UNC Elects First Native American Student Body President

The University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill elected its first Native American student body president in February following a controversial election. More than 3,000 students voted in the election, giving the win to then-junior Ashton Martin with 51.8 percent of the vote.

The race for student body president earlier in 2019 was highly contentious, with one candidate disqualified and two others facing allegations of inappropriate behavior, UNC’s student newspaper The Daily Tar Heel reported. By some accounts, Martin assumed the role during a time of turbulence on the Chapel Hill campus.

Martin began leading the nearly 30,000 student body in April 2019 and will finish her term in April 2020, according to The Courier-Times. The Morehead-Cain Scholar is the seventh scholar to serve as student body president since 2007.

Martin’s decision to run for student body president did not come until the end of September 2018. She told The Courier-Times that she began to privately campaign in October and announced her candidacy officially in January 2019. Martin said her campaign goal was to make the university feel like a home again for all students.

“We talked about what we wanted to focus our campaign on and we decided to focus on this idea of home,” she said. “Carolina is a place that I really felt at home but I realized that there were institutions and policies and cultural things in place that were keeping a lot of students from making their home here.”

Martin said her campaign reached out to students to learn what was keeping them from feeling at home at UNC.

She told The Bridge that UNC’s student government talked about being a family “but there were over a 100 people who didn’t feel any real connection at all to student government.”

It may have been due to a lack of representation. The university is overwhelmingly white (61 percent) and female (59 percent). However, one report reveals that UNC student government was 70 percent white and more than 50 percent male.

The political science major, who is a member of the Sappony tribe, was initially apprehensive about opening up about her Indigenous background. She worried that by announcing her ancestry, she would open herself up to tokenization. Martin said she did not want to be elected as the Native American candidate but as a result of the work she could produce on behalf of UNC students.

Martin later realized that bringing in her Native American culture only helped to enhance her work, she told The Bridge.

“My leadership philosophy is to listen, not to tell people things. I think that comes from the things I learned as a kid,” she said. Martin spent each summer of her childhood attending a heritage camp where she would learn from tribal elders. “You can’t speak for other communities because historically, other people have tried to speak for us.”

Martin did not respond to requests for comment from The North Star.

As part of her campaign, Martin supported removing symbols of oppression on the North Carolina campus and advocated for improving student mental health.

“We’re looking to strengthen the mental health coalition,” Martin told The Daily Tar Heel after her election. “We’re also looking to create student-based support networks because students help students better. We’re doing that by opening up mental health first-aid trainings; we’re also looking to bring on a third-party organization called JED that is proven to reduce suicidal attempts on college campuses.”

Native Americans, particularly Indigenous women, are finally making strides in being represented in government. The first two Native American women were elected to Congress in 2018. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, and Sharice Davids (D-Kan.), a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, were officially sworn in January.

In August, the Cherokee Nation announced that it was appointing a delegate to the US House of Representatives, a right granted to the Native American nation by the federal government in the 1785 Treaty of Hopewell and the 1835 Treaty of New Echota. Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. nominated the nation’s current vice president of government relations, Kim Teehee, as the nation’s delegate to the House.

Teehee, who has served in numerous political positions, called her nomination a “historic moment for Cherokee Nation and our citizens.”

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various publications, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.