Ariana Bettina Persico poses for a portrait in Athens, Georgia on Oct. 10, 2021. Persico identifies as a Native American, one of the smallest demographics of students on UGA campus. (Photo/Aynur Rauf; AynurRauf1@gmail.com)

When Ariana Persico stepped onto the University of Georgia’s campus last February, the name of one street caught her eye: Lumpkin Street, whose namesake played a major role in the removal of Native American people from Athens.

“To other people, it may not be a big deal,” said Persico, a graduate student who identifies as a Native American associated with the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. “But to me, understanding the history of the Indian removal in this state and how Georgia championed it was kind of rough.”

Despite their small numbers and the challenges they face, Native American students at UGA are banding together to examine the troubled past of the university and look toward a future that is hopefully more accepting of Indigenous people.

Increasing visibility

Persico is one of only 45 Native American students on a campus of nearly 40,000, according to the fall 2020 university Fact Book.

Although Persico is not a registered member of the tribe, her grandmother is a registered, tribal card-holding member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. 

People who are enrolled in a federally-recognized tribe are officially documented as being formal members of that tribe. Not everyone participates in formal membership with an organized tribe, but many still identify with their Native ancestry. 

Despite the fact that UGA, along with the rest of the nation, sits on land that originally belonged to Native American people, Native American students are the second smallest ethnic minority group at UGA, making up only 0.11% of the student body in fall 2020, according to the Fact Book.

Such tiny numbers can make finding community difficult for Native American students. Although historically there have been student groups and organizations for Indigenous students, there were none currently active — until the Native American Student Association was formed.

There are “a lot of other minority and ethnic group organizations on campus, and I feel like they all know the group of people in which they can share their experiences with, and I didn’t see that for Native people on campus,” Hannah Hamrick, who is half white and half Shoshone, said.

Hamrick is one of the founders of NASA, who came together to coordinate cultural events celebrating their shared heritage and to educate non-Native people. 

It also serves as a safe place for Native students to share their experiences and support each other, NASA member Max Frye said.

This is almost a necessity as Indigenous students face a unique set of challenges that UGA has few provisions in place to help them overcome, Hamrick said.

“I’m a first-generation college student. My parents didn’t go to college. My grandparents didn’t go to college. Me and my brother were the first two to have gone through it. Other than checking that little box on your application of what group you identify with, there’s really nothing on campus or within the admission process that supports a lot of minority groups,” Hamrick said.

One of the things the organization hopes to achieve is a greater understanding of the history of violence against Native American people in Athens and in the U.S. as a whole. 

A Change.org petition organized by NASA urging the University System of Georgia and UGA to honor Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the second Monday of October instead of Columbus Day received 80 signatures before closing. The Athens commission recently resolved to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day.

‘Forced removal’

UGA was built on land that once belonged to the Creek and Cherokee nations.

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 allowed for Georgia settlers to use this land for their own means. The university’s opening was delayed due to violent clashes between Georgia settlers and the Creek Nation, an event known as the Oconee War. 

Yet this part of the university’s history seems to be largely ignored, students said.

“It’s really heartbreaking that there’s nothing talking about the land they essentially stole,” Hamrick, a junior history major, said. “I think it’s disrespectful to not even acknowledge the people that lived there.”

Rainer Shooter, a Native American graduate student in the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, pointed to his undergraduate school as an example of how this history could be acknowledged. 

At the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, there was a land acknowledgment announced before every major event.

The land acknowledgement states that the land the university occupies belonged to the Ho Chunk and Menomonee peoples, and asks everyone present to take a moment to acknowledge and honor that.

“There’s such a deep history of forced removal, colonization, slavery — the list goes on. There’s a rich history of that, and it’s just something that’s swept under the rug and not acknowledged,” Shooter said.

While some of UGA’s colleges and departments have acknowledged the land origin at UGA, including the Hugh Hodgson School of Music and the Office of Sustainability, university administration has no formal land acknowledgement requirement or tradition.

However, while some Native American students agree acknowledgement is a strong first step, it is not the only change they hope to see.

Maya B. Henderson, a UGA graduate student who is a member of the Seneca-Cayuga Nation of Oklahoma, wants to bring attention to the impact that climate change has on Indigenous communities. She has let her heritage and personal experiences guide her research, which is focused on “carbon colonialism.”

“Indigenous folks are also disproportionately harmed by climate change,” Henderson said. “In order to keep these harms from continuing through climate action, which is supposed to be pushing us towards a better future, Indigenous folks need to be leading and molding that climate action.”

An effort for the future

UGA’s Institute of Native American Studies is one of few in the Southeast. The institute is made up of two dozen scholars along with undergraduate and graduate students, according to its website. It recently received a windfall in the form of a $100,000 donation to fund scholarships for Native American students.

Chris Goeckel, a UGA alum and Athens resident, donated the money to fund the Ruth Pack scholarship program, named after his great-grandmother, who was a Cherokee Indian, he said. 

Goeckel said the scholarship is intended to fund national recruitment efforts for graduate Native American students to study at UGA and in return, promote the importance of the Native American Studies curriculum.

“If I end up having two or three kids, or 10 kids who graduate from grad school here who were American Indians, and they enjoyed their experience and it helps them go on to bigger and better things down the road, then what I did is important,” Goeckel said.

The scholarship will primarily apply to Native people in the Southeast region who are interested in pursuing a certificate in Native American studies, including Eastern Band, Muskogee Creek, Euchee, Chickasaw and Cherokee nation people, according to Interim director of the INAS LeAnne Howe. 

Ariana Persico, the graduate student, said trauma still lives within UGA for Native people, but initiatives and scholarship programs like Ruth Pack’s can mend wounds.

“The magnitude of what that could do for a lot of people — I mean, this has the potential to change lives. I mean we can start chipping away at the settler colonial structures that we have to live in, just by recruiting Indigenous people to do Indigenous work, because that’s important. Having more Indigenous voices is incredibly meaningful,” Persico said. 

Howe described the scholarship program as a “new beginning” for INAS and UGA.

“It’s like a ripple in a pool. This kind of gift is going to have an enormous impact on the future of INAS and make a tremendous difference,” Howe, who is an enrolled citizen of the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma, said.

Howe, Hamrick and other Indigenous students and faculty want to make Native American people at UGA more visible. Henderson encourages everyone to educate themselves, to know whose land they are on and where those people are now.

“Indigenous people are still here and vibrant,” Henderson said. “Our tribal nations exist and are thriving.”

Digital Managing Editor

Dania Kalaji is a passionate 21-year-old Syrian American junior attending the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. Kalaji is a journalism major, film studies minor, Chips Quinn Diversity in Journalism Scholar and Grady College ambassador.

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