Finding your “unspoken link”: connecting to and building communities at UVA

By Olive Lee and Amy Pressey

Our first Student Spotlight is a recent graduate of the Class of 2017, Charley Lyda. We sat down with Charley to talk about his experience at UVA – from navigating his multicultural identity and transferring in his third year to advocating for Native American rights and visibility on Grounds.

On his multicultural identity

“When you first see me, a question that I often get is ‘Are you even native?’”

For Charley, the answer to that question is “yes.” He identifies with a multitude of cultures and comes from Japanese and Native American backgrounds – specifically, from the Pedi Indian Tribe in South Carolina.

“Indian people, especially on the East Coast, are historically mixed. I love it. It’s part of who I am. It’s part of my identity [and] how I was raised. It’s in my blood and something that’s a part of me. And that mixed identity is who we [sic] Native people have been, and going forward, I think that it is who we are going to be.”

Transferring to UVA

UVA was nothing like the small rural town that Charley came from. Integrating into University life as a third-year transfer student, whilst navigating his own multicultural identity, proved to be a challenge.

But to Charley, this transitional experience made him even more aware of his cultural background.

“The [transition] supercharged me as identifying as native – coming here and being faced with this huge wall of homogeneity; it made me suddenly care [about my own culture].”

Finding a voice in a sea of homogeneity

During his first semester, Charley felt invisible within the mainstream UVA culture. However, after getting involved with the Native American Student Union (NASU), he found both a sense of belonging and community at UVA. For his remaining three semesters, he used his involvement in this CIO to increase the visibility of Native students and issues on Grounds. However, Charley’s involvement in NASU didn’t happen right away.

“When I came in, I didn’t find out about NASU until the spring semester of the 3rd year that I transferred. I immediately joined their Powwow planning committee and somehow or another, I ended up as President the end of my first year here. It’s a way to get plugged in, right in the socket and charged up.”

Charley stated that often times, both students and faculty have preconceived ideas of what “real” Natives should look like. Such stereotypes homogenize the multifaceted identities and experiences of Native people.

“I think that people traditionally seem to think that this person has to have dark skin, black hair, probably has braids and other things really stereotypical. And that’s just not how most kids are these days. There are kids enrolled in tribes that you wouldn’t assume are native at first glance.”

Thus, Charley and NASU worked to challenge various forms of stereotyping and cultural invisibility by providing an open space for dialogue and programming for both Native students and the larger UVA community.

“NASU’s biggest goal is to provide a space for Native students. We want Native students to know that there is a group here specifically for you. But, we also know that UVA can be a very culturally homogenous place and we want to make that general group of people aware that NASU isn’t just for Native students, but it’s for anyone interested in our culture.”

NASU’s annual Powwow: a celebration of Native culture

One of the biggest and most powerful ways in which NASU made space and increased the visibility of the Native community here on Grounds was with their annual Powwow. This past April marked their third annual Powwow celebration.

“Powwow is a celebration of Native culture – [it] shows who we are and where our ancestors have come from, and the kind of lives that they have led. We give honor and thanks to The Creator and the spirits. It is a great, big, joyous celebration of the fact that we are still here.”

More than four Virginia tribes traveled to Charlottesville to participate in the Powwow and it was an amazing sight to see. As Charley says, “there is a certain type of spirit at a Powwow” which many UVA students may not be familiar with.

“It’s really a privilege to bring some of our culture here. Native culture is different from so many other cultures – there are so many tribes and subcultures and traditions they have within themselves, but Powwow is something that we all kind of share.”

A community in and beyond UVA

While NASU may be one of the smallest student organizations on Grounds, what makes it one of the most powerful student unions is the sense of connectedness and openness that welcomes anybody who wants to be involved.

“Native culture is all about community. A tribe is a very tight knit community and NASU has become its own tribe in a way.”

But NASU wasn’t the only CIO that Charley was involved with at UVA. He also served as a liaison on the Minority Rights Coalition (MRC) Board.

“Being on the MRC, being surrounded by beautifully intelligent, “woke” minority student leaders has changed me for the better. It’s made me more aware and it has made me care about a lot more minority issues.”

While Charley’s UVA experience was shaped by the native student and minority activist communities, he also found a connection to Native culture in the greater Charlottesville area. “The native community is here – it’s almost everywhere. We have Elders who are community members – Mr. and Mrs. Wilson. Mr. Wilson who is Blackfoot and Mrs. Wilson is Lakota. They have become our surrogate grandparents. They [give] a lot of emotional support [and] teach us. They are wonderfully warm people.” (Also, according to Charley, Mrs. Wilson has a wonderfully tasting homemade poppy seed dressing!)

Speaking up for Native rights: from local to national politics

NASU became both an extended family and an empowering space for Charley. It ultimately helped him find his voice in activism. For example, in the Fall of 2016, NASU and the Climate Action Society (CAS) came together in a joint effort to lead a protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock, North Dakota.

“If our CIO had to have a “best friend” CIO, it would probably be CAS. There is a lot of intersectionality between the two of us – because respect for the Earth and where you come from is an intrinsic element of being Native. We both see a need to be attached to the land.”

Charley commented that before becoming the President of NASU, he was not a big public speaker. However, leading and speaking at the NASU x CAS protest changed his perspective.

“Someone had to do it – someone had to step up to the table and make sure that a Native voice was there. It’s not some far away issue. There are students here [at UVA] who have family at Standing Rock.”

Concluding thoughts

With all that has been said, Charley left us with a few concluding notes about his experience at UVA:

  1. “I’ve come to love it here. I love UVA.”

Charley will readily admit that as a transfer student,  things were really different from what he was used to. But one of the reasons why Charley can sit and share how he felt then and how he feels now is because he found NASU, and, in NASU, he found where he could truly be and express himself.

“There is a sense of understanding that doesn’t exist anywhere else. The distinctively native things that we share across our tribes – to have that space and bond where our being is not questioned. It’s really nice to rest in that sense of community that NASU has given me.” 

      2. Whatever you choose to do with your year(s) here at the University, wherever you choose to spend and invest your time, there is always a place for you to find a sense of belonging and connection – even if it may not happen right away.

“There is a place where you will be understood and share that unspoken link. I was so quick and so passionate about getting involved because it’s so rare that I meet other kids who are like me and who share that link with me.”

View select photos from the Powwow below or view the entire gallery here:


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