Native at Virginia Tech
Dedicated to advancing the visibility of American Indians and other Indigenous peoples on campus, as well as raising an awareness of the issues that confront these diverse populations.
I have often referred to the Indigenous community at Virginia Tech as a small but mighty force. While it may represent one of the smallest demographics on campus, student, faculty, and staff activism has led to visible transformation over the years. Indigenous history and contemporary presence are often rendered invisible in many aspects of life. Spaces of higher learning are no exception to this phenomenon as institutional histories are implicated in projects of colonization.
This exhibit is an effort to disrupt narratives of erasure and highlight the amazing accomplishments of students, faculty, and staff who have added to the rich history of our campus. Additionally, it seeks to honor Native communities within the Commonwealth, creating awareness around the history and continued presence of Tribes within our state.
The American Indian and Indigenous Community Center, and those who tirelessly worked on this project, invite you to learn more about the Native community at Virginia Tech and those tribes of the Commonwealth. We also encourage you to visit Native Lands to learn more about the tribal communities that exist in your area. Finally, we acknowledge and honor the Monacan/Tutelo People and other Indigenous Peoples who historically cared for the Land, Air, and Waters that Virginia Tech now consumes.
The Sacred Hoop Model informs the work of the AIICC. The four quadrants of the medicine wheel, pictured at the top of this page, can represent many things to different Nations, including the four directions and the four stages of life, and this version details students’ journeys through higher education. The red section represents the calling of student and family to campus; the yellow section represents welcoming students to campus with resources and new opportunities; white represents thriving, healing, and transitioning in affirming community, events, and spaces; black represents releasing students from this environment with proper preparation and guidance as they pursue opportunities beyond VT.
Traditional custodians of the land
Virginia Tech occupies Native land. People who became the Monacans and Tutelos first built permanent settlements in the Piedmont and Blue Ridge around 1000 A.D. By 1600, about 15,000 Monacans lived in towns that fanned out north and west from the capital city of Rassawek, located at the confluence of the Rivanna and James Rivers. During colonization, Native people expanded a network of trading towns, facilitating the exchange of hides and metal goods. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, colonists enslaved Native and African people while restricting their mobility and legal rights. By 1723, most free Native people could not vote, own firearms, testify in court, or serve in militias. After the Civil War, many Monacans left ancestral lands to escape Jim Crow while others stayed in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Amherst County where they work and live today. Despite ongoing colonialism and segregation, Native people preserve tribal sovereignty and remain active in Virginia politics.
Virginia Indians are advocates for Native representation in the Virginia Tech community. In 1990, the Monacan Nation Tribal Council issued a statement in support of collaborative initiatives serving Virginia Indians. They also advocated for the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program at Virginia Tech, the first of its kind in the Commonwealth. American Indian Movement activist and Monacan Assistant Chief George Whitewolf and Monacan writer Karenne Wood served as advisors for the program. Rufus Elliott became the first Monacan to graduate from Virginia Tech in 2007, and in 2014 Monacan Vicky Ferguson became the first Elder in Residence to teach and work alongside students for the AINS program. Today, the Monacans and other Virginia Indian Nations collaborate with Tech researchers and participate in the annual Native@VT powwow.
The Morrill Act of 1862 granted federally-controlled land to the states to sell and raise funds for land-grant universities like Virginia Tech. This legislation broadened access to higher education for farmhands and industrial workers, funded by the sale of nearly 11 million acres of Indigenous lands to 52 institutions. Land was taken through coercive and fraudulent treaties from 250 tribes. In all, the United States paid less than $400,000 to remove Indigenous titles to their land, sometimes paying nothing at all. Many land-grant universities remain in possession of unsold land and mineral rights to this day, continuing to benefit from the colonization of Indigenous lands. Nationwide, cutting-edge research and millions of college degrees are made possible by the Morrill Act’s violent history.
