American Indian Center’s ‘beautiful mission’
“Giving back – reciprocity – is a very important value in tribal communities,” she said. Hertel, of the Lumbee and Coharie tribes, became director of Carolina’s American Indian Center in May.
As a high school student in Fayetteville, she could look ahead and see herself where she is now, even though a space for American Indian culture, research and engagement at Carolina was, at the time, more than a decade away.
“My family sent me off to school to pick up the tools I needed and bring them back home,” she said. “I was well aware that many members of my family didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, so I was being given a great gift, and it was not a gift to keep.”
Hertel graduated from Carolina in 1997 and moved to St. Louis to earn a master’s degree in social work and a law degree from Washington University. She practiced law, began a doctoral degree in social work and wondered if she might be ready to return to North Carolina.
“Being away from home was hard, but I knew I’d take these skills home one day,” she said. “It was my dream to come back to North Carolina and serve the American Indian populations in my state. The question was, where was the best place for me to do that?”
A center had been in the minds of Carolina’s American Indian population since the 1970s, but it didn’t come to fruition until 2006 when Abernethy Hall became its home.
The first time Hertel saw the center, she was visiting campus for an event with Alpha Pi Omega Sorority Inc., the country’s first Native American Greek letter organization, which she co-founded in 1994.
“I walked across the street and saw the sign on the door, and it was just a sign, but it was so much more: a place on this campus, and a sign that this University values us,” she said.
Last year, when she noticed the center was looking for a new director, she knew that was a sign as well.
“It was my time to come home,” she said.
The road to Abernethy
Hertel was not the first president of the Carolina Indian Circle, a long-standing student group, to send a memo to the chancellor inquiring about an American Indian center on campus. “It was something that was passed down, and each year we continued that fight and that calling,” she said.
In the mid-1990s, the Carolina Indian Circle had a small office in the Carolina Union, but the group’s gathering place was more often the curved brick retaining wall next to Lenoir Dining Hall.
For students who have been part of a close-knit tribal family at home, the move to Carolina can be an adjustment – which makes finding a place to celebrate community even more important.
“American Indians are place-based people. It’s very important to have a place for American Indian students, because that place can symbolize a home,” Hertel said.
North Carolina has the largest American Indian population east of the Mississippi, with eight recognized tribes. The 2010 census counted 123,961 American Indians living in the state. Carolina’s American Indian Center is the only university-level center in the state and one of the few in the country that also works with the broader American Indian community.
“American Indians are the first people of this nation and this area, and the University is a front door for them,” Hertel said. “We want American Indians to be able to see themselves here on campus, and to be successful while they’re here.”
A beautiful mission
Hertel said the “beautiful mission” of the center is to bridge the richness of American Indian tribes and communities across the state with the array of research, teaching and service at Carolina.
That mission is broad, and it’s organized into four parts: student engagement and scholarship; research that partners with and values American Indian people; engagement and service to native communities; and outreach to Carolina’s wider community.
Together, the four parts create and reflect balance, another important value in American Indian culture that Hertel said drives her work and the work of the center.
Research associated with American Indian culture and issues abounds in departments from anthropology and history, to the curriculum in American Indian studies and in the schools of social work and public health. Providing education and perspective on American Indian culture benefits Carolina’s greater intellectual community, and the community that will one day be served by those students, Hertel said.
“We are training people in legal, social work, public health, dentistry, nursing and many more fields, who are going to come in contact with American Indian populations,” she said.
November is American Indian Heritage Month, and Hertel said she remembered when campus events celebrating the month were generated by the Carolina Indian Circle and the sorority.
Times have changed, as departments around campus take it upon themselves to plan their own special exhibits, lectures, readings and events surrounding American Indian heritage. That’s indicative of the impact American Indians have made at Carolina through the years, Hertel said. (For a full list of this year’s events, see americanindiancenter.unc.edu.)
“We have a role in enriching the experience on campus and sharing our values: reciprocity, respect, sending good out into the world. What you put out into the circle will come back to you,” Hertel said.
As Hertel looks around campus and sees a sign on Abernethy Hall directing people to the center or Señora Lynch’s 2004 monument patterned into the bricks in the Carolina Union walkway, as she looks forward to the annual spring powwow on Hooker Field, and as she sees evidence of the ever-expanding research on American Indian culture, she might wonder if what she put into the circle as a student is coming back.
“My ancestors didn’t have this opportunity,” she said. “So, I think about what we are doing on this campus here today to help ensure the presence of American Indian values, cultures, traditions and people, but also, what are we doing for the next generations?”
Hertel hopes to leave that legacy.