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Orange County Schools developing Native American studies course for high schoolers


Sappony tribe member and Orange County Schools employee, Kara Stewart is advocating for better teaching of Native American history in Orange County Schools. Photo courtesy of Kara Stewart.

Orange County Schools is working toward the creation of an honors Native American studies course at the high school level. 

The OCS Board of Education unanimously approved the initiative on Oct. 11 in a resolution titled "Honoring Indigenous Peoples’ Day 2021 and the Native Peoples of North Carolina."

The resolution endorses a continued effort to educate teachers and students on Native people from across the country.

It also points to the historic lack of comprehensive and accurate educational material on Native Americans in the public school system, as well a lack of support and "path to academic success" for Indigenous students. 

Kara Stewart, a member of the Sappony Tribe and employee of Orange County Schools, recalled messages she and her daughter wrote to the district's superintendent at the time about a 2003 field trip to Tweetsie Railroad — a theme park that Stewart said perpetuated negative Native American stereotypes.

But Stewart said their messages were ignored.

“I was questioning that annual trip and I never got a reply from anyone and my daughter," she said. "She was in seventh grade at the time, and she also wrote a letter and never got any response."

Current education lacking

While working with Orange County Schools, Stewart said she has taken on the goal of educating other employees on how to talk about and teach Native American history and culture to their students.

“I try to put out information districtwide to kind of bust stereotypes, to provide good alternatives to stereotypical literature or lesson plans — things like that,” she said.

Stewart has taken this education effort to the school board at the request of Chairperson Hillary MacKenzie and Dena Keeling, the district's chief equity officer. She delivered four 1.5-hour educational sessions to the board about Native American history and culture.

“You kind of have to have a grounding in what the Indigenous people in North Carolina and Virginia, this whole area, has been to understand where we are now and why,” Stewart said.

Some aspects of history that Stewart discussed in the educational sessions include issue cards and the legacy of Native American boarding schools.

Issue cards, which recognized tribal ancestry, were intended and used by "white-run systems" to regulate the movement of Native Americans in the state throughout much of the 20th century, according to the resolution. The resolution also identifies the forced boarding of Indigenous youth in government-run residential schools as a means of "assimilation into white Christian culture." 

According to the Northern Plains Reservations Aid, students were required to give up traditional hairstyles and foods and take on “white names.” Students have described sexual and physical abuse and were banned from and punished for retaining anything pertaining to Native American culture.

The Native American Rights Fund has called the system of boarding "a deliberate policy of ethnocide and cultural genocide." 

It wasn't until 1978, when the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed, that Native American parents had the right to keep their children out of these boarding schools.

In June, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced a federal initiative to examine the the trauma and pain caused by these schools.

“The Interior Department will address the inter-generational impact of Indian boarding schools to shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past, no matter how hard it will be,” Haaland said in a press release. “I know that this process will be long and difficult. I know that this process will be painful. It won’t undo the heartbreak and loss we feel. But only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future that we’re all proud to embrace.”

Seeing a fuller picture

The board is also working with members of the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation Tribe. During the work session where the resolution was passed, MacKenzie recognized the importance of the partnerships being made to move this process forward.

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“I also just want to highlight that the historian from the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation also did a lot of work helping us review this resolution, bring forward facts, and they’ve been amazing thought partners in this process as well,” MacKenzie said during the work session.

Board member Carrie Doyle has taken the lead on the resolution. She is hopeful this new course will be available in the 2021-2022 school year, but said it is up to school principals to find the right school and teacher for this course.

One of Doyle’s hopes is that the new course will not just focus on the past, but will center current Native people, such as the first Native American U.S. poet laureate, Joy Harjo.

“Seeing a fuller picture of Native American peoples and how they are living in modern times also helps dispel stereotypes that students have of Native Americans as something from long ago,” Doyle said.

AJ Hunt-Briggs, president of Carolina Indian Circle and a member of the Lumbee tribe, echoed this idea in an email to The Daily Tar Heel, saying that she has encountered people who were shocked to learn that Native people still exist and that she is one.

In high school, Hunt-Briggs said they were asked to educate peers on Western Plains Natives, which they did not know anything about because their tribe is from the Southeast. Hunt-Briggs said that this is something important to keep in mind in the creation of the new course.

“This course needs to be taught in a way that makes sure that Native students are not doing emotional labor because they do not deserve to have to educate others when they are not educators,” Hunt-Briggs said.

The school board is taking cues from the recent successful implementation of an African American studies course in the district, Doyle said, as well as reaching out to other districts who have implemented similar courses.

“All students of all identities do better when we know and respect each other's heritage and identity,” Doyle said.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to include a statement from Carolina Indian Circle President AJ Hunt-Briggs.

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