Virginia Tech profits from land taken from these people:
We-chil-la; Su-ca-ah; Sage-womnee; I-o-no-hum-ne; Co-to-plan-e-nee; Chap-pah-sim; Ya-wil-chine; Wo-la-si; Wack-sa-che; Po-ken-well; Pal-wis-ha; New-chow-we; Ko-ya-te; Kansas; Cheyenne of Upper Arkansas; Arapaho of Upper Arkansas; Yankton Sioux; Confederated Pawnee: Grand Pawnee, Pawnee Loup, Pawnee Republicans, Pawnee Tappaye residing on the Platt and Loup Fork; Yas-see; Wo-pum-ne; Loc-lum-ne; Cu-lee; Wil-lay; Toc-de; Tat-nah; Doc-duc; Co-lu; Co-ha-ma; Cham-et-ko; Cha; Yut-duc; To-to; Su-nu; Sim-sa-wa; Mi-chop-da; Ho-lo-lu-pi; Es-ki-un; Che-no; Bat-si; Yol-la-mer; Ya-ma-do; Ya-cum-na; Wan-nuck; Wai-de-pa-can; On-o-po-ma; Nem-shaw; Mon-e-da; Das-pia; Be-no-pi; Sioux (Wahpeton and Sisseton Bands); Sioux (Medewakanton and Wahpekuta); Mo-al-kai; Ma-dam-a-rec; How-ku-ma; Ha-bi-na-po; Da-no-ha-bo; Che-com; Cha-nel-kai; Ca-la-na-po; Yu-ki-as; Sai-nell; Po-mo; Mas-su-ta-ka-ya; Shoshoni; Bannock; Uintah Uta; Chippewa of the Mississippi; We-mal-che; No-to-no-to; Yo-lum-ne; Wo-wol; Co-ye-tie; Chu-nute; Pawnee (four confederated bands); Flathead; Chippewa of the Mississippi and Lake Superior; Si-yan-te; Po-to-yan-ti; Co-co-noon; Aplache; A-wall-a-che; A-pang-asse; Wa-cha-et; Toom-na; Tall-in-chee; Po-ho-nee-chee; Pit-cat-chee; Pas-ke-sa; Nook-choo; I-tach-ee; How-ech-ee; Chow-chil-lie; Chook-cha-nee; Cho-ki-men-a; Cho-e-nem-nee; Cas-son; Upper Pend d’Orelles; Kootenay; Washo; Omaha; Blackfoot; Paiute; Chippewa, Ontonagon band; Coast tribes of Oregon; San Luis Ray; Kah-we-a; Co-com-cah-ra; Great and Little Osage; Uta (Tabeguache, Muache, Capote, Weeminuchi, Yampa, Grand River, and Uintah bands); Uva; To-ci-a; Te-jon; So-ho-nut; Se-na-hu-ow; Hol-mi-uk; Ho-lo-cla-me; Cas-take; Car-I-se; Buena Vista; Kiowa; Comanche; Chippewa; Oto; Missouri; Walla-walla; Umatilla; Cayuse; Yo-kol; Wic-chum-ne; Tu-huc-mach; To-lum-ne; To-e-ne-che; Ta-che; In-tim-peach; Hol-cu-ma; Choi-nuck; Cah-wia; Y-lac-ca; Noi-me-noi-me; Noe-ma-noe-ma; Shoshone-Goship; Diegueño; Poh-lik or Lower Klamath; Peh-tuck or Upper Klamath; Hoo-pah or Trinity river; Chippewa (Pillager band); Apache (eastern band); Calapooia; Nez Percé; Arapaho; San Im-iri; Umpqua; Cheyenne; Wahpekuta; Sauk and Fox; Medewahkanton; Iowa; Confederated Bands of Willamette valley; Snake Indians, Yahooskin band; Modok; Klamath; Chippewa (Red Lake and Pembina bands); Chippewa (Winnibigoshish); Quapaw; Confederated Tribes of middle Oregon; Sioux; Northern Cheyenne; Pawnee; Sioux (Sisseton, Wahpeton, Medewakanton, and Wahpekute bands)
20th century student landmarks
Before the 1990s, Native students often graduated from Tech without crossing paths with one another. Part of a small population spread across campus, former students often comment that they knew no other Native Hokies. Some found community with other students of color and international students who were also far from home, while others found Virginia Tech isolating. Their academic excellence nonetheless reflected dedication to thoughtful research and to their communities. After graduation, alumni used their degrees to advocate for Native access to resources and representation through work with tribal, state, and federal governments.
Helen Maynor Scheirbeck of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina (Ed.D., '80) was an American Indian activist, education researcher, Senate staffer, Smithsonian director, and perhaps the first Native woman to receive her doctorate from Virginia Tech. After graduating from Berea College, she worked for the National Council of American Indians, helped push the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 through Congress, and implemented War on Poverty and Head Start programs in Indian communities across the country. In the 1990s, she left Head Start to direct public programming for the National Museum of the American Indian. Throughout her career, she prioritized full tribal authority over educational resources.
