CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Jessica McCauley, Eastern Cherokee, is a second year anthropology student at the University of Virginia. Previously hesitant to claim herself as an American Indian, McCauley credits the American Indian Student Union for helping her connect with her heritage and get in touch with other American Indian students.
Indian Country Today: Can you tell us a little about yourself?
McCauley: I am just starting to get in touch with my heritage. My parents divorced when I was young and my heritage is with my dad’s family, so I don’t know as much as I’d like to. I’ve had to overcome the self-doubt of not being a tribal member. Yet, both the AISU and VA Indian community have welcomed me and helped me to understand what matters is not an arbitrary percentage of blood, but the spirit of community.
ICT: What is your involvement with the AISU?
McCauley: I am one of two American Indian Affairs interns with UVA’s Office of the Dean of Students Multicultural Student services. Laura Farnsworth (Miwok) another AISU student is the other. She and I have become incredibly close throughout the past year working both in our internship and in the AISU. We plan to run for co-vice presidents next semester.
Starting an American Indian Student Union According to McCauley, there are several things to remember to start or strengthen an AISU program: • Acquire a list of self-identified Native students from the admissions office (remember – graduate students are important and often have experience.) • Emphasize students don’t need to look Indian or have tribal membership. • Organize social events to show it can be fun and not intimidating. • Contact the local Indian community for help, advice and offer to help them – form a connection right away – that is where the next generation of students may come from. Don’t let AISU fizzle out because there are no members; always think about recruiting more. • Contact faculty with an interest in Native affairs/issues. Whether professors who teach on the subject or faculty who have Native heritage, they often know the workings of the university and can offer advice. • Take ownership: This is everyone’s community and it doesn’t work to have imbalances of power or responsibilities. The president alone cannot run the AISU. • If you see a problem, whether it is with the admissions process or a lack of cultural understanding, make a resolution to address it as a student union and don’t give up. In order to strengthen/increase Native presence you have to first show that there is an unwavering one.
ICT: What does AISU do?
McCauley: We’ve been focusing on forming connections with the VA Indian nations to show that there is a Native presence at UVA. We plan to contact local tribes to volunteer to help in their communities, whether it is cleaning up after a pow wow or tutoring students. We would like to team up with other VA colleges to offer college prep workshops on how to navigate a college application, get financial aid, write essays, etc.
We also have social functions to get to know our members better and we invite members of the surrounding Native communities. A goal for the future is to reach out to other student organizations such as the Black Student Association and the Latino Student Union because we recognize members of these communities often share their heritage with Native Americans.
On an academic level, the American Indian Student Union endorses the hiring of Native faculty for a tenure-track teaching position at UVA as well as the creation of a Native Studies program. We currently have neither of these and we feel they are both incredibly important at a historic university like UVA and within a state that has such a rich Native presence.
One thing we have done to strengthen our AISU is to contact accepted Native students and encourage them to choose UVA in their college decision process. We hope to contact Native high school and middle school students and encourage them to consider UVA as a possibility.
ICT: Who are some others involved with AISU that have influenced you?
McCauley: Monty Johns (Cayuga) and Jade White (Mohawk) revived the AISU in 2007. They contacted the mailing list of all the UVA students who self-identified as Native on their application and invited us to a welcome reception.
Dr. Jeffrey Hantman, associate professor of anthropology, sponsors the academic credit of our internship and has even agreed to co-teach the first ever Native Studies charter course in 2010. He has introduced us to numerous members of the VA Indian community and we truly could not do what we do without him.
Phoebe Haupt-Cayasso is the Multicultural Student Services program coordinator in ODOS and she sponsors the student/organizational side of our internship. She has taught us valuable leadership skills.
“I have discovered this is the direction I want to take in my studies. American Indian affairs are a part of my heart now. This is what I am supposed to do with the rest of my life.”
Karenne Wood (Monacan) a graduate student at UVA and program director for the VA Indian Heritage Program of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities has served as our liaison between UVA and the VA Indian community. She has invited us to conferences and tribal council meetings. She is an incredible force and reminds me every day how important our work is with the AISU.
ICT: What positive results have come from your involvement with AISU?
McCauley: I was taking a seminar class in my first year called Righting Unrightable Wrongs and my professor invited Karenne Wood to speak to us. Wood talked about everything from federal recognition to blood quanta, yet the thing that stuck with me the most was that she said, several years ago, she was part of an initiative to start an American Indian Studies minor at Virginia Tech, UVA’s rival school.
I was frustrated that Tech had something we didn’t. I knew I would certainly minor in such a program if it were offered. I made a deal to myself that day that I would see this program through at the university I love so much and made it my goal to witness its creation before I graduated.
ICT: Any last words?
McCauley: I have discovered this is the direction I want to take in my studies. American Indian affairs are a part of my heart now. This is what I am supposed to do with the rest of my life.