Indigenous PHOTO

The fire pit area of the Main Campus Student Center was part of an Indigenous Space Dedication. (ECU Photo by Cliff Hollis)

As Native American Heritage Month continues throughout the month of November, East Carolina University has increased efforts to acknowledge and honor Native and Indigenous cultures and students, faculty and staff on campus.

Student Government Association financial advisor, advisor of the East Carolina Native American Organization (ECNAO) and member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina Aleshia Hunt said there are many Indigenous organizations at ECU including ECNAO, as well as Sigma Omicron Epsilon and Epsilon Chi Nu, the only Native American sorority and fraternity on campus. Though each are founded on Indigenous principles and qualities, she said these organizations are open to anyone who wishes to join.

Once an undergraduate student at the university, Hunt said there were not many Indigenous faculty and staff at ECU which ultimately led to her efforts to advocate for an inclusive space for Indigenous community members on campus. 

“From there those conversations continued, just working with our Indigenous populations here at ECU. It’s not my day-to-day job but it’s an extra hat that we wear that we wear passionately, because we were once an Indigenous undergraduate student,” Hunt said. “And so just, working and advocating, making sure it’s a better place when we leave it.”

Native American Heritage Month is not just a month-long celebration of the Indigenous community, Hunt said, and the community has advocated for Indigenous spaces and education throughout the years. She said programming for the month has increased over the years through both the university and student-led organizations.

ECU has supported ideas and programs promoted by Indigenous voices on campus, Hunt said, which often helps recruit potential students who may want to attend a university that values Indigenous spaces and cultures. She said the recent invocation of the Indigenous Land Acknowledgement space in the Main Campus Student Center is the first space to acknowledge Indigenous history and culture on ECU’s campus.

The celebration of Indigenous spaces at the university has had an impact on the community here in Pitt County, Hunt said, as many community members have not been exposed to Indigenous cultures and ways of life up until now. 

“We take that moment and educate people and think about how they can educate the person after them and so on and so forth,” Hunt said. “It’s definitely a trickling effect in everything that we do, we’re always thinking about the next generation in everything that we do.”

Johnaca Hunt, president of the ECNAO and member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, said the ECNAO allows her to give back to her Native community both at ECU and to her community in Elrod, North Carolina. The ECNAO and their meetings are open to the general public, Hunt said, in an effort to educate students of all backgrounds and promote Indigenous culture on campus.

The university and faculty have made efforts to advance diversity and inclusion of Indigenous cultures throughout Hunt’s time at ECU, she said, their most recent effort being the invocation of the Indigenous Land Acknowledgement space that features the history of the eight state-recognized tribes of North Carolina. Hunt said other efforts include programs such as the virtual Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women discussion on Nov. 16 and the ECNAO 29th Annual Spring Powwow.

The celebration of Native American Heritage Month has always been important to Indigenous communities, Hunt said, and its celebration on ECU’s campus creates a welcoming space where Native students can celebrate their cultures and customs. She said this is especially important to local communities, as North Carolina has the largest Native American population east of the Mississippi River.

“As a Native American, the purpose behind Native American Heritage Month is basically to help educate everyone around us on not only our struggles that we went through personally, but also our accomplishments that each tribe and each individual member of the Native American community has went through,” Hunt said.

Assistant Director for Outreach and Relations and member of the Haliwa-Saponi Tribe of North Carolina James Rudd said he has grown up around Indigenous cultures since his childhood because of his community ties to the Haliwa-Saponi Indian Tribe. There are multiple tribes within a close distance to the university, Rudd said, creating an opportunity for ECU to advocate for Indigenous culture and people within and surrounding the local community.

Chancellor Philip Rogers has made efforts to collaborate with the Indigenous Faculty and Staff Resource Group at ECU in order to provide an outlet for Indigenous voices, Rudd said, something he finds to be valuable in the institution. One of their conversations included a discussion regarding resources and accessibility for Indigenous students, Rudd said, something he personally experienced in his tribal community.

“We’re (Indigenous people) not just going to do this dedicated space and that’s it, you know, we have a lot more things that we want to do for the Indigenous community,” Rudd said. “And I definitely think we’re on the right path for that.”

President of Epsilon Chi Nu fraternity and the Multicultural Greek Council Justice Beverly, who is also member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and Monacan Nation of Virginia, said it was difficult to find Native Americans like him during his freshman year at ECU since it’s a small population on campus. Getting to know people during his involvement in the fraternity and the Multicultural Greek Council gave Beverly the pedestal of being part of both the Native American and Greenville communities. 

Beverly said understanding Native American Heritage Month at ECU is mostly cultural education. Since the Native American community is small on ECU’s campus, Beverly said not many people understand Native Americans’ perspectives in terms of topics such as cultural misappropriation. 

“Just having people understand there’s more than just, you know, the diversity in terms of, you know, ethnicity, all that stuff,” Beverly said.

Since he’s part of two tribal nations outside of North Carolina, Beverly said he personally doesn't know how the heritage month is celebrated in the state but has heard that the Native American tribes take it deep to heart.

ECU has taken a lot of steps to make the campus a welcoming space for Native Americans and their culture, Beverly said. One step being the land acknowledgment that recognized the Tuscarora and the dedication of the Indigenous space at the Main Campus Student Center on Nov. 9. 

Beverly said he participated in the ribbon cutting of the dedication and feels that the event gives a foundation to Natives on campus as a way to represent them more within the student body. He said he experienced a lot of cultural pride at the event and it’s a relief that Native tribes are slowly being part of the spotlight. 

“I would think a lot of natives around here have that sense of pride knowing that the universities put that recognition up out there and their continued commitment,” Beverly said. “I've spoken to older (Native) brothers of mine who have been fighting for years to get that recognition that they've discarded as, as I said, a sense of relief, and a sense of just overall euphoria.” 

The university’s effort to recognize Native and Indigenous individuals was needed, Beverly said, since Natives are the smallest population on ECU’s campus and can often be underrepresented. He said the representation gave Natives an equal chance to represent themselves within the student body and the Greenville community.

It’s essential for non-Native students to educate themselves on Natives and their culture in order to show their support for the culture and the people, Beverly said. He said non-Natives should be able to take the initiative to learn and share their knowledge with other peers. 

“I would say take the first step and educating themselves (non-Native students) on Native culture because it shouldn't be just our responsibility as Native students to spread that education but it should also be the non-Native peers that are willing to take the initiative to learn about us as people not in our culture and expressing and expanding that knowledge on to other peers,” Beverly said.

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