|CLARA SUE KIDWELL
(Photo courtesy of Indian Country)
EDITOR'S NOTE: The Baconian, Baconian Online and Baconian News Facebook Page welcome Dr. Kidwell to campus upon her arrival Sept. 1.
Clara Sue Kidwell, distinguished scholar and author, retired in June from her position as director of the American Indian Center at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill (UNC).
“I like to start things,” she says. “Now it’s started and I know it will go on.”
Starting things has been a theme of Kidwell’s career. Of White Earth Chippewa and Choctaw descent, she grew up in Muskogee, where her parents worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
She earned her bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. in the history of science at the University of Oklahoma.
Soon after Kidwell graduated, her mother called to say that Haskell Institute, at that time a vocational/trade school, was looking for American Indians with Ph.D.s as it transitioned into Haskell Indian Junior College.
Kidwell was hired. She retooled her history of science academic work, beginning by reading a lot about American Indian history, and got ready to teach Native American studies.
“In 1970,” she recalls, “Native American studies was a new academic enterprise.”
She was among those who helped establish the field and she has devoted her academic career to it for more than four decades.
Kidwell was instrumental in starting an American Indian Studies program at the University of Minnesota. Next was the Native American Studies program at the University of California at Berkeley where she landed for a couple of decades, with a stint as a visiting professor at Dartmouth in 1980.
After a long stretch as director of the Native American Studies program at the University of Oklahoma, she worked at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, where she was responsible for helping move the one million-plus pieces in the George Gustav Heye collection in New York, the core of the new museum’s holdings, to Washington.
“One of my colleagues referred to me as the mother of Native American studies,” she jokes.
Ready to retire from the University of Oklahoma, but not from the academic realm she helped create, in 2007 Kidwell took on the assignment of starting the American Indian Center at UNC.
“There were a number of objectives in the minds of the people who wrote the proposal for the center. My mission was to work with Native American communities in North Carolina, which has the greatest number of American Indians east of the Mississippi,” explains Kidwell.
“Lumbee is the largest tribe in North Carolina, though not all Lumbees live here. There are also communities in Baltimore and Detroit. The Lumbee have been seeking federal recognition since the 1960s. The Eastern Band of Cherokees is the only federally recognized tribe in the state. They have a casino, so they are relatively prosperous.”
The other tribes, which include the 3,000-member Haliwa-Saponi Tribe, the Waccamaw-Siouan Tribe, Coharie Intra-Tribal Council, Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, Cumberland County Association for Indian People, Guilford Native American Association, Meherrin Indian Tribe, Sappony, are in remote areas in some of the poorest counties in the state.
None are federally recognized, since their history has made it virtually impossible to meet the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ criteria, says Kidwell.
“The eastern tribes’ history goes back to Colonial, not American, times,” Kidwell explains. “There was no U.S. government to make treaties with them. The Cherokee treaties were made with the states of Tennessee and Georgia.”
The Eastern Band of Cherokee have the only reservation in North Carolina, and that is only because during the Indian Removal a trader sympathetic to the tribe bought a piece of land for them so that they could stay.”
The Eastern Band’s Qualla Boundary reservation is in the far western part of the state.
“But other tribes disappeared from the historical record,” says Kidwell. “When Indians did appear in the record, they were listed as white or colored. Their name might be on the record, but not their tribal affiliation. Continuity is impossible to prove.”
Nonetheless, the tribes have persevered and one goal of starting the center was to reach out to them.
Says Kidwell, “I feel we accomplished a good deal of what people envisioned for the center,” while juggling two competing interests, the university and the tribal communities.
Colleague Cookie Newsom, assistant director for programming with the university’s office of diversity, says, “The center reinforces the community of Indians, making sure all students know they are welcome here at the university and that there are resources here for them. If a student had a specific issue, he knew there was someone here who would understand.”
Among the center’s successes:
Working with groups such as the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs to help start the North Carolina American Indian Health Board;
Facilitating the mission of North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs Standing Committee on Indian Child Welfare to make sure the children of state-recognized tribes, who are not covered by the federal Indian Child Welfare Act, have similar protections;
Working with the North Carolina State Advisory Council on Indian Education on issues such as the underrepresentation of American Indian students in AP courses and intellectually and academically gifted programs; and hosting the 2011 American Indian Women of Proud Nations conference.
Another of Kidwell’s initiatives was to develop American Indian focused curriculum for the schools.
“If people knew more about these tribes, they might be willing to use local resources on the tribes’ behalf. Among the North Carolina tribes, even though they do not have land or federal services, there is a lot of individual entrepreneurship, but even that is difficult because they live in very rural areas with two-lane roads. Their location makes business activity very complicated.”
Starting a cultural tourism initiative that could take advantage of tribal members’ business skills was another of Kidwell’s focuses for the center.
Theda Perdue, retired Atlanta Distinguished Professor of Southern Culture at UNC, cites some of Kidwell’s other accomplishments.
“As a result of Clara Sue’s efforts, the AIC hosts a distinguished scholar of Native America (Bruce Dhuthu, Jean O’Brien, Michelene Pesantubbee, etc.) for a lecture in November and brings a nationally recognized Indian leader, writer, etc. (LeAnne Howe, LaDonna Harris, Ada Deer, Robert Conley, etc.) to campus in spring to spend a week as Elder in Residence visiting classes, dorms, and student groups as well as giving a public presentation. Virtually everything the center now does is her legacy at UNC.”
Kidwell was not able to fulfill the tribal leadership agenda set for the center.
“One thing people talked about was a tribal leadership seminar, but it has been difficult to find a common thread among the Native American communities here. Some people wanted grants, others tribal management. As a staff of two we were not equipped to set up something so diverse,” she says.
Making the center self-supporting was also a goal that proved elusive.
“We found it difficult to cultivate major donors. We did get small grants from foundations and we are now building a support base with our alumni.”
Perdue offered this summation: “Clara Sue has carved out a geographical and intellectual space for Indians at UNC. We are all enormously grateful to her.”
Kidwell’s next position will be at Bacone College in Muskogee where she will work on curriculum projects and use her experience at the National Museum of the American Indian to start a museum studies program in conjunction with Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, which has a superb collection of Native American artifacts.
With this move to Muskogee, Kidwell has come full circle, back to the place where she was raised.
Her brother and sister live in neighboring communities and Kidwell says she wants to be closer to her family.
Newsom says of Kidwell’s time at UNC, “Clara Sue’s contribution was to bring a more public voice to American Indian concerns. She made great contributions to all Native American regions nationally and made certain people understand the importance of knowing the story of American Indians, not only as a diversity issue, but as an academic focus.”
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