Danny Bell builds bridges between Carolina and Indian communities
Danny Bell was entering his senior year of high school when segregation ended in North Carolina. After 11 years of attending East Carolina Indian School for American Indians, he moved to a predominantly white school for the first time.
He didn’t have much of a chance to be nervous about it. His cousin, an athletic prodigy who’d never before picked up a football, quickly became the school’s star football player and a bit of a lucky charm for Bell.
“His athletic prowess made it much better for us at our new school,” Bell said. “We were still kidded, but he made it an easier transition.”
Even as a child, Bell was aware of the importance of opportunity when it came to getting an education. His mother, a Lumbee Indian, met his father, a Coharie Indian, when she moved to teach school in his community. The two raised their children in eastern North Carolina with a strong appreciation for learning.
“My mother was a teacher, having graduated from the Pembroke State College for Indians in 1945, and she loved books. We had books everywhere,” Bell said, pointing around his office. “As you can see, I still keep books everywhere.”
After high school, Bell entered what was then East Carolina College but left after two years when he was drafted to serve in Vietnam. Upon his return, he landed a job at the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs in Raleigh.
It was here that he solidified a reconnection with his American Indian roots. Though he’d lived the experience, he could see it from a different angle.
“I could see the issues that American Indians were facing – that many of us were land and resource poor, that to many people we were invisible and were treated as second-class citizens, that we had no voice in matters of great importance to our communities,” he said.
It’s a perspective he held onto when he came to Carolina as a student loan officer in 1988. With eight different tribes across North Carolina, the enrollment and retention numbers of American Indians in college were pretty low. Bell made it a point to keep his eye out for and be an advocate for those students, especially when it came to helping them feel at home on campus.
Amy Locklear Hertel, director of Carolina’s American Indian Center, said Bell’s service to Carolina’s campus is unparalleled. “He has dedicated his career to promoting the inclusion of American Indians on campus and improving the experiences of American Indians in higher education. We are all grateful for his advocacy and service,” she said.
It’s this record of service that earned Bell a 2014 C. Knox Massey Service Award, one of the most coveted distinctions the University gives faculty and staff. He was honored not only for making sure all students feel welcome at Carolina, but also for advising students in a manner consistent with American Indian views of balance, respect and reciprocity.
“A wide variety of things came together to help me be aware of what students need to succeed here. We benefit from faculty, staff and administrators that have an awareness of, and interest in, the Indian community and support the inclusion of our voices in the educational experience,” he said.
One of those faculty members was Townsend Ludington, the former chair of what was then the Curriculum in American Studies, who helped establish the Provost Committee on Native American Issues and hired Theda Perdue and Mike Green, professors who brought official, broad-based expertise on those issues.
Ludington approached Bell in 1996 to help start an American Indian Studies program to be housed within the curriculum. Bell has been there ever since.
“My job has been to support American Indian studies and also to help include Indian students in the rich diversity of Carolina,” he said. “We needed to encourage more understanding, engagement and collaboration between Carolina and the Indian community.”
Bell not only supports the program, he advocates for undergraduate and graduate students as an adviser to the Carolina Indian Circle and the Native American Law Student Association (NALSA), offering new ideas on how those entering the work force and the law field can serve Native Americans in North Carolina.
Earlier this winter, Bell helped with a pro-bono project that took 25 School of Law students to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian reservation to work with tribe members on sensitive and personal legal issues. When NALSA organized a pro-bono clinic in Pembroke to work with elderly low-income members of the Lumbee Tribe, Bell volunteered to connect the group to tribe members who could help.
“Only one or two members of the group had any experience with Native Americans prior to the trip, and there were concerns about cultural misunderstandings,” said a law student who nominated Bell for the award. “Danny spent a significant amount of time meeting with staff and students to talk about cultural differences and to instruct on ways to successfully build attorney-client relationships.”
Bell will continue to work across campus to bring visibility to the issues of American Indian students and find ways to bring their stories, which for so long have lived in the background, to the foreground in Carolina’s culture.
“We need all of the Carolina community to support this story – it’s not just an Indian thing,” said Bell. “Everyone’s got a part to play when it comes to supporting the success of American Indians in the educational experience.”