November is Native American Heritage Month, a time to recognize and respect Indigenous culture. This month also recalls the dark past of colonized land.
Land acknowledgements, formal documents honoring tribal homelands, are used by institutions across America, including WCU.
WCU sits on land that was, and remains, the ancestral and sacred home of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) as well as a site of a Cherokee named town, Tali Tsisgwayahi or Two Sparrows Town. These two distinctions set WCU apart from other campuses and make the responsibility toward this place, and the EBCI, greater.
Director of the Cherokee Center, and enrolled EBCI member, Sky Sampson, explained the purpose of WCU’s land acknowledgment.
“It allows that door to open for recognition. It also educates people who are currently there, so they are aware of what was there, who was there. It also allows for other programming and education continuously as the years go past,” said Sampson.
The land acknowledgement also honors the land that was stolen by colonizers and lost to oppression from the U.S. government for centuries.
“The gestures that you see in the land acknowledgement, that can never be enough,” said director of Cherokee Studies, Dr. Andrew Denson.
Denson explained that the land acknowledgement by itself is a symbolic gesture, but when paired with the collaboration between WCU and the EBCI, it helps support the community with programs like language revitalization, education, and general awareness.
WCU’s land acknowledgement was formed in two years starting with Sampson writing the initial draft.
“I’m an enrolled member of the tribe, born and raised here, so I have a good grip of what the community expects, wants, needs, things to say, but I’m only one perspective,” said Sampson.
The Cherokee Studies Program and Cherokee Center advisory board reviewed and edited Sampson’s draft. It was sent to higher authority to review the legalities, finalized and published on May 15, 2021, in English and Cherokee syllabary.
The document describes WCU’s commitment to honor the land, its history and the people. The document was signed by the chancellor and Principal Chief of the EBCI, Richard Sneed.
Guidelines and certain restrictions are put in place for when it is appropriate to use the land acknowledgement to ensure proper use. These guidelines can be found on WCU’s land acknowledgment page.
WCU is making strides to include physical structures and names around campus to remind students and others the campus stands on Cherokee land.
Central dorm was renamed to Judaculla Hall in honor of the legend of where Cullowhee comes from. A permanent Cherokee art exhibit is being added to the Bardo Arts Center.
A prominent area on campus was an earthen mound known as Tali Tsisgwayahi, or Two Sparrows Town, that was demolished in 1956 and is now where the Killian building is located. A sculpture depicting the “wi” or “wee” Cherokee syllable meaning “ville” or “town” stands in front of the building as a remembrance of the original landscape. The sculpture was placed in 2018 and created by Todd Martin, BFA student, in response to WCU’s 2017-2018 campus theme, “Cherokee: community, culture, connections.”
Sampson described new structures to campus that will be added in the future that convey Cherokee culture.
Judaculla garden, beside Apodaca, will be revitalized and a Cherokee statue will be added. Culturally based street signs are also being produced. A new catamount statue is to be added and it will have the Cherokee “wi” symbol in front.
WCU currently has an exhibit in Bardo called “We Will Not Be Silenced”, which raises awareness and honors missing and murdered Indigenous women, and a Native American novel section in the Hunter Library. Throughout September and October, the Mountain Heritage Center held an exhibition on the horrors of Indigenous boarding schools. Bardo Arts Center has many Cherokee influences including a seven-pointed star representing the seven Cherokee clans, signage in Cherokee and English, and a syllabary surrounding Bardo that says “Our Story Lives On,” “Peaceful,” and “Honorable.”
Chancellor Brown said WCU continues to be aware of the special relationship between the EBCI and WCU. EBCI representatives serve on the Board of Trustees and Provost Office. Preservation of indigenous artifacts also occurs in McKee where researchers and scholars may access artifacts.