Mother of Native American Studies Programs Retires from UNC, Heads for Bacone College

Tanya Lee
8/2/11

Clara Sue Kidwell stepped down in June from her position as director of the American Indian Center (AIC) at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill (UNC). For the distinguished scholar and author, the four years at UNC constituted a more than satisfactory experience.

“I like to start things,” she said. “Now it’s [the American Indian Center at UNC] 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, Oklahoma, where her parents worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She earned her bachelor’s degree in letters and her master’s and Ph.D. in the history of science at the University of Oklahoma. Soon after receiving her Ph.D, her mother called to say that Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas—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, boning up on American Indian history and preparing to teach Native American studies. “In 1970,” she recalled, “Native American studies was a new academic enterprise.” Among those who helped establish the field, 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. There she remained for some 20 years, with a stint as a visiting professor at Dartmouth College in 1980.

After a stretch as director of the Native American studies program at the University of Oklahoma, she worked for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York, where she helped move the one million pieces of George Gustav Heye’s Museum of the American Indian in New York City—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 joked.

Ready to leave the University of Oklahoma, but not the academic realm, Kidwell in 2007 started 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.”

Of that population, the largest tribe is the Lumbee, “though not all Lumbees live here. There are also communities in Baltimore and Detroit,” Kidwell said. “The Lumbee have been seeking federal recognition since the 1960s. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is the only federally recognized tribe in the state. They have a casino, so they are relatively prosperous.”

The other tribes of North Carolina, which include the Coharie, Haliwa-Saponi, Occaneechi, the Waccamaw Siouan, Meherrin and 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, Kidwell explained:

“The eastern tribes’ history goes back to colonial, not American, times. There was no U.S. government to make treaties with them. 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. 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 UNC center was to reach out to them. “I feel we accomplished a good deal of what people envisioned for the center,” said Kidwell, even as she juggled the competing interests of the university and the tribal communities.

“Under her direction, the AIC increased the visibility of Native history and culture on campus, provided support for a growing American Indian student population, and forged strong connections with tribal communities and organizations in the state of North Carolina,” said Daniel Cobb, associate professor of American studies and the coordinator of the American Indian studies concentration at UNC.

“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,” said Kidwell’s colleague, Cookie Newsom, diversity education and research director with the university’s Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs. “If a student had a specific issue, he knew there was someone here who would understand.”

The center has had some notable successes. It has worked with groups like the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs to help start the North Carolina American Indian Health Board. It has facilitated the work of the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs Standing Committee on Indian Child Welfare to ensure that the children of state-recognized tribes who are not covered by the federal Indian Child Welfare Act, have similar protections. The center has also worked with the North Carolina State Advisory Council on Indian Education on such issues as the underrepresentation of American Indian students in Advanced Placement and other high-powered school courses. And it will host the 2011 American Indian Women of Proud Nations conference.

In addition, Kidwell helped develop American Indian–focused curricula for 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, except the Eastern Band of Cherokee, there is a lot of individual entrepreneurship, but even that is difficult because they live in rural areas with two-lane roads. Their location makes business activity very complicated.”

Theda Perdue, retired Atlanta distinguished professor in 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—such as Bruce Duthu, Jean O’Brien, and Michelene Pesantubbee—for a lecture in November and brings a nationally recognized Indian leader and writer—such as LeAnne Howe, LaDonna Harris, Ada Deer, Robert Conley—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.”

One of the few things Kidwell could not do was 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,” she said. “Some people wanted grants, others tribal management. As a staff of two, we were not equipped to set up something so diverse.”

Making the center self-supporting was also a goal that proved elusive. “We found it difficult to cultivate major donors,” said Kidwell. “We did get small grants from foundations and we are now building a support base with our alumni.”

But Perdue is more than satisfied with Kidwell’s record. “Clara Sue has carved out a geographical and intellectual space for Indians at UNC,” Perdue said. “We are all enormously grateful to her.”

Kidwell’s next position will be at Bacone College in Muskogee, Oklahoma, 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 said she wants to be closer to her family.

“Clara Sue’s contribution was to bring a more public voice to American Indian concerns,” Newsom said. “She has 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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