UNC's Native American students say under-funding nearly ended the American Indian studies major
Native American students recently circulated an online petition to “Save American Indian & Indigenous Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill.” After the petition received several thousand signatures, the university put a pause on the decision to end the major. Students and faculty say the threat to the program is a symptom of a larger problem.
Last fall, word got around among native students at UNC-Chapel Hill that the major concentration in American Indian & Indigenous studies could soon be ending. Senior AJ Hunt-Briggs, who’s a member of the Lumbee tribe, first heard about it in a text message from a friend.
“It was immediate panic,” Hunt-Briggs said. “This is one of my majors. What am I going to do? Also, like, why would they terminate this program that's so important to native students on campus?”
Students used the word "terminate" to describe the announcement. It's the same word Congress used from the 1940s-1960s when lawmakers revoked federal recognition of tribes, ending financial support and acknowledgment of their sovereignty.
“They were still Indian, but they couldn't claim that they were Indian, which is exactly what this is,” said Hunt-Briggs. “They took away the name, they said, you can still take the courses, you just can't say it's American Indian and Indigenous Studies, and that name holds so much meaning and pride.”
The proposed curriculum changes would not have ended any classes currently available, but students would no longer be able to declare a major in American Indian & Indigenous Studies. About 10 to 20 students are declared as a major or minor in the program each year. Faculty say the change was made in part to raise enrollment in American Studies and to account for the fact that classes required for its concentrations had already been discontinued.
For Hunt-Briggs, the opportunity to take those classes was a revelation. She recalled taking an introductory class taught by Lumbee historian Malinda Maynor Lowery, who left for a position at Emory University last summer.
“Walking in and seeing a native professor who's Lumbee was just incredible,” said Hunt-Briggs. “You’re not going to question my identity, you’re not going to tell me my history is wrong. I get to learn more about it.”
Graduate student Marissa Carmi says the program is what attracted many native students to Chapel Hill. Carmi is a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and co-president of the First Nations Graduate Circle.
“Many graduate students in First Nations Graduate Circle have a very similar story where they were told to come here because of the amazing program,” said Carmi. “I'm not sure if that structure wasn't here, would we be getting those stories?”
'Under-funding' pressured an end to the program
Faculty describe a pattern of the university “under-funding” the American Indian & Indigenous Studies major by not maintaining faculty positions in the program.
Since 2002, the program has been a concentration housed within the American Studies department at UNC-Chapel Hill. The department's chair Sharon Holland says she and faculty planned to combine all five concentrations in American Studies into a single major next year out of necessity – in part because they didn’t have enough professors to teach core classes.
“We need more full-time faculty,” Holland said.
In 2020, Jenny Tone-Pah-Hote, a Kiowa scholar who taught classes in native art and material culture, died of leukemia. Her colleagues describe her loss as abrupt and painful to the native community on campus. In 2014, Chris Teuton, who is Cherokee and taught native literature, left for the University of Washington. Then, last summer, Maynor Lowery left.
"The fact that we were eliminating this official designation has led some people to understand it as UNC killing off Indian Studies. That's not entirely accurate, but it's also maybe not inaccurate."Keith Richotte
After their departures, the university did not retain those tenure-track positions. Holland says department chairs can rank their requests to the College of Arts and Sciences for position allocations.
“One of the first asks has been for Native Americanist, for five years, going on going back as far as I know,” Holland said, adding that the department received some of its second requests.
Professor Keith Richotte is a professor in the American Studies department who studies federal Indian law and is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. Before his wife, Tone-Pah-Hote, passed away, and others left, he says the program was stronger. Given the pressures on the department, he and his colleagues voted unanimously to collapse its concentrations.
“The fact that we were eliminating this official designation has led some people to understand it as UNC killing off Indian Studies. That's not entirely accurate. But it's also maybe not inaccurate, either, in the sense that having that official designation at the University of North Carolina is vitally important for all sorts of constituencies,” Richotte said.
“I understand just because you don't have racist intent doesn't mean that the decisions you make don't have racist effects,” Holland said. “So I took full responsibility for the effects that doing this has had on this community. I'm heartsick about it.”
Holland has met with native student groups to apologize for the impact the decision had on them and to explain why it’s been difficult to keep the concentration.
“When we met with them, we had no idea that the university was using a major and minor to recruit Native students to campus,” Holland said. “It seems to me wholly unethical to recruit students to campus using a major/minor that you're underfunding.”
