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Former Sequoyah Fellow, author of book on Native American tribal citizenship, reflects on her work and cherished memories of Carolina

Mikaëla Adams
Mikaëla Adams

Less than four years after receiving her doctoral degree in history, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill alumna Mikaëla Adams had her first book published. Based on Adams’s doctoral research, her book is titled Who Belongs?: Race, Resources, and Tribal Citizenship in the Native South. She’s now at work on a second major project: Influenza in Indian Country: Sickness, Suffering, and Survival during the 1918-1919 Pandemic.

While at Carolina, Adams served as co-president of First Nations Graduate Circle, a graduate and professional student organization that provides advocacy, support, professional development, mentoring and other enrichment opportunities to American Indians campuswide. She held the Sequoyah Fellowship, based within The Graduate School’s Royster Society of Fellows, for American Indian students and/or research on American Indian-related topics.

Adams, now an assistant professor of Native American history at the University of Mississippi, discusses her book, her new research project – and the personal and professional opportunities that made her Carolina years a very special time for her.

In reflecting back on your years as a graduate student at Carolina, what are your favorite memories of being a student here at UNC-Chapel Hill?

I loved being immersed in an environment of learning, surrounded by people who were just as passionate about their research as I am about mine. In particular, I felt very lucky to have such a supportive network of students and scholars at UNC-Chapel Hill working on American Indian studies. The American Indian Center opened on campus during my first year of graduate school, and it was a wonderful resource as a place to gather, share ideas and build friendships. The professors in the history department created an incredible learning environment. They treated the graduate students as colleagues and friends, not simply as students, and they made sure we felt comfortable speaking with them both inside and outside the classroom. Some of my favorite memories are of gatherings at the homes of professors. In fact, my advisers – Theda Perdue and Michael Green – held one of their graduate seminars in their home. Each week they hosted a dinner for the students in the class, and we came, shared food and discussed the books and articles we read that week. I learned so much that way – not just the course material, but also about building professional relationships in my field.

On a more personal note, I also met my husband, David Fragoso Gonzalez, while at UNC-Chapel Hill. He was also a graduate student (he completed his Ph.D. in economics in 2013). We married the year after graduation and welcomed our son, Tiago, last September. UNC-Chapel Hill brought us together: I am from Ohio, David is from Portugal, and we would never have met otherwise. For this reason, UNC-Chapel Hill holds an extra special place in my heart!

Do you have advice or thoughts to share with current UNC-Chapel Hill graduate students?

I advise current graduate students to enjoy their time at UNC and make the most of the university’s incredible resources – talented faculty, well-stocked libraries and engaging peers. Graduate school can be tough at times; there are sleepless nights, feelings of insecurity and doubt, and deadlines that seem impossible to meet. But, it is the one time of your life when you can devote yourself fully to reading and thinking about the ideas and topics that fascinate you the most. That is an incredible privilege.

In practical terms, I would give the same advice as my advisers gave me: work on building a strong professional record as soon as you can. Go to conferences. Review books. Revise your master’s thesis to publish as an article. Focus on your studies, but also keep in mind that the end goal is a job. Make sure that you are developing those professional skills even as you master the content of your field.

Are there any specific examples of support – fellowships, mentoring, other – that helped you advance your academic and professional goals?

I was fortunate to have exceptional academic advisers. Theda Perdue and Michael Green are/were top specialists in Native American history, and they devoted a tremendous amount of time and energy to training me as an ethnohistorian and to helping me develop a strong professional record. They emphasized that their students should build professional skills – such as writing academic book reviews, presenting papers at conferences and publishing peer-reviewed articles – in addition to completing the dissertation in a timely manner. Their guidance and advice helped me tremendously when I was on the job market. In an ever more competitive market, it pays off to be able to demonstrate to hiring committees that you are already establishing yourself professionally, especially when you are an ABD [all but dissertation] student or newly minted Ph.D. who is applying for the same jobs as scholars who have had a few more years of experience.

I was very fortunate to get a job offer from the University of Mississippi right out of graduate school. I know that I owe that success to Theda and Mike and the excellent training I received from them. Sadly, Mike passed away in 2013, but I am still in regular contact with Theda and I still consider her to be an invaluable mentor and dear friend.

I also benefited from the Sequoyah Fellowship, which is part of [The Graduate School’s] Royster Society of Fellows. This non-service fellowship allowed me to devote my final year at UNC-Chapel Hill to writing my dissertation. This fellowship permitted me to finish my degree in a timely manner. Since I didn’t have to teach that year, I also had more time to work on job applications as well.

What should people know about your work?

My first book, Who Belongs?: Race, Resources, and Tribal Citizenship in the Native South (Oxford University Press, 2016), uses archival documents, ethnographic reports and oral histories to address how six southeastern Indian tribes – the Pamunkey Indian Tribe of Virginia, the Catawba Indian Nation of South Carolina, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians of North Carolina, the Seminole Tribe of Florida, and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida – decided who belonged to their communities in the late 19th and 20th centuries. As I argue in the book, the right to determine tribal citizenship is fundamental to the exercise of tribal sovereignty, which is a key concept in understanding the relationship between indigenous people and the settler-colonial government of the United States.

Since completing my book, I have begun archival research at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C., and Kansas City, Missouri, for a second major project, Influenza in Indian Country: Sickness, Suffering, and Survival during the 1918-1919 Pandemic. This project will provide an ethnohistorical account of the world’s deadliest pandemic and its long-term consequences for Native American communities across the United States. It will explore how the virus infected indigenous people on reservations and boarding schools, how their living conditions in this period exacerbated the effects of influenza, how institutionalized segregation and racialized medical thought affected Native access to healthcare, how indigenous people responded medically, and how this health crisis affected the federal-tribal relationship.

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