Doing Oral History: American Indian Activism at UNC
[Written by former SOHP field scholar Danielle Dulken]
How have American Indian students and faculty—as well as the non-native people who support them—created spaces at UNC-Chapel Hill to advocate for and nurture the distinct tribal communities represented on and around campus? What did these pushes for visibility look like? And what have they made possible?
For the 2017–2018 academic year, the SOHP interns were invited to create a new oral history collection on American Indian activism at UNC. As the intern coordinator, I guided this project, introducing students to oral history methods and literature on American Indian and Indigenous Studies (AIIS). Each semester four undergraduate students participated in the SOHP internship program. As interns, they helped develop this new collection by interviewing two narrators each for a total of sixteen new interviews from UNC faculty, staff, undergrad students, graduate students, professional students, and alumni.
This new collection adds critical perspectives on American Indian activism on and around campus from the 1970s forward to the SOHP archive. From these voices, we learn how a term like “activism” has complicated meaning—some narrators embraced it while others questioned it. We hear about the complexity of Native identity in a black and white southern landscape. We hear how Native people have built alliances across black and white racial lines and how they have navigated racial tensions to preserve the self and their communities. We hear about tribal connections from campus across the United States and we hear, most importantly, we are still here. 
How did we interview? How did we begin?
Together—the students and myself— imagined who the narrators for this project might be. Based on word-of-mouth recommendations and support from archivists, we begin building a list of people who had important perspectives on Native organizing on campus.
I asked Native faculty and faculty from AIIS who they believed had important perspectives on American Indian activism at UNC. Once our list of narrators was established and interviews were underway, students made a point to ask each narrator to recommend someone else. This approach precipitated many of the interviews found in this collection.
Historical context is important for the interview process too. The interns visited Wilson library several times and sifted through UNC’s archives, digging into collections that revealed how organizations like the Carolina Indian Circle formed. They also found correspondence that illustrated frustration from past students on the lack of Native faculty addressed at upper level administrators. This research helped students identify narrators, but it also helped them understand what was going on for Native people at UNC over the last fifty years.
Each student developed interview guides tailored to the unique experiences of the individual narrator. These interview guides were informed by archival research but also cursory searches online that revealed the narrators’ career history, publications, and more. The interview guides invited narrators to consider how they influenced the campus through place-making, like the American Indian Center and the Carolina Indian Circle, and intellectual space-making, like the American Indian and Indigenous Studies program. Each semester, after the interns finalized their interviews and complementing archival materials, they prepared a performance intended to thoughtfully demonstrate the important histories they heard in the oral histories.
To begin this project, we first imagined a timeline cognizant that American Indian presence has a long history on the land where UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus stands. Archeologists in the university’s Research Labs of Archeology (RLA) have worked extensively to identify tribal histories which predate UNC-Chapel Hill. Together we read Time Before History: The Archeology of North Carolina, written by scholars from UNC’s RLA, to establish a timeline but also consider the challenges of place and boundary-making.
We also used the digital Native Narrative Tour created by the American Indian Center as well as the American Indians in Chapel Hill page from The Carolina Story: A Virtual Museum of University History as secondary sources to continue our conversations and research.
We found the RLA had an incredible database of three dimensional artifacts that provided us an opportunity to reflect on the tribes that built community here in Chapel Hill before Western contact. In fact, some of the artifacts in the database were discovered by archeologists at the exact site where we where we were conducting our research: Love House, the home of the Center of the Study for the American South (CSAS) and SOHP.
Recognizing the long arc of American Indian history on the landscape of UNC’s campus, the students decided to use their culminating performance to emphasize the past through a land acknowledgement. 
We would like to begin this performance by acknowledging that the land on which we gather today was originally Native land. A land acknowledgment is not something you “just do” before an event. Rather it is a reflection process in which you build mindfulness and intention walking into whatever gathering you are having. During the 17th century, the Occaneechi lived on this land. This university was founded in 1789. We recognize that our performance does not encompass all American Indian activism that has taken place on this land, and by no means are we attempting to suggest that it does, or that it’s possible to cover such a large movement in such a short amount of time. Our performance covers the areas of research that we were able to conduct during this semester.
Equally important to the students—and related to landscape—was what they were learning about the ongoing struggle for visibility in the American Indian community at UNC. Students read Vine Deloria’s activating text, Custer Died for Your Sins. Deloria, students learned through the University Archives, was invited to speak at UNC’s American Indian Center in 1977 for cultural week.
Students also leafed through UNC’s yearbook, the Yackety Yack, for images that may have correspond with events they learned about in the interviews. The Yackety Yack, which is digitized at Wilson Library from years 1890 – 1991, is an excellent resource to create a composite of a historical moment. During our research phase, librarian Sarah Carrier prepared archival materials, including yearbooks, to review for traces of American Indian movement building on campus. Carrier noted the yearbooks have many original images, published nowhere else, which yield insights about the happenings around campus.
If you’ve ever worked on an oral history collection you know the power (and sometimes agony) of images. Often, oral historians carry photographs with them to an interview in hopes of spurring memories. Can you tell me about whose in this photo? What’s going on here? What did the person in this picture mean to you? Other times, interviewers snap an image of the narrator after an interview to enhance an oral history collection because we know how exciting it is when you stumble across portraits of narrators in the archive. These seemingly banal images—of often mediocre quality—can quite literally help us picture the past.
The project had its share of challenges. As an instructor with little experience in American Indian and Indigenous studies, I spent the greater half of late summer 2017 reading and preparing for the course. I am indebted to the talented faculty in the AIIS program—like Keith Richote and Jenny Tone-Pah-Hote—who made reading recommendations and posed important questions like: How will you ethically perform American Indian Activism at UNC? Who will you invite to tell Native stories? The students, many of which were not Native, encountered challenges of their own. They wrestled with how to ask about identity and experiences without tokenizing the narrators. They also encountered the complexity of charged terms like “activism.” What could activism look like? And what did it mean if a narrator was doing work that seemed activist but eschewed the term? But they also found inspiration, like how the place-making work of Native people created a path for them to build their own Asian-American and Mexican-American community organizing.
In the end, students reviewed the interviews searching for moments that felt particularly powerful. They listed terms that evoked what they heard: Community, home, joy, isolation, dislocation. Students worked through these profound moments through ethno-poetry, a genre that invites the interviewer to break from standard writing conventions and transcribe an interview emotively, and finally the performance. 
Director Rachel Seidman began the 2017–2018 academic year stating how the interns (and field scholars) make everything happen. Without us, she noted, SOHP wouldn’t be the dynamic research center it is. Reflecting back on the academic year from the vantage of the intern instructor, I am incredible proud of the eight interns whose ideas and dedication made the American Indian Activism at UNC oral history collection what it is: a priceless resource for Native people and the broader UNC community.
Thank you Emma, Paola, Stella, Shannon, Blake, Lily, Kimberly, and Mina.
 “We Are Still Here” is a phrase used by Native Americans to emphasize their reality in contemporary settings. This is significant because the American Indian is all too often imaged by non-Natives as a person of the past.
 This land acknowledgement was written by interns from Fall 2017 and stated before their culminating performance.
 The ethno-poems displayed below were written by interns and shared as part of the final performance.