Cherokee students work to create a sense of place at WCU


Freeman Owle ’76 MAEd ’78 commuted to Western Carolina University as a student, but that’s not the only reason his car was so important. His 1971 Volkswagen Beetle was his cafeteria, his study lounge and his break room.

“When the weather was cool enough, I’d sit there and do my studying and whatever else needed to be done,” Owle said. “And then I’d go back to class and return to my car when I had a break.”

As a Cherokee student at WCU in the 1970s, Owle was not alone, but he certainly felt that way. “I didn’t feel a part of anything,” said Owle, a historian, storyteller and teacher. He recalled a handful of other WCU students who also were enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, but nothing on campus bound those students to each other or called them to join social activities that college students typically enjoy.

Owle studied social work as an undergraduate, and he credits a faculty member with helping him through. “She checked in with me every day to see how I was doing,” he said. Some of his contemporaries were not as lucky. Owle remembers Eastern Band students simply walking away from campus in frustration, without explaining to faculty or staff why they were leaving.

A Long Tradition

The Qualla Boundary, also commonly referred to simply as Cherokee, is the homeland of the Eastern Band. While it’s a 30-minute drive from campus, culturally it’s a world away, and differences can challenge a student’s academic pursuits. “Cherokee is 25 miles down the road, and in some cases it seems further than that,” said Janina DeHart MS ’97, a staff member who formerly served as academic adviser for incoming Native American students. The connection with community and home is so strong among Eastern Band members that some students – even those with rooms on campus – have a tendency to spend most of their time at home.

“A lot of times they maintain those connections without forming new connections here on campus, and that partly is because they might not feel there are many places on campus to feel connected,” said DeHart, who believes the disconnected feeling can result in academic difficulty – not good news for a population with a historically high rate of attrition.

Cherokee-related academic programs have a strong history at WCU. The Cherokee Center, located in Cherokee since 1975, offers classes, advising and guidance through the academic process. Courses in Cherokee studies have long been available, with undergraduate and graduate concentrations. The Sequoyah Distinguished Professorship in Cherokee Studies, an endowed chair, was fully funded in 1998, and well-respected individuals have occupied the position. Oklahoma Cherokee Robert Conley, current Sequoyah Professor, is a prolific author of fiction and nonfiction. Conley recently was a guest at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, meeting and speaking with Native students there, and is incoming president of the Western Writers of America – the first Native American to hold the position. WCU’s culturally based Native health certificate program trains students to apply training in health-related disciplines to Native American cultures. Perhaps the university’s strongest Cherokee-related academic offering is the Cherokee language program. Courses in the Cherokee language began in 1983, with some courses now transmitted to other universities in the UNC system. Faculty members work closely with the Eastern Band’s language immersion educators to train future teachers and produce source material printed in the Cherokee syllabary.

What’s been missing at WCU, many agree, is a social aspect promoting connections among Cherokee students and campus. Now WCU and its Eastern Band students are working to create a Cherokee and Native American social presence that is welcoming and promotes success, and Eastern Band students past and present say a new environment is taking hold.

Part of Something Bigger

The Judaculla House living-learning community, a residence in WCU’s Village specifically for Native American students or students with an interest in Native cultures, opened in 2008. “One reason we created the Judaculla House was to try to give students the feeling of having a place on campus,” said DeHart, adviser for the house.

“I loved living in Judaculla House,” said Patience Owl, a rising senior at WCU and an enrolled member of the Eastern Band. Judaculla House appealed to Owl because it meant being part of a group (and also meant sharing a bathroom with fewer people than in most residence halls). The house has attracted students from a variety of tribes, including Lumbee, Tuscarora and Blackfoot. “It’s a great learning opportunity for everyone,” Owl said.

Owl is leading the effort to begin a chapter of Alpha Pi Omega sorority, which calls itself the country’s oldest Native American Greek letter organization. With help from sorority members at UNC Pembroke, initiation should begin this fall, Owl said.

Coinciding with the opening of Judaculla House, the Native American student organization, Digali’i (the name means “we are all friends” in the Cherokee language), experienced a jump in membership to approximately 50. This was after years of stagnation, where advisers sometimes outnumbered students at meetings.

Eastern Band member Keith Sneed ’79 (left) enjoys a conversation
with Robert Conley, WCU’s Sequoyah Distinguished Professor of
Cherokee Studies, at the first alumni gathering, in 2009.

Energized, Digali’i members began organizing a flurry of activities, including a 2009 concert with Native American rapper Litefoot, a member of the Cherokee Nation who advocates a drug-free lifestyle. “I wanted to bring someone here who could inspire Digali’i members and other students on campus,” said senior Sky Kanott, then president of the organization. A 2009 Native American expo, co-coordinated by the student group, received such positive response that another is planned for November. Wanting a tangible display of Native pride, students commissioned large-scale artwork from renowned Eastern Band artist Joel Queen ’05 MFA ’09 for exhibit in Judaculla House, paid for by a grant from the Cherokee Preservation Foundation.

Recent efforts have experienced some setbacks. Fall 2010 will mark the third home for Judaculla House. It has moved to an eight-bed unit in the Village after not filling all the beds in a much larger space. (The new residence does not have space for the artwork, which will move to the Intercultural Center.) And by failing to comply with regulations regarding office hours, Digali’i lost its A.K.Hinds University Center office space.

