For the second year in a row, the Carolina Indian Circle launched a petition for UNC to formally recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the second Monday in October. And this time, they were heard.
Previously left blank on the University's calendar, Indigenous Peoples’ Day is now recognized on campus. A proclamation was issued on the recognition and that the University was built on historically aboriginal territories and Indigenous lands — but failed to include that these thousands of acres of land were stolen from native communities.
As Native American and Indigenous scholars, leaders and people with common sense have noted time and again, this land wasn’t new. Columbus didn’t discover anything and his voyage marked the beginning of a horrific legacy of genocide, slavery and colonialism. As the CIC said in their petition, “Celebrating Columbus Day is the celebration of murder.”
Nationally, the Biden Administration has chosen to continue to recognize Columbus Day alongside Indigenous Peoples’ Day, even as retailers are shying away from the former and its dark history. Under Governor Roy Cooper, North Carolina has joined the movement to recognize the day instead as Indigenous Peoples Day, though the day is still not recognized as an official state holiday.
UNC has followed suit and finally acknowledged some of its own history that it has long avoided.
While working on his dissertation in 2020, Lucas Kelley, now an assistant professor at Valparaiso University, began studying how UNC participated in a systematic campaign of selling Cherokee and Chickasaw lands in the 1800s to stave off its debts. He and colleague Garrett Wright published their findings in Scalawag, mapping out hundreds of thousands of acres of land expropriated by UNC.
According to Kelley’s research, UNC purchased dozens of parcels of Chickasaw and Cherokee lands in what we now consider Tennessee. Treaties with the Chickasaw and Cherokee nations prevented the University and other settlers from actually accessing the lands until 1816, when the federal government began forcing a series of treaty renegotiations that forced the Chickasaw and Cherokee Nations to eventually leave their lands.
This allowed UNC to actually sell the land parcels to other settlers, funding 94 percent of the University’s budget in the fiscal year from 1834 to 1835. Kelley emphasizes that these sales of Indigenous land also enabled the expansion of slavery.
“When we think about settler colonialism, it wasn’t just about seizing Native American lands,” said Kelley. “At least in the South — it was about putting slave labor camps in these areas.”
The proclamation released by Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, Vice Provost for Academic and Community Engagement Joseph Jordan and the UNC American Indian Center is not specific and does not mention the Chickasaw Nation.
But it includes an acknowledgement that “the University benefited from the sale of land originally belonging to Native Nations. Guskiewicz reiterated this in a statement to The Daily Tar Heel.
“I fully support our proclamation recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ Day," he said. "We must stand together to honor their significant contributions to our community, both past and present. This recognition also serves as an opportunity to celebrate Indigenous peoples’ thriving cultures, traditions and values that have helped make Carolina what it is today.”
However, reconciliation does not come that easily. UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media assistant professor Lisa Villamil, who is of Cherokee descent, points to the roots of this legacy of dispossession, enslavement and genocide with Christopher Columbus. She encourages people to read his first letter to Queen Isabella, a translated version of which is available from the National Humanities Center.
In the letter, Columbus writes, “I discovered a great many islands inhabited by numberless people; and of all I have taken possession for their highnesses.”
“Carolina Indian Circle is showing bravery and compassion in helping lead UNC-Chapel Hill to reconciliation,” Villamil said in a statement. “This is a day for everyone to honor Indigenous resilience and culture. This is a day for us to be the change.”
UNC Media Relations stated that Guskiewicz charged the Commission on History, Race and A Way Forward to explore how the University should properly recognize the role Indigenous people played in the history of our University and an appropriate land acknowledgment.
Media Relation said the commission's work is in progress. Like the acknowledgment of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, this project is a necessary, but incomplete, step; it is the beginning of a conversation, not an end goal.
In March this year, American Indian Center Director Larry Chavis spoke on his role working on a land acknowledgment saying it was like “writing my own thank you note for a gift that was taken from me.”
There is no question that the University should acknowledge Indigenous Peoples’ Day and its own legacy of dispossession. But it must go much further. A proclamation alone will not be enough to make UNC a space that actually welcomes and nurtures Indigenous students and communities.
CIC Political Action Chairperson Jake Gerardi, of Indigenous heritage from the Listuguj Mi’kmaq Nation, said, “We don’t need settler institutions to validate our identities nor our survival,” though it can make the college experience more tolerable.
“As Indigenous students, we often feel invisible at UNC," Gerardi said. "This institution doesn’t even have any classes specifically on the history of North Carolina’s indigenous people.”
In order to truly recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day, the University must go beyond words and take action. It must invest in the sovereignty of Native American students, faculty and community members. It is only through their leadership that the University can ever hope to address this legacy.
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