Elon University, which is situated on land originally occupied by the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi nation, is beginning a process to revitalize the tribe’s heritage language: Yesa:sahį.

Randy Williams, vice president for inclusive excellence, said the university is partnering with the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation to revitalize the tribe’s heritage language. 

“It's not just a matter of transmitting information,” Williams said. “There's a lot of culture and history within the language as well. So it's beyond just just means of communication, but also the historical pieces related to the tribe.”

The language revitalization is the university’s 14th institutional priority for the 2023-24 school year. 

November is Native American Heritage Month in the U.S. and was established in 1990. Elon’s Center for Race, Ethnicity and Diversity Education hosts events throughout the month including a kickoff, artist showcase and beading workshop.

Geoge Dou, assistant director of CREDE, said NAHM is important to recognize diversity in the community. According to Elon’s diversity dashboard, in 2022 0.1% of Elon’s undergraduate student population identified as American Indian or Alaskan Native.

“Commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion — recognizing we have Native American students but also recognizing that Elon University has a responsibility because it's on tribal land.”

Dou said it is important for organizations and universities such as Elon to acknowledge the land they sit on.

“Acknowledging the communities that have had ties to the land, recognizing not only our students and our community, but also that connection or that legacy that Elon has with the land,” Dou said. “Knowing that the tribal peoples here were displaced, they didn't give the land to Elon.”

Dou said the main event for NAHM at Elon is the kickoff, which starts at 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 1  in McKinnon D and E of the Moseley Center.

“We always have an event where we try to bring someone, try to do something for the students, recognizing people in the community here,” Dou said. “Giving the chance to people in the community to – in their own words – celebrate, share, teach people about their culture.”

Williams said Elon is partnering to further opportunities for learning in the community. 

“This plan to connect with the Occaneechi tribe to further this work around language revitalization, as well as heritage learning opportunities to learn more about the tribe and how we can honor and educate our community and ourselves,” Williams said. “Then act in ways that are commensurate with those lessons that we gain.”

He said it is vital for Elon to have a partnership with the Occaneechi tribe.

“It's important to for us to show honor and homage to the land that we're on, acknowledging that there were people before us to take care of this land and we should be right in sync with their efforts to honor, respect and treat the land fondly,” William said. “It's right in line with our efforts, our priority of inclusive excellence and thinking of how we have profited and gained from this particular land here.”


Abigail Hobbs contributed to the reporting of this story.