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'See that we exist': American Indian Center faces lack of University support

Dr. Larry Chavis, director of the UNC American Indian Center, poses for a portrait in Chapel Hill on Monday, Mar. 1, 2021. Chavis, who is a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, notes the importance of belonging and of doing so "on your own terms."

The American Indian Center strives to create a space where American Indian students can have access to resources for themselves and their communities on campus, but the center's proponents are calling on UNC to do more to support it.

At the February Faculty Council meeting, American Indian Center Director Larry Chavis said he was disappointed with the lack of financial support the center has received from the school in recent years. He said the center has yet to feel any benefits from the recent initiative Build Our Community Together — a strategic initiative designed to create infrastructure that promotes belonging and a better sense of community throughout the University.

Chavis also spoke about his experience working with the History, Race and a Way Forward Commission on an official land acknowledgment for the University being located on stolen Native American land.

"It's like me, writing my own thank you note for a gift that was taken from me," Chavis said at the meeting. "I'm tired of being in the same place I was this time last year as far as funding and my level of belonging at this University."

Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Bob Blouin told The Daily Tar Heel that the center is a critical part of the Build our Community Together initiative within the University’s strategic plan.

He said budgets for academic and community engagement centers, including the American Indian Center, will not be cut through the current budget process. 

“We will work with these centers on long-term financial planning and fundraising support to ensure their future longevity,” Blouin said in the statement. 

Chavis, who has been serving as director of the UNC American Indian Center for three years, said the funding situation has always been about the same — even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The funding issue is actually larger than just the American Indian Center,” Chavis told The Daily Tar Heel. “The American Indian and indigenous studies department is not well-funded either. ” 

Chavis said that in the past, the center has received financial help from the Provost’s Office, which has been critical to bridging the gap from one year to the next. 

“Carolina’s American Indian Center serves a vital role in linking our campus with American Indian communities across North Carolina and in providing support to students who find connection through the organization’s impactful work,” Blouin said in the statement. 

But Chavis said there has never been a sustained commitment from the University, making him feel that the American Indian Center is not included in Build Your Community Together.

"Your strategic priority can be other things, but right now it is not building community together," Chavis said. "We don't feel that anyway."

Irene Norman is a Mohawk and non-traditional senior student studying political science and American Indian and Indigenous Studies. She is also an active member of the center as a policy ambassador. 

Normans said the land acknowledgment is a nice gesture, but is also the bare minimum of what the University should do.

“I feel like we're not really acknowledged and recognized much by the University,” she said. “Like we have our own little community and within that community, we're very supportive of each other. But I feel like the University doesn't go out of its way to support or promote us.” 

Hannah Starling, another student involved with the center, also said efforts by the University to celebrate and recognize diversity should go beyond putting a person of color on a poster or an advertisement. Starling said she hopes the official land acknowledgment will give Native American students a feeling of support. 

“I'm hoping that through all of this, a lot of Native American students feel appreciated and wanted by the University,” she said. 

Now with increasing budget cuts from the University, Norman said she worries things might only get more difficult for the center. But as GiveUNC day draws closer, the center is now focused on finishing in first place in order to raise enough funds for the center. 

Chavis said between 80 and 90 percent of the center's funding goes directly to help students, create community projects, lead after-school programs and manage community gardens for tribes. 

"I'm just asking for a show of support," Chavis said. "So we could be at the top of the leaderboard and people will see that we exist." 

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University reporter Malak Dridi contributed to this report.