November is American Indian Heritage Month.
And while D’Agati thinks the month is an amazing concept, she said it’s important not to generalize tribes or the Native American people.
“So often Native people are relegated to the past and history books, and their presence in the present is ignored. Given the events going on in our country right now, and throughout the recent and distant past, I think it is extremely important that we consider Native people in the present,” she said. “I also think having American Indian Heritage Month can be problematic because it leads to people only thinking about Native issues during one month. Native people are here every month of the year, and we have always been here.”
Her father's tribe, the Aroostook Band of Micmac located in Northern Maine, was not federally recognized until 1991. Her father's tribe was the only Band of Micmac that lived in the United States, and D’Agati said the government frequently deported members of the Aroostook to Canada. She said this is one of the reasons why she wants to work toward recognition policy.
Initially, D’Agati decided to pursue social work with the goal of becoming a therapist. She saw first-hand how pervasive mental health issues and historical trauma are among Native American communities, and decided during her senior year at Skidmore College to pursue therapy in a county-run mental health provider, such as one located in Cherokee County. She said that the emphasis on community organizing she witnessed at the UNC School of Social Work helped her decide to go more big picture.
“I felt like, why should I do this thing that is so small scale when I could try to go make things better for a lot of people? Of course the thing with that is, the social element of that, is you have to be really careful to not be doing what you think is best for a lot of people, but to be really taking into account what they say is best and helping them achieve their goals, rather than your goals for them,” she said.
As an intern, D’Agati helps the American Indian Center with many of its community engagement and public service programs. Currently, she is making a resource directory with explanations and directions for tribes to use as a toolkit for future hurricanes following the flooding in many tribes after Hurricane Florence.
Teryn Brewington, research manager and grant administrator at the American Indian Center and enrolled member of the Sappony Tribe, is D’Agati’s field instructor and helps provide her with social work experiences like attending events in Native communities and working with tribal leaders and students.
Brewington said D’Agati expressed great interest in helping tribes heavily impacted by Hurricanes Florence and Michael in ways best for each individual community.
“Laura has displayed courage in stepping forward to serve Native communities, and she is a listener – not imposing her own ideas but working to support the self-determined goals of tribes and the AIC,” she said.
D’Agati said her time at the American Indian Center has taught her a lot about the importance of the language used in regards to Native people, and that it has helped her learn ways to discontinue harmful paternalist narratives of attempting to help tribal communities. She said she has also learned how welcoming tribal communities are.
“Even though I know I don’t have any of the cultural aspects, people have been so welcoming and kind to me, and it’s been amazing,” she said. “It’s just been a personal growth and then a professional growth of learning how to work with people in these communities.”
Growing up, D’Agati knew her dad was Aroostook Micmac but didn’t know much about the culture.
“As you may be aware, there’s a lot of substance (use) issues within Native communities because of the historical trauma and different things, so my dad wasn’t really around,” she said. “(My mom) was of the opinion that if you’re not raised in the culture, you’re not really Native ... On my dad’s side, he tried to reconnect with his Native American culture. Whether or not he did so successfully, I don’t know."
Her father didn’t grow up learning about his tribe either. His family moved to Connecticut to get jobs around the time of WWII. She said her dad’s parents tried “really hard not to raise their kids with any Native anything,” but her dad did do tree work with his father, which a lot of men in the Aroostook Tribe do.
D’Agati said her mother made a point to purchase books and find events locally to help her connect with Native American culture while she was growing up, and she remembers conversations with her dad’s siblings regarding their family – although none specifically targeted toward his experience being Aroostook.
“Conversations regarding 'Native culture' can be really problematic because there are so many tribes and so much cultural diversity among Native peoples, even in the same geographic areas or linguistic groups,” she said. “It is impossible to speak to Native culture as a whole, as there is no one Native culture.”
According to the American Indian Center’s website, North Carolina is home to the largest population of American Indians east of the Mississippi River. At the time of the 2000 U.S. Census, there were 99,541 American Indians in North Carolina and eight state-recognized tribes.
Brewington said American Indian student enrollment at UNC has increased in recent years, although there is more work to be done.
She said the American Indian Center provides much-needed support for Native American students at UNC.
“You’d be surprised. Not to speak badly of UNC, but there a lot of insensitive comments that are made, as well as insensitive exclusions during class,” D’Agati said.
In September, D’Agati attended the American Indian Women of Proud Nations Conference in Clinton, N.C., with the American Indian Center. She said she didn’t know anyone there, but that people were very welcoming and invited her to sit with them at their tables.
At the Coharie Pow Wow that took place after the conference, the tribal administrator for the Coharie Tribe, a man she referred to as Mr. Greg, personally told her he was glad she came.
“It felt really good to feel like you’re not invading on people’s space and to feel included,” she said. “Then he added me on Facebook, which was really cool.”
Despite not growing up in a tribe or an urban Native American organization, D’Agati said she has felt so welcomed not only by tribal communities but by the American Indian Center.
“It hasn’t been hard to be new in such a close-knit community, which I think kind of speaks for itself,” she said.
D’Agati recently submitted her first application to law school. And apart from her passion for Native American recognition policy, she loves knitting, going to trivia and her 2-year-old cat, Noodle.
Her smaller goals?
“I don’t know — I want to finish that hat that I’m making. I’m trying to move a lot of stuff into my apartment right now, so I want to finish getting moved into my apartment, too,” she said, laughing. “I want to finish all my papers, which sounds so stupid.”
And more importantly, her "big picture" goals:
“To continue building relationships with tribal communities, especially because when you work with Native people, it takes a really long time to build trust, and so the longer I can work at that and the more work I can put into that, the better.”