Scheirbeck's research with VT's College of Education stressed equitable, long-term access to federal resources and other funding for tribal communities. After graduating, she encouraged other Native people to pursue graduate degrees. Her colleagues remember her as a quiet and funny woman with a house full of family. In her own words, "I'm just a little old Indian woman who is working hard for Indian people."
Ken Custalow of the Chickahominy Tribe Eastern Division (B.A., ‘83) grew up near Richmond visiting his family on the Mattaponi reservation in Eastern Virginia on the weekends. Navigating both Southern suburban life and strong family bonds on the reservation, he developed an interest in working with people of different backgrounds. Virginia Tech’s growing diversity expanded that interest when he moved into the third floor of Thomas Hall with young men from across the world. Custalow played intramural basketball, volleyball, and football, and became a regular at the Baptist Student Union and the Lyric. As the Tribal Relations Manager at Dominion Energy, he builds relationships and consults with Native Nations and Communities on behalf of Dominion. Custalow says about working between a range of cultural and political systems, “No paradigms. Be willing to listen before you insert yourself.”
By the mid-1990s, Native students and faculty began building community with one another across Virginia Tech majors and programs. Native students and faculty created professional networks, fostered informal spaces to gather, and challenged racist representations of Native people on campus and across the New River Valley. Faculty supported students as they pursued a central goal: to complete an education that would enable them to better serve their respective Nations and home communities.
When Barbara Lockee arrived as a graduate student in the School of Education in 1993, she sought out a Native student organization or space on Tech’s campus. Finding none, she developed a relationship with administrators including Dean of Students Barbara Pendergrass, who supported Native student recruitment and campus activity. Pendergrass had founded the Multicultural Student Center as a study and event venue and encouraged Native students to organize.
Attracted to Virginia Tech’s reputation in engineering fields, a handful of Native students from across the country arrived at Tech in the 1990s. The earliest Native students in the College of Engineering often reentered university life as already-established professionals, raising families in Blacksburg while leading research projects. VT Native engineering students opened Virginia Tech’s chapter of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society to everyone regardless of major, and the group became one of the first networks of Native students on campus.
In a crucial step towards building Native-centered curricula and Native community on campus, Virginia Tech hired its first permanent Native faculty, starting with Barbara Lockee in 1996. Jeff Corntassel arrived as an Assistant Professor of Political Science in 1997. After representing the Cherokee Nation at the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations, Corntassel taught “Indigenous Peoples and World Politics,” the first Native-centered course at Tech. Mike Two Horses joined the faculty in 2003 to teach Indian Law and Policy.
As at other institutions, Native faculty found themselves at odds with administrators. Corntassel remembers: “In the course of my five years of experience at [VT], I found that stereotypes of the Indian “activist,” “spiritual” Indian, and “Noble Savage” were still prevalent at these institutions of “higher learning.” I was constantly working to debunk these stereotypes while being held up to unrealistic expectations.
“The more we try to be ourselves, the more we are forced to defend what we have never been.” - Lakota scholar Vine Deloria Jr.
On the one hand, as an Indigenous professor I was somehow expected to represent the interests of all Indigenous peoples in the United States and speak on behalf of some million Indigenous peoples at committee meetings, lectures, and so forth—despite constantly informing disappointed faculty and students that I can only speak for myself. On the other hand, my views were denounced when I voiced perspectives that were contrary to prevailing university norms of white privilege—in those instances, I was considered out of line with other Indigenous views on the issue and inadequate as a “representative” for all Indigenous peoples. As eminent Lakota scholar Vine Deloria Jr. writes: “The more we try to be ourselves, the more we are forced to defend what we have never been.”
Together, Native faculty and students developed a vision for institutional change. Dr. Corntassel advised the American Indian Culture Club, led by student Whitedove Mays, which held pizza nights in the Multicultural Student Center and events for American Indian Heritage Month. Students, Monacan advisors, Corntassel, Professor Sam Cook, and other faculty organized the American Indian and Native Studies minor. Today, the interdisciplinary program educates students about indigenous perspectives on contemporary global problems and maintains partnerships with Native tribal governments and communities. Program faculty brought Native luminaries like Joy Harjo, Leslie Marmon Silko, John Trudell, Henrietta Mann, and Woody Kipp to campus, coordinated educational summits with Virginia Indians, and actively recruited Native youth across the Commonwealth.
