Native Americans from the coastal region of what is now North Carolina and Virginia were the first to welcome English-speaking explorers and settlers to the New World. Now representatives from North Carolina’s eight American Indian tribes are working with representatives of Sullivan Foundation partner school Campbell University to find new ways to work together for the betterment of all.

The North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs held its second meeting this year at Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C., on June 3-4 to discuss important issues facing Native Americans in the state and set goals and initiatives for the coming year. They’re laying the groundwork for a partnership that both sides hope will continue to grow in the coming years, according to Dr. Alfred Bryant, dean of CU’s School of Education & Human Sciences and a member of the Lumbee tribe based in Pembroke.

According to U.S. Census data, there were roughly 6.79 million Native Americans living across the U.S. in 2020. But indigenous Americans have often been left behind in the ongoing quest for greater social equity, and data on their financial wellbeing is hard to find. A report by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition notes that the U.S. “has too often hindered Native American advancement, not advanced it. Through years of intentional governmental policies that removed lands and resources, American Indians have been separated from the wealth and assets that were rightfully theirs. Today, we still see a lack of information on Native Americans and their socioeconomic issues. Data is sparse and inconsistent.”

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That report notes that, per U.S. Census data in 2018, Native Americans had the highest poverty rate among all minority groups in the U.S. at 25.4% compared to a 20.8% poverty rate for Black or African-Americans, 17.6% for Hispanics and 8.1% for the white population.

“When I came to Campbell, I started talking to [Executive Vice President] John Roberson about how the university can get more involved with some of our nearby American Indian tribes,” Bryant said. “Harnett and Sampson counties are home to the Coharie, so why not try to form a relationship that benefits all involved? The group first came here in December and had such a great experience on campus that they asked what I thought about hosting the June meeting as well. We would love for this to become an annual stop for them.”

Campbell is an ideal location for Commission meetings, he added, because of its central location and available facilities. It’s also a short drive for members of the Cohari, Lumbee and Waccamaw Siouan tribes. Visitors of the June meeting stayed overnight in on-campus residence halls, which were vacated by students in May.

N.C. Commission of Indian Affairs Executive Director Greg Richardson, Campbell University School of Education & Human Sciences Dean Alfred Bryant, and NCDIA Chairman Ricky Burnett.

Pamela Cashwell, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Administration, said June’s meetings covered typical topics discussed in quarterly meetings while looking toward the future and considering long-term goals and ways to have a stronger voice in Raleigh, N.C.

“A lot of this week is about strategic planning and visioning sessions—really the first steps of planning for the next three years,” she said. “And honestly, we’re doing a little bit of a reset before we move forward.”

The Commission of Indian Affairs consists of 21 representatives of the American Indian community, two representatives appointed by the General Assembly and one representative each appointed by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, the Secretary of Commerce, the Secretary of Administration, the Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources and the Commissioner of Labor.

The 21 representatives selected from North Carolina’s recognized tribes are selected by tribal or community consent. They represent the Coharie, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, the Haliwa Saponi, the Lumbee, the Meherrin, the Waccamaw-Siouan, the Sappony and the Native Americans located in urban areas (Cumberland, Wake, Guilford and Mecklenburg counties).

The commission was created in 1971 by the General Assembly in response to requests from concerned tribal leaders who felt their voices weren’t being heard at the state level. There are roughly 122,000 American Indians living in North Carolina, giving the state the largest population east of the Mississippi River and eighth largest in the nation.

Bo Taylor and Ty Oocumma are citizens of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. (Photo by FeatherSpeak/Facebook)

Archaeological evidence indicates that Native Americans were living in what is now North Carolina at least 12,000 years ago. Sir Walter Raleigh founded the first English settlement in the New World in present-day Dare County, North Carolina. It became known as the “lost colony of Roanoake” after its supplies dried up and its inhabitants went missing—possibly assimilated into local indigenous communities.

Greg Richardson, the commission’s executive director, said a big part of the June meetings at Campbell University was the subject of leadership—improving leadership capabilities internally and at the state level.

“We think Campbell University could host future leadership training opportunities in the future,” Richardson said. “It’s a place where we could bring our tribal leaders together—in a more formal setting—and maybe host weekend-long sessions where they could earn certification in a number of areas. We want to enhance our tribal leaders’ ability to run their programs effectively.”

“Campbell has grown so much in recent years,” added commission chairman Ricky Burnett. “And to have an environment like this—in a university setting—is just such a positive thing for us. I’m truly enjoying being here, and I’m excited about building a relationship with a school like Campbell going forward.”

This article has been edited and expanded from the original version appearing on the Campbell University website.

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