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Early on a Tuesday evening, 21 students logged into School of Continuing & Professional Studies Professor Charlotte Matthews’ class on Writing About the Natural World, an elective within the Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies (BIS) program. They were in for a treat.
D Jay Kuhns, a current SCPS student working toward his bachelor’s degree, and Matt Latimer, a Professor of English and Director of the Writing Center at Central Virginia Community College, were eager to share their traditional Native American beliefs and practices concerning the environment and its inhabitants.
“The goal for this class is to encourage students to slow down, to notice, and to foster a reverence for our natural surroundings,” Professor Matthews explained. “Our SCPS students have lived lives of substance. Anytime a student comes to me and says they would like to share a topic they’re knowledgeable about, I try to step aside and let them shine. I may be the sherpa for the class, but we are all hiking it together.”
Kuhns thought his ancestors’ reverence for nature and their foundational belief of belonging to something much larger would add to his class’s recent explorations into ethical and philosophical issues surrounding the environment. He hoped his classmates would walk away with a deeper appreciation of the world around them.
Kuhns, a member of the Mattaponi Indian tribe - the “people of the river” - and Latimer, a member of the Monacan Indian Nation, immediately felt a deep connection when they first met. “It was like meeting a long-lost relative,” Kuhns recalled. Despite originating from different tribes, the two fostered their connection through shared spiritual and cultural practices.
Having grown up sensing an erasure of their cultures, the pair discovered they shared a goal of keeping their heritage alive. “It’s so seldom to hear the Native American voice today - it seems like we are myths to many people. So to be given a platform, no matter how big or small, is nice.” Kuhns reflected.
And in fact, Kuhns had recently been offered a significant platform as the first Native American student invited to speak to Virginia’s Community Colleges in Roanoke, Virginia. Kuhns accepted the offer, considering it an immense responsibility but an opportunity to represent Native Americans in the state of Virginia.
Heritage drives both Kuhns and Latimer, and they have woven it into their daily lives. Latimer carries a quiet reverence with him and has dedicated time to become fluent in the Monacan Indian Nation’s tribal language. Kuhns recognizes his heritage has shaped the decisions he has made. After graduating high school in Virginia Beach, Kuhns enrolled in Tidewater Community College, but opted to instead pursue a record label and tour with his band. Given time, he realized that second to music, his energy and happiness stemmed from helping others, and he sought jobs where he felt a sense of mission and service.
“My uncle, Dr. Linwood 'Little Bear' Custalow, was the first Native American physician in the Commonwealth of Virginia. He and my grandfather passed on to me that the best way Native Americans can advance themselves is through education.” This legacy is what inspired Kuhns to return to complete his degree. “UVA was a childhood dream for me,” he remarked.
“So many of my professors have changed my life for the better,” Kuhns commented. He shared that while leaving the music industry left him feeling hollowed out, the self-discovery, insights and knowledge he is gaining at SCPS is filling him up again. Through his classes, Kuhns is able to explore music, artwork and writing. He is offered space to pursue interests academically like the impact of music therapy on mental health issues. Kuhns continues,
“My professors have instilled a confidence in me. They’ve helped melt away my preconceived notions about what things should and should not look like. What I’m doing at SCPS is filling up the hole in a way I never thought was possible.”
One thing Kuhns knows for sure is that he will continue to nurture and share the seeds planted at UVA through a career fueled by serving others, and a personal mission to keep his Native American heritage alive.