Indigenous inclusion: Advocates call for UVA American Indian studies center

UVA alum Guy Lopez (fourth from left) has convened a committee of other alumni and faculty to support the creation of an Indigenous Studies Center at the university. Over the weekend, they hosted a symposium to spread awareness and solicit advice on how to proceed. Photo by Eze Amos UVA alum Guy Lopez (fourth from left) has convened a committee of other alumni and faculty to support the creation of an Indigenous Studies Center at the university. Over the weekend, they hosted a symposium to spread awareness and solicit advice on how to proceed. Photo by Eze Amos

Some issues don’t just go away if you ignore them.

Aside from a brief appearance at the May 6 City Council meeting, the last time we heard from UVA alum Guy Lopez was 2002, when the university was considering whether to invest $4 million in the University of Arizona’s Mount Graham Observatory to build a giant telescope on sacred San Carlos Apache land. UVA would then have permission to use it seven nights a year.   

Despite massive resistance from local and faraway American Indians like Lopez, who grew up on South Dakota’s Crow Creek Sioux Reservation, UVA proceeded with the agreement, and promised to mitigate its impact in a number of ways, including “increasing Native American representation at UVA by actively recruiting Native American students and faculty, and by enhancing scholarly research in Native American studies,” according to an October 2002 issue of Inside UVA Online.

Lopez says UVA hasn’t lived up to its promises, and an online tool shows that only 14 Native American students and five faculty were at the school in 2018. Now, he’s calling for an Indigenous Studies Center on Grounds, which he says is the brainchild of the committee of faculty and alumni he convened and Vice Provost Louis Nelson.

“It makes no sense that potentially one of the greatest American universities has had so little inclusion of American Indian scholars and indigenous people,” says Lopez. “The university is missing out on a rich world of knowledge and insight into life on this continent.”

Lopez says other universities have done a better job, and points to Stanford University, where there’s a Native American Cultural Center and annual powwow that draws more than 50,000 people. But “UVA doesn’t know basic facts about American Indian participation at the university,” he says, like who was the first American Indian graduate.

UVA spokesperson Anthony de Bruyn says increasing minority representation, among both faculty and students, is a strategic priority for the university. He says admission representatives have attended powwows and have been involved in the Pathkeepers for Indigenous Knowledge Native Youth Leadership Camp.

Programs on Native American history, culture, and social, legal, and political rights are under consideration, he adds.

Over the weekend, Lopez and his UVA-based committee hosted a symposium to facilitate conversations about the university’s relationship with its indigenous people, gain interest in an Indigenous Studies Center, and solicit advice from others on how to proceed with building it.

Among them was former San Carlos Apache tribal chairman Wendsler Nosie, who flew in from Arizona for the symposium. He says the observatory is “still a major issue back home,” where it adversely affects a sacred space called Dzil nchaa si’an in the Sonoran Desert, a critical habitat of the red squirrel and a place of worship and prayer for his tribe.

Now that conversation about the telescope is resurfacing, Wendsler says they want to be heard.

He and other Apaches, including acting tribal chairman Tao Etpison, requested a meeting with UVA President Jim Ryan over the weekend, and in a letter to Ryan, Etpison noted the school’s alleged “commitment to inclusion, diversity, and mutual respect,” after the events of August 11 and 12, 2017.

Ryan agreed to meet with the representatives of the tribe in a May 3 email, but it got overlooked, leaving the Arizonans to believe he declined to respond. Though they missed the opportunity for a meeting during their most recent visit, Wendsler says he’ll be back.