‘An important part of the history’: How Tuscaloosa’s history is shaping UA’s future


Isabel Hope, Assistant News Editor

The city of Tuscaloosa is, like most cities in America, built on Native American land. The University of Alabama, with its constant development and economic growth, is continuously lost in a forest of newness. 

Native American students, faculty members, staff and scholars are trying to get the University to remember where it is.

‘Where we are’

From Mairin Odle, an American studies professor, has been at the University since 2015 and teaches courses relating to Native American history and studies. She became interested in the topic as an undergraduate student.

“I went into it and did research, and I realized that Native American history in itself is this whole world,” she said. “I would never get to the bottom of that in an entire career.”

Odle said it’s important that students learn about Native American history because they are on Native land. 

When a group of log cabins arose near the fall line of a river, settlers named it after a Native American chief known as Tuskaloosa. It is a combination of the Choctaw word for warrior, “tushka,” with the word for black, “lusa.” This is also how the Black Warrior River got its name. 

Tuscaloosa was primarily Creek and Choctaw land. Chickasaw and Cherokee tribes have also been prominent in the region. 

“It’s actually true, of course, of any college in the United States,” Odle said. “They’re all on Indigenous land in some fashion or another, but the University and Tuscaloosa as a town is on lands that were in some cases purchased through land deeds and other cases through really outright theft from Indigenous nations. That’s where we are. That’s where we live and work and study.”

In 1832, after Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, the Creek National Council ceded its remaining lands east of Mississippi to United States settlers. Settlers had already attempted to encroach on the territory. Thousands more Native American people were forced to leave during the Trail of Tears in 1834. 

Paige Miller, a career consultant at the UA Career Center, identifies as half Native American and biracial. She pointed out the University’s efforts to commemorate the Civil War and wishes that Native American history would be acknowledged as well. 

“As we study other parts of history, Native American history and Native American culture should be incorporated into that,” she said. “It’s an important part of the history of the state and of the country.”

Odle said she thinks it’s important for students to know the nuances of Native American history in Tuscaloosa.

“There’s a lot of different Native nations that have deep roots in the area,” she said. “We need to kind of think about the complexity of that. There’s not just one kind of history or one story.”

Heather Kopelson, who began her career at the University in 2008, teaches Native American history. She became fascinated by the subject while researching for her dissertation and believes the University is not doing anything to support Native American students, faculty and staff.

“I think the University could be doing a lot more since right now they’re really not doing anything,” she said.

‘I just wanted help’

Kopelson said she found it surprising that the University has no relationship with the Poarch Creek, a tribe of Native Americans descending from the Creeks. She, along with some of her colleagues, want to set up an “open dialogue” with the tribal council. 

Kopelson said she also wishes the University would implement a land acknowledgement to show respect for the Native tribes whose land it was built on. 

“Everybody has a lot of unlearning to do,” she said. “I think it’s understanding that this is not something that is only in the past, and Native people are very much present. There are hundreds of cultures. Sadly, many languages are really in danger or have been lost because of the residential school system that forces students into assimilation.”

Odle, Kopelson and Miller all mentioned the need for a Native student organization. Katherine Johnston, a junior majoring in kinesiology, is Native American and is working on starting that organization for students like her.

“The biggest thing that I’ve noticed is that it’s a huge culture shock,” she said. “Coming from a huge Native family, you always look for others that look like you or have the same cult background. It was hard for me to find other people that were like me because there were no resources or groups for Indigenous students at the University. I just wanted help connecting with other Native students, and I didn’t really have that.”

Kopelson mentioned that there is an “informal network” of faculty members that has created a list of courses that include Indigenous studies. She said that list could be found by anyone in University administration by contacting her or searching for it independently. 

Kopelson also said she hopes to see students continuously enrolling in her class and the classes of her peers to learn more about how Native people exist today.

“The purpose isn’t so people who are not Native feel guilty, but so that they understand how embedded those relationships are in their present-day lives,” she said. 

Moundville, an outdoor/indoor museum commemorating what was once a thriving Native community, holds an annual Native American festival. This year’s was canceled due to lack of interest and COVID-19.

‘Come together and support each other’

Miller got her bachelor’s degree from the University in 1988 and then continued to get her master’s. She said she struggled as a biracial student and still deals with prejudice. 

“I really experienced a struggle as an undergraduate student here,” she said. “People, for whatever reason, want to put you in a category. I often got asked, ‘What are you?’ That implies that I’m other. Obviously I’m a human person.”

Odle said she wishes the University would recruit more faculty of color and Native American faculty. 

“That is a national issue,” she said. “That’s not necessarily just The University of Alabama, but certainly, universities and higher education can do a lot more to recruit and retain faculty of color, Native American faculty in particular. I think being attentive to community-based work that a lot of faculty in Native studies are interested in doing, and then being able to support that both financially and with the intellectual support needed would be truly helpful.”

There are no tenured Native American professors on campus, and Native American faculty members account for less than one percent of the UA population.

Johnston said the biggest priority for the University of Alabama administration should be having resources and support so students can “come together and support each other.” She said that the University’s Department of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion has been “very supportive” of her and that is not something she gets everywhere. She also said emphasizing more research on Native issues could attract more Native American students. 

“It is so important because, first of all, Native American history is our country’s history. Especially ‘Tuscaloosa’ being a Choctaw word,” she said. “Especially Alabama in general, the South region was home to so many tribes that were removed. People who go to school here need to know the history.”

Odle also hopes to see Native American students at the University be offered financial support. She suggested offering discounted in-state tuition for any students with Native ties to the region, even if they did not live there themselves. Odle said Chickasaw, Cherokee, Choctaw and Creek students should be offered that at the Capstone.

While Miller said the University has become more diverse, people still want to put her and others in categories. She pointed to the University’s Department of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion as an improvement from when she was in college. Miller also said the work Odle and others are doing is a “big step” for the Native community at the Capstone.

Odle plans to teach a course in spring 2022 about the history of treaties and land deeds in Alabama related to Native American history. She is optimistic that student research from that class could be used as a resource for those wanting to learn more about the subject.

Miller said that Native representation on campus is increasingly important and that Native studies should not just be taught as history. 

“It’s important for faculty and staff and students to be represented, and to know that their colleagues and fellow students are learning about Native American people as they existed in our history, but also as they exist among them, on campus today,” she said. 

Johnston said being part of the Creek tribe makes the experience of going to school in Tuscaloosa even more notable.

“It’s a big deal for me to be going to UA because this is where my people were removed from,” she said. “Students need to know the history of the school that they love.”

The University’s Department of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion could not be reached for comment in time for publication. 

The University’s Department of Strategic Communications declined to comment.