The setbacks are mildly discouraging to Roseanna Belt, director of the Cherokee Center since 2001 and a member of the Eastern Band. With an undergraduate degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a master’s degree in counseling from Harvard University, Belt understands the experience of being Native on campus. “The first thing I did was find the other Indians,” said Belt, who holds a certification in school counseling from WCU. She credits WCU’s growing Native American presence to a core group of hard-working students. “There are a lot of really cool things that have started,” Belt said. But as those students approach graduation, she said, “I’m hoping we can get students of the caliber to keep it going.” In an effort to cultivate engaged Native American students, DeHart will contact incoming students over the summer or soon after they arrive on campus to start making connections.

New Directions

Digali’i members organized another event in 2009: the inaugural Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Alumni Celebration, which took place over Homecoming weekend. The event was meant to “reach into WCU’s past and influence the future of Native Americans on this campus,” Kanott said. About 50 alumni gathered near the Judaculla House for a cookout with students and faculty members of WCU’s Cherokee-related academic programs.

The event took hold. A second alumni gathering, this one expanded with an invitation to all Native American alumni, is planned on campus for Saturday, Sept. 25 (also Mountain Heritage Day). Joyce Dugan ’75 MAEd ’81, former principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and now director of education with Cherokee Central Schools, will be keynote speaker.

Conley, WCU’s Sequoyah Professor, is coordinating the dinner and plans to keep the Eastern Band students involved. “It’s important to keep alums and current students in touch with each other,” said Conley. “Knowing the alums and what they have done since their graduation is important for the students.” Patience Owl attended the first alumni event and agrees. “It was great to congratulate our alumni,” she said. “It just gives us hope that one day we can be alumni like them.”

Conley hopes a Native American alumni organization grows out of the event, and such an organization would include some notable members. Dugan’s efforts for the tribe and its members are well-respected in the community. Dr. Frances Owl-Smith ’83 was the first female member of the Eastern Band to receive a medical degree; in 2006, she received WCU’s Alumni Award for Academic and Professional Achievement. Michell Hicks ’87 is principal chief of the Eastern Band. According to figures from the Cherokee Center, there are approximately 285 Eastern Band members who are WCU alumni.

As with many long relationships, the one between Western Carolina and the Eastern Band is complicated. The campus was once the site of a Cherokee village, and older Eastern Band members often bring into conversation an ancestral mound bulldozed to make way for the Killian Building. Though it occurred four decades past, the event still is fresh in a culture with a 10,000-year history. In 2005, the tribe and university administration formally pledged a commitment to work together to improve educational and economic opportunities. With the agreement, Hicks said at the time, the tribe and the university “have become true neighbors to each other.” Since then, they have signed additional agreements related to strengthening the Cherokee language and collaborating, along with Southwestern Community College, on an arts institute located on the Qualla Boundary.

Cherokee students continue to be a presence at WCU, but enrollment is less than what it has been in the past. In 2004, Brently “Tate” McCoy, a student in WCU’s master’s degree program in public affairs, became manager of the Eastern Band program overseeing higher education. McCoy advocated increased student accountability as well as implementation of a policy that sees tuition, room and board fully covered, with stipulations, at the institution of the student’s choice. There were 109 Eastern Band students enrolled at WCU in fall 2004, according to figures from the Eastern Band’s Higher Education and Training Programs; in spring 2010, that number was 42. (American Indian or Alaskan Native students that semester totaled 110, according to WCU figures.) More Eastern Band members are venturing farther from home, with students at Yale, Stanford and San Francisco State University. The tribe has memorandums of understanding with the University of Tennessee, East Tennessee State University, Lincoln Memorial University and Wake Forest University, and agreements with additional institutions are under way.

‘A Second Home’

WCU will always have a place among Eastern Band members, said Freeman Owle and Patience Owl. Cherokees feel a sense of ownership in WCU, said Owle, who spent three years as an elder-in-residence at WCU, serving as an adviser and point of contact to Native students. WCU is close to Cherokee, and that is important to a lot of Cherokee students. “They consider WCU part of the community, and they feel comfortable being there and know they can get a good education and also return home when they want to,” Owle said.

Owl said Judaculla House is ideal for young Eastern Band members wary of leaving home. “We thought having a second home at college would help kids want to finish high school and go on to bigger and better things,” she said. Owl reaches out to Eastern Band high school students to tell them about Judaculla House and Digali’i. “We started telling them there was a second home, and it wasn’t very far from their home, and they shouldn’t be afraid to venture out,” she said.

Both agree that higher education among its members is critical for the Eastern Band. “We are changing so quickly on the reservation that it’s vital for people to have at least a B.A. or B.S. degree,” Owle said. “We need educated leaders, and Western Carolina is a wonderful outlet for those needs.” Owle recalled the day he completed coursework toward his undergraduate degree as one of the greatest in his life. “Western was good for me,” he said. Owl concurs. A communication major, she is leaning toward a graduate degree in counseling. Owl is considering a number of schools, she said, but “I want to apply to Western, of course.”

Native American alumni of Western Carolina are invited to a celebration beginning at 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 25, in Club Illusions in A.K. Hinds University Center. The event is free. For more information, contact Robert Conley at 828.227.2306 or