Clara Sue Kidwell | Q&A | Indy Week
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Clara Sue Kidwell 

Director of UNC's Carolina American Indian Center

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When Clara Sue Kidwell entered the University of Oklahoma in the late 1950s, the school's unofficial mascot, "Native American brave" Little Red, did his "war dance" along the sidelines at home football matches.

Kidwell, of Chippewa and Choctaw descent, didn't go to the games. It was only in the 1970s and after pressure from American Indian activists that the university retired Little Red.

After earning her doctorate in history and directing the University of Oklahoma's undergraduate program in American Indian history, Kidwell, 67, relocated to North Carolina in July to create another symbol: an American Indian center at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Currently housed in decrepit Abernethy Hall, the Carolina American Indian Center may be only the second such center in the South. Native students make up less than 1 percent of Carolina's enrolled students this semester, and there are only nine American Indian faculty on campus. But since the 1990s, the university has made some strides in ensuring American Indians have a place in the curriculum by adding a Native American studies concentration for American studies majors.

The center will offer a kind of home for student organizations, such as Alpha Pi Omega, founded at UNC in 1994 as the nation's first American Indian sorority; work to support an existing elder-in-residence program; and foster research about the eight indigenous communities recognized by the state.

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: One of the more divisive issues at UNC in the 1990s was whether it should have a black cultural center. What do you say to people who ask, "Why should we have an American Indian Center"?

CLARA SUE KIDWELL: You have the largest population of American Indians east of the Mississippi River and even many of the Indians west of the Mississippi River initially resided in the east. American Indians are definitely part of the history of the state. Vin Steponaitis in the archaeology program maintains there were Indians here as long as 12,000 years ago.

Will there be a freestanding American Indian Center?

The idea is that, in five years or so, this building will be demolished and something else will take its place. I don't think we could raise the money at this point for a building that is equivalent to the [Sonia Haynes] Stone [Black Cultural] Center. I certainly hope that we would get a building, at least partly dedicated to the American Indian Center because it's really about the physical presence on the campus. This then becomes the place people can call if they have issues or concerns about American Indians. One of the projects that was strongly suggested in the initial proposal for the center—and it was a key point in getting it approved—will be a two-day leadership training institute, using the resources of the university to deal with Indian tribal groups on issues of tribal sovereignty, economic development and accountability.

Is research a key to the center's mission?

The center is not a teaching center or an academic program, but we can encourage research about American Indian communities. One point that came up at a recent meeting was that, in the field of K-12 public education, there's a very high dropout high among Americans Indians, around 50 percent. My sense is that small, rural, poor school districts don't have that good of a graduation rate, but there is a noticeable difference with Indians and other populations even in those areas. We need to do the research about why those students do drop out. The Haliwa-Saponi have a charter school [in Hollister], which is now K-12. What is going to be the effect of that school on dropout rates, and if that school's graduation rates are higher than other schools, what can be done to replicate their methods for schools in similar situations? If we got a graduate student to study the Haliwa-Saponi school and do the statistics and talk to students, parents, perhaps we can help answer some of the questions.

For more information, see americanindiancenter.unc.edu.

  • The Carolina American Indian Center may be only the second such center in the South.

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