Native faculty fighting for an inclusive campus climate also led local battles against racist representations of Native people. Corntassel and others organized Columbus Day protests on campus and the American Indian Forum between faculty, administrators, and Virginia Indians in 2001, and supported the repatriation of human remains to the Monacans from a local museum in 2002. Corntassel and New River Valley residents founded the Coalition for American Indian Concerns (CAIC), advocating for improved public school curricula related to Native history. After visiting Blacksburg High School on a game day in 1999, Corntassel and the coalition pushed officials to retire racist mascots in four Southwestern Virginia schools. Coordinating with the NAACP, pastors, students, and members of the public, the CAIC successfully lobbied for the 2003 removal of all ethnic mascots from Montgomery County Schools. However, over the course of four years, a pro-mascot “Save the Indian” campaign and other forms of harassment pushed Corntassel to find a home at another university.
Present and emerging
New generations of students fight for equity on campus atop these hard-won victories in organizing, networking, and visibility. Today, the Native@VT student organization, the American Indian and Indigenous Cultural Center, and new traditions like the VT powwow ensure a consistent, Native-led presence on Virginia Tech’s campus
Native@VT is Tech’s largest Native student organization. Founded in 2008, it is dedicated to advancing the visibility of American Indians and other Indigenous peoples on campus, as well as raising an awareness of issues that confront these diverse populations. Students and faculty organize Indigenous academic speakers’ series, conversations about colonialism, health, and education, and off-campus public events. In 2019, Native@VT successfully lobbied the University Council to pass a resolution marking the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples Day. Formed in the 2010s by Mikhelle Taylor, Mae Hey, and other Native students, the Virginia Tech chapter of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science is open to all students and encourages trans-disciplinary research and conversation across all colleges in the university.
Sam Cook and John Galbraith founded the indigenous garden, a space dedicated to Native-grown vegetables and agricultural technologies, as the centerpiece of an undergraduate course in 2014. Today, Professors Mae Hey and Jeff Kirwan, the Agroforestry Club, and Monacan elder Vicky Ferguson alongside Blacksburg and VT community members and Native students, faculty, and elders cultivate sunflowers, pumpkins, tomatoes, squash, beans, and more. Caretakers exchange seeds and share harvests with local food banks, and the garden is open to students who want to work, visit, and gather.
"The garden is where we learn directly from our teachers in Nature, including from our Native plant relatives about the struggle to re-inhabit the places we belong. Through working together in common purpose, nurtured by Nature, we find our relatedness to the Land, each other, and ourselves. Through nurturing the Land, we are nourished." - Mae Hey
The American Indian and Indigenous Community Center was founded in 2016. In its initial two years, the AIICC hosted cultural events and classes, and worked with art gallery coordinators, Virginia Tech Newman Library, and faculty to highlight the continued presence of Native people in Virginia and at Virginia Tech. Vice President for Strategic Affairs and Diversity Menah Pratt-Clarke approved the AIICC’s physical space in Squires in 2019. Today, it features a library, event venue, and informal gathering spot for students and faculty. The staff coordinate across VT’s Cultural and Community Centers to provide opportunities for Native students to celebrate achievements, connect to resources, and share conversation with students from other spaces like El Centro and the Black Cultural Center. Affiliated faculty amplify Native student and faculty concerns and initiatives across campus through review of university policy and consultation with tribal leadership.
"The space was a catalyst for people to just find each other. People that came from similar backgrounds and understandings of themselves. So that's been a huge, made a huge huge difference. For me and for the undergraduates, I feel like they've been just as much a community for me as I try to be a support system for them." - Melissa Faircloth
Virginia Tech Diversity Scholar Melissa Faircloth, Sarah Woodward, and Caylin Stewart organized the first Virginia Tech powwow in Spring 2017, now an annual tradition. Members of Native@VT worked with Virginia Indians, in particular with alumnus Rufus Elliott and the Monacan Indian Nation, to host an event that would increase visibility of Native students, welcome young Native people interested in attending Tech, and educate campus and community members.
See you soon!
A successful university experience depends on many factors, not the least of which is a sense of belonging and reliable support for reaching individual goals. At Virginia Tech, the American Indian and Indigenous community provides a strong network of peers and mentors so that Native students feel welcome and supported within and outside of the walls of the classroom. Through opportunities for cultural engagement, social interaction, and celebration of heritage, our Indigenous students, staff, and faculty form a vibrant and visible presence on campus, strengthened by our critical connections with tribal communities in Virginia and beyond.
- Barbara Lockee
“We acknowledge the Tutelo/Monacan people, who are the traditional custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognize their continuing connection to the land, water, and air that Virginia Tech consumes. We pay respect to the Tutelo/Monacan Nations, and to their elders past, present, and emerging.” - Virginia Tech Land Acknowledgement