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‘Be vocal and create the change’: Carrie Billy advocates for Duke to better support Native American community

Carrie Billy, an indigenous woman with long hair and earrings, speaks at a Zoom event.
Duke’s Native American Student Alliance hosted a virtual event featuring Carrie Billy, president and CEO of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, Nov. 20.

Duke’s Native American Student Alliance hosted a virtual event featuring Carrie Billy, president and CEO of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, Nov. 20.

Billy, a member of the Navajo Nation, discussed lessons learned from AIHEC’s work supporting tribal colleges and universities and talked about how Duke can best support its Native students.

Before diving into her remarks, Billy acknowledged that November is Native American Heritage Month, but she said she feels that every month is a celebration of Native history.

“As Native people, we all have creation stories that explain our emergence into this place from a sacred place from the land, water or sky. And though our stories vary from tribe to tribe, we are all people of this place,” Billy said. “And that is tremendously important to everything I’m going to say today and everything that I do.”

She then highlighted how indigenous people gave up their land to the federal government in a variety of treaties, many of which involved education. While Native people valued education for the sake of opportunity and in the context of their own identities, Billy said, the government and other entities had different views on what education of indigenous people was supposed to look like.

“I wonder what it meant to Braxton Craven when he helped establish the Cherokee Industrial School at Trinity College in the late 1800s,” Billy said. “The Cherokee Industrial School only lasted a few years, thankfully, but it was established, according to the Duke University website, for the same reason other schools like it were opened: to westernize the people on whose land Washington Duke and others made their fortune.”

Billy also said that Native Americans are invisible yet hypervisible “from butter containers to Tomahawk chops at baseball games to sporting logos and so much more.”

“Our identity has been filled with false stories, characters, mascots, images—not people with hopes, breath and contributions to make,” Billy said. The emergence of the tribal college movement in the late 1960s was a result of the exclusion indigenous people experienced, as well as the community’s need to help indigenous people understand their own identities. 

Despite funding and faculty retention challenges, what “keeps tribal colleges going and moving forward is their focus on their students,” Billy said. The institutions provide “holistic services” such as emergency grants and daycare centers to help their students succeed and have partnerships with other institutions that provide research opportunities, internships and mentorship. That’s all in addition to making culture the core of each college’s curriculum.

“I think the question that follows from that is what can other institutions do to try to achieve that focus on identity,” Billy said. “One thing I would suggest that [NASA] do, that Duke University do, is establish land acknowledgment as a University policy.”

Billy said that the University’s main website has no acknowledgement of campus’ placement on the ancestral lands of the Tuscarora and other indigenous tribes, but noted that the Center for Multicultural Affairs has a land acknowledgement. The statement, which acknowledges the Shakori, Eno and Tuscarora people, “makes the clear point that it’s coming from the [CMA],” which Billy finds problematic. 

“I think to give the sense of identity and respect that Native students deserve, Duke should acknowledge the original keepers of the land,” Billy said.

A Duke Forest land acknowledgement written in 2020 states that a “University-wide committee is now in the process of developing a land acknowledgement statement for all of Duke University’s landholdings.” In an interview with The Chronicle after the event, NASA President Scarlett Guy, a junior, said that there is a land acknowledgement committee consisting of professors, indigenous people from the local community and indigenous students and alumni.

Additionally, Kimberly Hewitt, vice president for institutional equity, wrote in an email to The Chronicle that the Racial Equity Advisory Council’s education subcommittee is meeting “with members of Duke’s native community and others to develop a proposed land acknowledgement that would include education about the local native community, how Duke has benefited from native land and information about any future steps that might be taken.” Guy said that meetings with the Office for Institutional Equity began relatively recently and there hasn’t been detailed discussion yet.

A University-wide land acknowledgement was one demand put forth by NASA in August. However, the organization has temporarily paused this demand to ensure that the wishes of local indigenous communities are adequately addressed and that Duke takes action on other demands, Guy said in an interview.

Billy said that NASA should ensure Native students are represented in the Racial Equity Advisory Council, noting that there was no data on indigenous people in the recent campus climate survey

The event then shifted to a Q&A session. One attendee asked how to get Duke to listen when they ask to be involved in initiatives like the Racial Equity Advisory Council.

“The first thing I’ll say is don’t think you have to do it alone. There are other people who can help you,” Billy responded. She said that leaders of recognized tribes in North Carolina may be willing to write letters or statements of support.

An attendee expressed concern that Duke would adopt a land acknowledgement and then stop responding to NASA’s other demands, and asked why an acknowledgement would be impactful for the organization and the University. Billy said she used to feel the same way, but that land acknowledgements are “acknowledgements with responsibility.”

“It’s a way to hold people accountable,” she said. If land acknowledgements are present at all major events, and everyone at the institution is made to reckon with it, “it causes this kind of recognition in people about Native people.”

She also said that Native students may be more inclined to attend Duke if there is a land acknowledgement on the main website.

Another attendee asked what non-indigenous students can do to support indigenous students and professors. Billy said that allies should have a “kind of cultural sensitivity” and allow Native students to talk about what their needs are. Helping to brainstorm solutions, fundraising and writing letters are also ways allies can help, she said.

An attendee asked whether it would be more useful to have part-time or full-time staff to support NASA, noting that resources for Native students were not included in an October email about mental health. Billy responded that full-time staff would be more beneficial.

Guy followed up, explaining that NASA did not have any staff, part-time or full-time, supporting the organization apart from their advisor and a graduate assistant from the CMA. The graduate assistant is part-time and neither person is indigenous.

“We don’t have any Native people at the Center for Multicultural Affairs, and all of the support for Native students on campus comes from Native students,” Guy said. She noted that multiple allies have left the University, and that Myron Dewey, an indigenous documentarian and visiting professor at the Center for Documentary Studies, passed away in September.

“Now more than ever, NASA is working hard to get someone hired, and thankfully this has resulted in Student Affairs saying they will hire someone to support NASA, but they will only be part-time and we have pushed to make this a full-time position,” Guy said. “They say it can’t be full-time because they do not have the funding for it, which is hard to conceive of considering the money Duke has.”

Shruti Desai, associate vice president of student affairs for campus life, confirmed in an email to The Chronicle that the office has received approval to hire a part-time staff member to support indigenous students, “particularly helping with the [annual] powwow.”

“We are looking at ongoing long-term support, but don't have clarity on that just yet. We have also worked with NASA to fund the entirety of the powwow and have helped make Wikit a more sacred space by limiting access to those who share identity and spiritual practices. NASA has been a strong partner with us in advocating for their needs while also understanding that small steps are what will lead to larger change,” Desai wrote.

Billy noted the challenges in attracting indigenous faculty, particularly regarding pay. She also noted that many Native faculty are looking for supportive environments.

“I think if Duke is really committed to hiring Native faculty, they can do it. But just like with the students, they have to have that supportive environment. There has to be a sense of empowerment and support for the faculty coming there,” Billy said.

Billy said that hiring visiting faculty would be a starting point.

“It’s difficult and frustrating, but I think the more you talk about it, the more people will at least pay attention,” Billy said. “[Native people] come from a storytelling culture. That’s who we are. Telling stories is how we learn. We are storytellers but never tell our own story.”

“You need to be vocal and create the change,” she said.

Nadia Bey | Digital Strategy Director

Nadia Bey is a Trinity senior and digital strategy director for The Chronicle’s 118th volume. She was previously managing editor for Volume 117.


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