Virginia Tech Native American students are making strides to connect with Virginia’s tribal communities.
In January, some members of Native at VT, a small but growing student organization, visited the Monacan Indian Nation in Amherst County, Virginia, to discuss college life and learn about the nation’s history.
The daylong trip occurred a few days before President Donald Trump signed a bill to grant federal recognition to the Monacan Nation and five other Virginia tribes. It gave university students and faculty the opportunity to learn more about the Monacans, on whose land Virginia Tech was built.
The day’s mission mirrored that of the first Tribal Leaders Summit last year at Virginia Tech, which reinvigorated partnerships between the university and the state’s recognized tribes. On March 31, Native at VT will sponsor another event to connect Native American communities with Virginia Tech. The organization will host its second Powwow on the lawn of the Graduate Life Center.
While at the Monacan Nation’s home in Bear Mountain, several Virginia Tech students spoke during a culture class about college and fielded numerous questions from tribal young adults about everything from academics to financial aid. Chief Dean Branham leads the Monacan Nation.
“These young adults were driven to pursue higher education, which I was really impressed by,” said Jason Chavez, a junior majoring in political science and a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation.
The Virginia Tech students and several university faculty and leaders also toured some of the Bear Mountain facilities. The faculty and leaders included Menah Pratt-Clarke, vice president for strategic affairs affairs and vice provost for inclusion and diversity; Mae Hey, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Sociology and a faculty fellow for the American Indian & Indigenous Cultural Center at Virginia Tech; Melissa Faircloth, advisor to Native at VT; and Sam Cook, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology, where he is also director of American Indian Studies.
“The exchange was wonderful,” said Cook, organizer of the trip. “The Monacan kids asked very substantive questions, and our Native at VT students became spontaneous mentors.”
Virginia Tech’s ties to the Monacan Nation made the visit especially meaningful. In 1999, the Monacan tribal council petitioned the university to establish an American Indian Studies program and related initiatives, Cook said.
“It is something that we owe the Monacan Nation, to go out and recruit students,” Chavez said. “In a sense, this is their school.”
Chavez is one of many Hokies finding common ground through Native at VT, an organization that aims to advance the visibility and values of Native Americans on campus. When he moved to Blacksburg from Arizona with his wife, who attends the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, Chavez sought out Native at VT and began attending weekly meetings, even before he became a Virginia Tech student.
“I wanted to get involved with other students who are in the same sort of position that I was, experiencing the isolation that Native Americans can sometimes feel,” he said. “Understanding the Native American culture and the issues around the Native American experience can sometimes be overlooked.”
American Indian students are one of the smallest minority groups at Virginia Tech. There are 48 American Indian or Alaska Native undergraduate, graduate, and professional students, according to the university’s 2017-2018 enrollment profile.
Native at VT, which formed in 2008, has at least 13 active members. A year and a half ago, Faircloth, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Sociology and a member of the Coharie Tribe in North Carolina, became the group’s advisor and helped to provide needed structure. Since then, several new students have joined, including Nizhoni Tallas, a freshman from Arizona, and a member of the Navajo Nation.
“Coming here and being able to form a community with other Native Americans, that was really helpful in my transition into college and finding a sense of community here at Virginia Tech,” Tallas said.
Tallas is majoring in environmental science, and she plans to get her Ph.D. One day, she said, she wants to create a science, technology, engineering, and math program to inspire the Navajo Nation’s youth to consider these kinds of careers.
“I want to encourage other students to explore and find their passions,” she said.
Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone