Martin Makes History: UNC's First Native American Student Body President

August 20th marked the first day of classes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the one-year anniversary of the fall of confederate monument Silent Sam, and one of many visits from armed white supremacists to our campus. While the administration’s blatant disregard for the safety of Black students has clouded my experience at Carolina, there are moments of unified celebration and hope, such as the opening of the Carolina Latinx Center or  the election of our first Native American student body president Ashton Brianna Martin. 

Campaign season at UNC, which begins privately for candidates in October and opens up in February, is marred by mudslinging, disqualification hearings, and sleep deprivation. Yet in the past three years, two women of color have been elected to the highest student position on campus, and Martin — a member of the Sappony tribe — is making history. I had the opportunity to sit down with her and talk about her upbringing and Indigeneity, her platform, her actual powers as student body president, and of course, Silent Sam.

The 2019-2020 UNC Student Body President, Ashton Martin

The 2019-2020 UNC Student Body President, Ashton Martin

“No one believes me when I say this, but I never thought about running up until the end of September,” Martin said. 

In fact, the political science major and philosophy minor was one semester out from being put on academic probation by the Morehead-Cain Foundation.

As a recipient of the Morehead-Cain scholarship, after her first year, Martin must maintain a 3.0 minimum grade point average each semester and a 3.0 minimum cumulative grade point average. If either condition is not met, scholars fall on probation and lose certain privileges. If scholars fail to meet the minimum standards more than once, they could lose their full-ride merit scholarship to Carolina.

After talking with her scholar advisor, close friends, and mentors, Martin decided to run. As someone who had been involved in student government for a long time, she noticed certain issues and thought she had better ideas for how it could be run.

“I recognized some problems that I thought I could fix that people from the outside couldn’t see about the branch. Just like, structural and mostly cultural things going on,” Martin said. 

Student government culture at UNC poses many barriers to entry; if you’re not involved from the first year, the chances of you ascending to an executive leadership role are slim, especially for students of color. Upon gathering data on the demographics of student government, Martin said that one report showed that UNC student government was 70% white and over 50% male. Overall, UNC is 61% white, 58% female, and 42% male. 

Martin said, “We always talk about being a family, but there were over a 100 people who didn’t feel any real connection at all to student government.”

Martin believes people deserve a better chance and said she was intentional in selecting her cabinet members, some of which had not served in student government for the duration of their Carolina career. Martin was actually the only Native American serving in student government until last year. 

She was concerned about broadcasting her Indigeneity because she worried about making herself susceptible to tokenization. Rather than being picked solely for being Native, she wanted to be picked because she produced good work. However, it wasn’t until the campaign that she realized she wanted to bring things that were apart of her Native culture to the work she was doing.

From the age of 8, Martin attended heritage camp every summer for 10 years in her tobacco-farming hometown of Roxboro, North Carolina, eventually volunteering as a counselor. At the end of camp, kids would gather around and listen to the elders in the tribe tell stories about what it was like growing up in the community, attending tribal school prior to forced assimilation, etc.

Martin said, “My leadership philosophy is to listen, not to tell people things. I think that comes from the things I learned as a kid. You can’t speak for other communities because historically, other people have tried to speak for us.”

She feels particularly indebted to the Sappony women in her life for instilling the importance and value of education into her. She says that it taught her that you must listen to people’s perspectives first before figuring out what they need and that everything is more of a collaboration rather than “someone in charge,” which ultimately inspired her platform.

“I got really attached to the idea of home. Because this is my home. I love Roxboro but I don't consider it my home anymore and I didnt for a long time even before I came to college.”  Martin said. 

Despite Martin’s feature in The Courier-Times, the Person County local newspaper, growing up Native in Roxboro meant getting called Sacagawea or Pocahontas in grade school when wearing braids. For Martin, it meant having a white teacher approach her after she earned a full ride to UNC, and tell her that her daughter would have a harder time getting admitted because she’s white. However, Martin acknowledges that no matter how much she wanted it to be, Carolina didn't always feel like home for her and students from marginalized backgrounds. Her slogan “For Our Home” is founded upon the bigger picture: how can we make things safer and more secure here at UNC?

