Nov. 5, 2021
Biology student Kameron Jones seeks to connect with fellow Indigenous students and serve Native American communities
An aspiring doctor and descendant of the Meherrin Indian Tribe, Jones is learning more about her history, and seeking opportunities to help create a better future.
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Kameron Jones came to Virginia Commonwealth University to find other Indigenous students, and while she’s not found any so far, she still holds hope. The sophomore, who is studying biology with a minor in chemistry in VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences, is a descendant of the Meherrin Indian Tribe and has gotten involved with organizations and groups at VCU that support underrepresented students, such as VCU P.R.I.M.E, a networking community for underrepresented students interested in pursuing careers in health care.
Her goal of connecting with other people who are Indigenous stems from her experience growing up in western Loudoun County, which was predominantly white. Jones didn't feel like she had an opportunity to meet people outside of her family with similar cultural backgrounds.
“I was very lucky to grow up in the community I did, thanks to the sacrifices that my parents and grandparents made, but I do feel like I neglected to embrace my culture and get more involved because of the demographics of my small town,” she said. “I didn’t grow up around people that look like me.”
Jones, an Honors College student who lives in a multigenerational household, has learned about her culture and tribe through her paternal grandmother.
“My grandmother has lived with us for as long as I have been alive. She was one of 20 children and the only child in her family to go to college. She taught English in the Washington, D.C., school system,” Jones said. “She taught my great-grandfather, who couldn’t read or write, how to sign his name.”
Struggling for identity
The Meherrins can be found in North Carolina, where Jones’ grandmother grew up, and in Virginia. Part of the Iroquois Nation, the small tribe struggles to be recognized. One issue facing the tribe is the lack of federal recognition.
“We are state recognized by North Carolina,” Jones said. “If tribes are not federally recognized, people don’t know about them.”
In 2018, the Chickahominy, the Eastern Chickahominy, the Upper Mattaponi, the Rappahannock, the Monacan and the Nansemond tribes in Virginia gained federal recognition after years of seeking it. Virginia’s Pamunkey Tribe received federal recognition in 2015.
“I have definitely noticed a distinct line between state and federal recognized tribes,” Jones said. “Our tribe is even more forgotten.”
Jones has been researching her family tree but is having difficulty because the information she is finding doesn’t recognize her family as Native American. They are instead categorized as “Negro.” The lack of Native American classification in Virginia dates to Walter Plecker, M.D., who was the first registrar of the state’s Bureau of Vital Statistics. Plecker drafted the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which was passed by the state legislature. The act recognized only two races — white and Black. Under Plecker’s orders, state agencies had to reclassify most people who were Native American as “colored.” It was an erasing of cultural identity.
The United States Supreme Court overturned the act in 1967 and later, in 2001, a resolution condemning the act passed the Virginia General Assembly.
“If I didn’t have my grandmother, who was so integrated in the tribe and grew up on the land, I wouldn’t know about my culture,” Jones said. “I am trying to learn more about not only my grandmother but also further back in our history.”
One of the biggest lessons Jones’ grandmother has taught her is the importance of family.
“Everything goes back to your family in native culture,” Jones said. “As a teen, I didn’t want to have a lot to do with family but now I am recognizing the fact that family is important.”
Another important lesson was to always speak up.
“I clearly can hear Grammy’s voice telling me to go get an education, get good grades, stand for what I believe in and find my voice,” Jones said. “As a young teenage girl, I don't think I really understood the gravity of what she was telling me and now it's important to me that I do just that.”
Her grandmother’s stories and lessons came from her own experience of paving her own path and finding her place as a Native American woman and an English teacher for over 40 years, Jones said.
“I always say that I am very lucky to be her granddaughter,” she said. “In many ways, I feel my efforts to connect with fellow Indigenous students, share our history and celebrate our culture is exactly what she meant all these years."
Jones, who is in a pre-med track, is interested in becoming a doctor and working in women’s health.
“I would like to work with native women, especially when they are pregnant,” she said. “I have done research on how we can change the maternal care system and how we can help. I would like to bring skills back to my community — the Meherrins and other Native Americans.”
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