“Even though we are Native, by looking at us, that wouldn’t be your first guess,” said Qualla Ketchum, a Virginia Tech Ph.D. student in the biological systems engineering department.

Qualla identifies as a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, the capital of which is Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Her husband, Devin Ketchum, who’s pursuing a master’s degree in computer engineering, is a member of the Delaware tribe, headquartered in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

“I did my associates degree at Haskell Indian Nations University, which is an all-Native college,” said Devin. “But because I looked white, everyone was questioning why I was there.”

Although the pair doesn’t match the stereotypical image associated with Native Americans, they have strong ties to their respective heritages and honor that component of their identities. It was important to them to note that their voices do not represent those of the entire Indigenous community at Virginia Tech.

“My heritage is a big part of who I am, and it’s really my connection to people, specifically my dad,” said Qualla. “His family knew they were Cherokee, but his grandmother grew up when it wasn’t OK to be Cherokee. She wanted my dad and his siblings to pass as white because it was safer for them. My dad always grew up wanting — but not having — that connection, so when my brother and I were born, it was very important to him that we grew up knowing who we were, knowing our culture, and knowing our language.”

As a teenager, Qualla was chosen to walk the Trail of Tears as a participant among a group of students from the Cherokee Nation. Before making the journey, students were required to take culture and language courses. Qualla’s dad signed up as a chaperone, so the two had the opportunity to complete the trail together.

“To be able to do that with my dad was really impactful,” Qualla said. “It just solidified for me who we were and that this was important. You learn pieces about yourself when you learn about your culture and your heritage.”

Devin and Qualla have been married since 2013, but they met while enrolled as undergraduate students at Oklahoma State University, which is No. 1 in the nation among public land-grant colleges and universities for graduating Native American students.

“Growing up in Oklahoma, being Native was not an unknown thing,” said Qualla. “No one really batted an eye if you were Native. But we got to Virginia Tech, and when people find out you’re Native, it’s like a surprise. People ask, ‘Oh, you’re still around? You still exist?’”

“Somebody found out I was Native,” Devin said, “and their first question was, ‘Do you have tattoos?’” For the record, he has plenty, but none of them are affiliated with his Native roots.

“It’s more ignorance than anything else here,” he continued. “People just don’t know. You talk about Indigenous Peoples and Native Americans, and the first thing that comes to your mind is feathers and powwows. We’re normal people.”

The American Indian and Indigenous Community Center at Virginia Tech was established in August 2016 as a dedicated space in Squires Student Center for people who identify as Native American to gather. Prior to its existence, there was no space specifically allocated for Native American students.

“As Indigenous people, we’re particularly called to a space and to have a sense of place, whether that’s the land physically or, for a lot of us, is people-based,” said Qualla. “Having a space where we could become a community and be ourselves really helped.”

Less than a year after the community center opened, the first-ever powwow was held on campus. Just last month, Virginia Tech recognized and celebrated Indigenous Peoples Day for the first time.

“To have a heritage month like this month (Oct. 15-Nov. 15), with all the events that we have — all the Native at VT folks are kind of in shock about how many people have shown up and how much support we’ve had from administration,” said Qualla. “The climate is definitely changing. It’s definitely better than when we first got here. There’s still room for improvement, but we’re excited to see where it goes.”

Devin and Qualla plan to pass their heritage on to their child, Yona Michael Ketchum, who was born Nov. 8. His name means "bear" in Cherokee.

“The reason we chose Cherokee names is because they’re easier to understand than Lenape names, and also because both of our cultures are matrilineal,” said Devin. “So, when we got married, technically I became part of her family, so I became Cherokee.”

“It’s really important to me that our child knows that they’re both Cherokee and Lenape,” said Qualla. “Being from Oklahoma, we’re a thousand miles away from home. Our Native at VT friends have become a big part of our family here in Virginia. This baby is going to be a part of this community with us.”

For more information about American Indian and Indigenous Heritage Month or the American Indian and Indigenous Community Center at Virginia Tech, visit ccc.vt.edu.

Written by Tiffany Woodall