"I understand just because you don't have racist intent doesn't mean that the decisions you make don't have racist effects."Sharon Holland
The Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Terry Rhodes did not grant WUNC's request for an interview to respond. In a written statement, she said the university recently implemented budget cuts that affected all 43 departments under her purview.
Two weeks ago, students in the First Nations Graduate Circle started an online petition to keep the American Indian & Indigenous Studies concentration. In response, Rhodes urged Holland to put a pause on the changes that were proposed for the next school year.
The College of Arts & Sciences has committed an “initial investment” of $18,000 to hire instructors to teach core classes to maintain the major next year. Holland said it will be used to hire two part-time adjunct instructors.
Rhodes said in a statement: “That is not the end of investment by the College Dean’s Office or University.”
A lack of resources for their campus community
AJ Hunt-Briggs was thrilled to hear last week that her major would not be ending and that the petition by the First Nations Graduate Circle and the Carolina Indian Circle had seemed to make a difference.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, did we do it? Did we put a Band-Aid on the situation?'” Hunt Briggs said. “But it was definitely like, okay, we've patched the crack. Now we’ve got to figure out what to do to fix it and create something that we know will last.”
The student petition described a larger trend of the university under-funding native scholarship and the American Indian Center on campus. In addition to supporting students, the center provides resources to North Carolina’s eight tribes.
Last spring, Larry Chavis announced his resignation as director of the center in protest at a faculty council meeting. As a professor in the business school, he said he’d always felt supported, but not so as director of the American Indian Center.
“I was just working on my resignation letter because I can't go in again and look the women that I work with in the face knowing how underpaid they are,” Chavis said at the meeting.
In 2019, the university allocated the Center $145,702 to pay Chavis’s partial salary and three full-time staff members. In other words, less than $40,000 per person.
“There was not the budget to even guarantee that I could keep them employed,” Chavis said.
Native students say those staff have been vital to their sense of belonging on campus. Zianne Richardson is a junior and a member of the Haliwa Saponi tribe.
“For me, they pretty much serve as a group of aunties,” Richardson said. “I know we could text them if we needed anything.”
Chavis says what relieved his budget crunch in 2019 was that two staff members left, and the university halted a search for an interim director while he was on a sabbatical. Prior to that, the American Indian Center had supported more staff through grant funding and financial support from the Provost’s office.
“But we were always limping along,” Chavis said.
Reviving talks with Provost to commit to funding?
In 2018-19, an advisory council that included Chavis, Maynor Lowery and Richotte met with then-Chancellor Carol Folt and then-Provost Bob Blouin to discuss how the university could better support the American Indian Center and native scholarship on campus.
“We were on the precipice of being one of the really amazing AIIS programs in the country,” said Richotte.
“[We] said, If you just help us fulfill our potential, we could be a real jewel in the crown of UNC. We got a lot of administrative speak, and not a lot of actual investment,” Richotte said.
Those talks continued as Kevin Guskiewicz became chancellor. The council submitted a report and a budget proposal that would commit nearly $4 million over 5 years to support American Indian & Indigenous Studies and the American Indian Center. No financial support materialized, Chavis said.
Richotte says, since then, the native community at UNC-Chapel Hill has lost the footing it once had.
“It's not just erosion of people, it's also an erosion of an ethos and a spirit, and a willingness to invest in the university in the way that we'd like to see our investments reciprocated by the institution,” Richotte said.
Amy Locklear Hertel recently became the executive vice provost at UNC. She's a member of the Lumbee tribe and a former director of the American Indian Center. She wasn't present during those talks, but says she hopes to help American Indian & Indigenous studies become more sustainable.
“We're interested -- now that I am in the provost office, I am interested in -- the current provost is, in picking up those conversations and really figuring out the way forward with the campus community,” Locklear Hertel said.
She echoed what many other members of the native community have voiced: that UNC has a responsibility to native communities – and to all its students – to teach North Carolina’s full history and recognize native people’s enduring presence.
“This is the flagship institution of the state, and North Carolina has the largest Native population east of the Mississippi River,” said Richotte. “If UNC is going to serve the state, it has to serve the entire state.”
Native students and faculty say they hope this threat to the American Indian & Indigenous Studies program becomes a turning point that leads to greater investment in their community.