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Madison Crowe is amazed at how little her fellow students at Mars Hill College know about Cherokee culture. But that’s one reason why the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians pays her way to be there.
Crowe, a 19-year-old arts education major, enrolled partly to help the college understand the heritage and history of the people who lived here long before local families established the college in 1856. She’s also the beneficiary of a program of the Eastern Band to send its members to college free of charge in the belief that an educated membership will help the Cherokee nation protect its sovereignty.
The Eastern Band pays college tuition, fees, and room and board for any member who has the grades and desire to go to college, graduate school or a post-graduate institution. Drawing upon its casino and gaming revenue, the Eastern Band will send a student anywhere in the world that he or she can get into.
“We want our students to achieve at high levels, wherever that might be,” said Michell Hicks, principal chief of Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. “For the most part, they have unlimited opportunities to go wherever they like.”
Cherokee students have graduated from Harvard University and Yale University, and some have studied overseas, he said. Most have opted to stay closer to home, enrolling in schools such as Western Carolina University, Appalachian State University, High Point University, Lenoir-Rhyne University and N.C. State University. About a dozen Cherokee students currently are attending Mars Hill College.
Katlin Bradley is one of them. A second-semester sophomore studying business and criminal justice, Bradley likes the familiarity of seeing people she knew at Cherokee High School. “It was a connection that I needed that I wouldn’t have had at a bigger university,” she said.
For the future of the tribe
Hicks said that having an educated membership is the future of the tribe. “We just want to make sure that our folks are given the opportunities that those outside of tribal lands are given,” he said. “It’s a continual process to protect our sovereignty (over issues) like taxation and land and the laws affecting our courts. The more educated we can make our membership, the better off we will be in the future.”
To that extent, Hicks and Mars Hill College President Dan Lunsford signed an agreement in February 2011 that calls upon the college to provide scholarship funds for one year for the first two members of the tribe who commit to attending the college. The Eastern Band provides scholarship money for those students’ remaining three years, as well as any scholarship money needed for additional members of the tribe to attend Mars Hill.
The agreement also calls upon the Eastern Band to help the college correctly and sensitively display and interpret the Cherokee artifacts in its Gertrude M. Ruskin Collection of Native American artifacts at the Liston B. Ramsey Center for Regional Studies.
Copies of the agreement in English and Cherokee are framed in the college’s admissions office. The agreement reflects Mars Hill’s commitment not only to diversity within the student body but also to all aspects of southern Appalachian heritage, said Lunsford, an enrolled member of the tribe.
“Our Cherokee heritage is such an important part of who we are here in the Southern Appalachians,” he said. “Mars Hill College has a long-standing commitment to preserving the dance and song traditions of our European ancestors, as well as the culture and traditions of the oldest part of our heritage, relating to the Cherokee people.”
The tribe approached the college about four years ago to expand the network of higher education institutions with which it has an agreements to help educate its young people. The University of Tennessee, Knoxville waives out-of-state tuition for Cherokee students (the Cherokee have a rich history in the region), as does East Tennessee State University, which recently extended in-state tuition privileges to students from North Carolina counties near the university. But the network included no private colleges nearby at that time.
Valuing and sharing Cherokee culture
“We were certainly interested,” Lunsford said. “It’s a part of our mission to be of service to the region and its people. I think the Eastern Band perceived us as an institution that respected and valued the native Cherokee culture and its contribution to the region. And because we’re a small institution, in some ways we have an ability to personalize a student’s experience more consistently than much larger institutions.”
Although Mars Hill College offers no course in Cherokee history or culture, it has a minor in regional studies in which students can concentrate on topics such as native plants, the Cherokee people and logging in Western North Carolina. There is a Native American student group on campus, and it has begun the process of establishing itself as a club.
Crowe, whose friends at Mars Hill include many from Cherokee High School, said most students there know little about her culture. “It was really shocking to me, but they aren’t very educated about Native Americans as a whole,” she said. “They don’t know about the Trail of Tears or that the Cherokee have a separate language from any other tribe in the world.”
Crowe helping others understand that heritage is one reason the tribe has underwritten the college costs of 5,252 members since at least the early 1970s. In the earlier days, the funding came from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. Once a week Crowe finds herself explaining Cherokee ways to others, politely correcting misperceptions.
“Going to a ‘stomp dance’ is a good example of that,” she said. “It’s a dance where men and women gather, and we make a medicine that cleanses the body and refreshes the soul. It’s kind of like going to church for most people, but it’s not as frequent. We give thanks to the Creator for all that he has done.”
Crowe goes home to Cherokee to participate, and when she’s back on campus and mentions she went to a stomp dance, she gets a lot of blank looks. “They probably think I went to some kickin’ party,” she said. But they want to know more. “People here are really curious about my culture,” she said.