ELIZABETH CITY, N.C.

Elizabeth City State University, a historically black college, is starting a program for indigenous people.

The new American Indian office would help students and faculty with a variety of issues, including school work, social interaction, genealogy, finding research grants and identifying indigenous students.

Others who could participate include Pacific Islanders, Mexican Indians and natives of Alaska and Hawaii, said program director Lloyd Mitchell. Many unaccounted for are of mixed race, he said. Only eight American Indians are enrolled at the university.

“If you want to work with the indigenous communities, you need to understand them,” said Mitchell, who is of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin and serves on a national leadership council for the group.

Mitchell is an expert in public health, including bio-terrorism response. He has worked for years in areas with indigenous populations, he said. His teams have worked alongside tribal nations or native corporations in projects such as Lost Colony research, volcanic disaster planning and response in the Pacific Northwest, and prevention of vector-borne diseases in Puerto Rico.

Juan Pablo Fabian, a student, was among several recognized Thursday for his part in opening the new American Indian program.

Although he grew up in Durham and Spanish is his second language, Fabian is part of the Mexican Purépecha tribe, known for distinctive artwork and for defeating the Aztecs before the Spanish arrived.

Fabian looks forward to participating in the new program and getting to know others of similar heritage, he said.

“It makes you feel at home,” he said.

The state has the largest number of American Indians east of the Mississippi, with a total population just under 100,000, according to NCPedia, an online reference site run by the State Library of North Carolina. About 55,000 belong to the Lumbee Tribe located largely in the southeastern part of the state.

Most of the 17 University of North Carolina schools offer American Indian programs, ranging from a few classes and scholarships to four-year degrees, said Jason Tyson, spokesman for the UNC System.

UNC-Pembroke, founded by the Lumbee Tribe in 1887, is the only university in the nation founded by American Indians for American Indians, Tyson said.

Elizabeth City resident Ernestine Thompson, of the Montauk tribe, attended a ceremony recognizing the program dressed in  Native American regalia she made herself. Also known as Whistling Redbird, she has worked for years to get recognition in New York for her tribe, which originally hails from Long Island.

“I wanted to see what they had to offer to indigenous people here,” she said.

Mitchell’s mother, Nadine Mitchell of the state of Washington, attended Thursday as an elder in the Oneida tribe. The new program will help bring out more natives, she said.

“American Indians are very, very quiet,” she said. “Until they get to know you and trust you, then they’ll talk. When the word gets out, they’ll come.”

Jeff Hampton, 252-491-5272, jeff.hampton@pilotonline.com

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