization that assists Native students on campus is the American Indian Center in Abernethy Hall. According to the AIC’s website, the AIC is a public service center with the goals of fostering research and scholarship related to American Indians, engaging with and serving the American Indian community, and facilitating American Indian inclusion on campus.
Though many Native students use the AIC as a space to study and meet friends, some students, like junior Cheyenne Bullard, feel the AIC does not receive adequate resources for the population it serves.
Bullard is the president of Alpha Pi Omega, the first historically American Indian sorority, at UNC. She is a member of the Lumbee Tribe, and said she and other Native students rely on the AIC.
“Due to our growing population of Native students, it is not quite enough,” she said. “There isn’t enough room in there, and it’s difficult to get funding for the American Indian Center because most of the funding comes from grants, and grants don’t always last.”
She said she’s seen support for the AIC get worse during her time at UNC. The AIC used to get funding through grants that allowed it to hire students for work-study and internship positions, but when the grants ran out, so did the jobs.
“In the past two years, the funding has been decreasing more and more each year,” Bullard said.
Students would use the money from their positions at the AIC to pay for their education and costs of living, Bullard said, and without the grants that fund these opportunities, students don’t have those resources.
McNeill said the University could better support Native students and staff by providing more funding for the AIC. She said she feels UNC tends to use students of color and students from marginalized groups for publicity, but it needs to do more to help these groups of students.
“We’re really fortunate that we have the AIC and that we have people here who want to work and help us, but as with any group in any university, there could always be more to be done,” McNeill said.
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