Breaking away from the precedent of complacency and neutrality that is expected of student body presidents, Martin directly and boldly condemns Silent Sam. Her platform says, “The presence of Confederate memorials on campus glorifies white supremacy and sends a message to students of color that their safety and comfort are not valued.”

“There are moments when you have to decide if I do this, this could have disastrous consequences for the campaign. There was never a moment when I considered not taking an activist standpoint,” Martin said. “If anyone was offended by me calling white supremacists white supremacists and supporting student activism, I didn’t want their vote.” 

Martin said that she is an activist first before a politician, defining activism as “being an advocate when [she] can, and an ally all the rest of the time.” She had attended the FDOC protests regarding Silent Sam for two years, and said she has made it clear to Interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and the Board of Trustees that being an activist is not a punishable offense — and should never be considered as such. She seeks to bring the student activist standpoint to legislation in spite of its difficulty, and the nebulous terms and conditions of her role as student body president.

As student body president, Martin represents over 30,000 students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and sits on the Board of Trustees as an ex officio member. That being said, in the case that issues affecting a specific set of students (i.e. if a Title IX case were to ascend to the Board), she must recuse herself as it would be considered a conflict of interest. However, Martin said that when asked if she would like to leave, she declined the offer and stayed.

As a student, Martin is enrolled in 12 credit hours and strategically stacked her classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, thus leaving room for meetings on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Of the 4 Trustee committees, she sits on 2 of them: University Affairs and External Relations. Martin is also on two search committees for the Chancellor and Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, a steering committee for a new school of data science, on the General Alumni Association board, and so much more. Trustee meetings, typically held at the Carolina Inn, last for 2 full days, and Martin attends all of them.

“Whenever something is relating to a student group or something that affects students, basically everyone looks at me and says, ‘What do they think?,’” Martin said, which she admits can be difficult to answer as new problems arise.

In regards to Silent Sam, they are in a “holding pattern”, simply waiting for the general assembly to do something. Martin says that what she wants is for the law to change. What it would take to keep the statue gone forever is changing the singular line in Section 100-2.1 of the North Carolina General Statutes: “An object of remembrance that is permanently relocated shall be relocated to a site of similar prominence, honor, visibility, availability, and access that are within the boundaries of the jurisdiction from which it was relocated.” Martin says The Board of Trustees tends to listen to her, however an official opinion from the Board of Governors would go a long way.

Martin said, “As student body president, you’re trying to walk this line of being someone they will listen to and not be discounted if you say too many ‘crazy’ things, but also be in the best interest of students.”

Martin remains committed to making Carolina home for all, and understands the pressure and privileges that come along with being the first Native American student body president. Martin is transparent about her struggles with imposter syndrome and wants people to be aware that Carolina is not an easy environment to be in — and grappling with mental health challenges as an Indigenous woman does not make it easier.

“It always feels like you have to be a little more accomplished to be the same person that it felt like it was easier for people before you to be,” Martin said. “And I had never really heard anyone talk about their mental health before I had come to college. That was not a thing.”

Yet she has sought mentorship from Christi Hurt, the former Interim Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, and Amy Locklear Hertel, the Chancellor’s Chief of Staff and a fellow American Indian woman. Martin says she’s learning to be kinder to herself in the midst of this by going to counseling and therapy and designating time for rest.

Her favorite part of the job though? Interacting with students. Whether it’s being invited to speak at Black Convocation hosted by the Black Student Movement or being the first SBP to enter an Asian-American space as they advocate for a dedicated center, she wants more people to feel like student government is valid for them and will listen to them.

“In virtue of being a part of a minority group, I’ve had other students feel safer inviting me into their spaces and have created that connection. I don’t know how to express how thankful I am for that, and how incredible the learning experience has been over the past couple of months as I’ve been invited to these communities,” Martin said.

Ruth Samuel