North Carolina has the largest native population east of the Mississippi River, including eight sovereign American Indian tribes. The site of the University of North Carolina and the Town of Chapel Hill in the central Piedmont was home to indigenous peoples for thousands of years before Europeans and Africans arrived here. The campus is located on land that Europeans took from local tribes —the Enos, Occaneechis, Shakoris, and Sissipahaws —through war and treaty. As the forces of colonization disrupted lives through disease, enslavement, and displacement, some of the Piedmont indigenous peoples moved to join the Catawba Nation south and west of here, while the Occaneechis moved north to join the Saponi Confederation. Others remained, sought ways to accommodate European settlement, and built new communities. In its early years, the university also benefited from the sale of vast tracts of land in western North Carolina and Tennessee that had once belonged to the Cherokees and Chickasaws.
Legal segregation barred American Indians from attending the university. There is mention of a Chickasaw man who attended in the 1880s, but little is known about his time here. Henry Owl, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, was the first American Indian man to earn a UNC degree. Owl received a master of arts in history in 1929. The following year Owl presented his master's thesis as proof of his literacy when he registered to vote. Continuing attempts to disfranchise him eventually led to his testifying in Congress and to a state law that reaffirmed the right to vote for Cherokees. Owl's determination is honored on campus with the Henry Owl Fund, established in 2011 to support graduate students studying the Cherokee language.
Genevieve Lowry Cole (Lumbee) was the first American Indian woman to earn a degree from Carolina. She graduated from UNC's medical technology program in 1954. Cole went on to work in health care in North Carolina in various capacities, including as the UNC hospital supervisor of clinical hematology, the senior technologist in Duke Hospital's Microbiology Laboratory, and the branch head of three laboratories at the North Carolina State Laboratory of Public Health in Raleigh. She currently is a member of the UNC—Chapel Hill Board of Visitors and an advocate for Carolina's Native American students.