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EdExplainer: How do we support Indigenous students in North Carolina?

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  • “It's still good to make the students aware that we still exist and our culture is very important,” one indigenous student said. Find how Indigenous students in our state are supported.
  • Indigenous students comprise 1% of North Carolina public school populations. What sort of supports do these students have in our state?

According to NC Demography, 1% of the state’s population identifies as American Indian. While North Carolina’s population grew by 9.5% from the 2010 census to the 2020 census, the American Indian population in North Carolina decreased by nearly 8,000. This does not account for individuals who identified as multiracial. 

Data from BEST NC shows that demographic data for Indigenous students in North Carolina public schools is reflective of this population data. American Indian students make up 1% of traditional public school and public charter school populations. 

So, as one of the smallest ethnic groups in the state, what does education in North Carolina’s public schools look like for Indigenous students? And how are we supporting these students? 

It’s important to note that North Carolina has the largest Indigenous population east of the Mississippi River, with seven state-recognized tribes and one federally recognized tribe. 

North Carolina has eight recognized tribes: 

In addition to this, there are four urban organizations in North Carolina for American Indians living outside of their tribal territories. These are:  

Map of North Carolina Native American communities. Courtesy of the NC Commission of Indian Affairs.

Indian Education in North Carolina

The U.S. Department of Education funds the Indian Education Formula Grant (Title VI). This grant is designed to support school districts, tribes and organizations, postsecondary institutions, and other groups that work to meet the academic needs of American Indian and Alaska Native students. Indian education programs are designed to provide additional enrichment, after-school programs that target graduation rates and early childhood, increase proficiency in core subjects, and help provide support that may not otherwise be available. 

Rodney Jackson is the Indian Education Coordinator at Cumberland County Schools. He says supporting students in his district is a team effort. 

“We have been truly blessed to have so many people who want to collaborate with us and want to work with us to get more knowledge about American Indian education out there,” Jackson said. 

In his district, this means visiting every school, meeting with students and teachers, and letting them know that the Indian Education department is there. Jackson says his team regularly meets with data managers to see how Indigenous students need additional support. 

Many Indian Education programs in the state provide both academic and cultural support. American Indian students make up 1.4% of Cumberland County’s public school population, so Jackson and his team prioritize connecting American Indian students in their district with each other and with his department. 

According to the State Advisory Council on Indian Education report, Bladen, Harnett, Hertford, Orange, and Sampson are all counties where tribes are located, but there is no Title VI coordinator employed by the local school district. However, the Coharie Tribe in Sampson County employs a Title VI Indian Education coordinator that serves Sampson County Schools.

The State Advisory Council on Indian Education Report Findings 

The mission of the State Advisory Council on Indian Education (SACIE) is to “create a system that engages state policy leaders, public school personnel, parents, tribal leaders, and communities in providing educational experiences and cultural opportunities that promote high expectations and accountability for the academic achievement of American Indian students, thus preparing students for success in a globally competitive environment.” 

This spring, the council released its annual report to the State Board of Education. The report, “Equitable and Intentional Practices: The Healing Power of American Indian Education,” provides a summary of overall state findings relative to end-of grade (EOG) scores, dropout and graduation rates, and suspension data. In closing, the SACIE provides recommendations to the State Board of Education. 

Findings included metrics on how Indigenous students in North Carolina performed compared to their peers. In most of North Carolina’s school districts where American Indian students are present, enrollment is still small. The data presented conclude that overall, Indigenous students are performing below grade level in reading and math.

Taking a look at EOG reading and math scores for grades 3-8 combined, the data shows that American Indian students underperformed their peers.

In reading, 28% of American Indian students demonstrated grade-level proficiency in reading compared to the state average for all students of 45.6%. 

In math, the data show that American Indian students performed 19.5 percentage points lower than the state average proficiency rate in 2018- 19. The report states that 20.5% of American Indian students demonstrated grade-level proficiency in math – well below the state average of 40%. 

While the number of Indigenous students enrolled in North Carolina school districts is low, the report advises that other data be taken into account. This includes nine-week grades, daily progress, and other local assessments. 

“Nevertheless, because it is safe to conclude that American Indian students, for the most part, are performing below grade-level in reading and math, extra effort must be made to increase achievement in these areas,” the report states. 

The report lists several recommendations for NCDPI, school districts, and Title VI Indian Education coordinators to implement. See the full list of recommendations below: 

The SACIE also recommends resources to North Carolina educators to equip them to provide culturally relevant instruction. Culturally Responsive Instructional Resources for Teaching American Indians is a resource from the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) that provides resources on teaching about American Indians and for teaching American Indian students. 

DPI defines cultural competence as the ability to successfully teach students who come from cultures other than your own. There are four basic cultural competence skill areas:

  • Valuing diversity
  • Being culturally self-aware
  • Understanding the dynamics of cultural interactions
  • Institutionalizing cultural knowledge and diversity

Included in this resource are teaching resources related to Thanksgiving and eliminating stereotypes of Native Americans in classrooms, recommended texts, and more. 

The SACIE is made up of 15 members, including five American Indian parents of students in the state’s K-12 public schools and five American Indian public school educators. Legislation mandates that nominees be recommended by the N.C. Commission on Indian Affairs, then approved by the State Board of Education. Most recently, four new nominees and one member returning for a second term were approved by the State Board of Education:

  • Calvin Locklear, parent, Triangle Native American Society
  • Stacey Lynch, parent, Haliwa Saponi tribe
  • Angelique Young, educator, Coharie tribe
  • Jeremiah Moore, educator, Lumbee tribe
  • Rodney Jackson, educator, Lumbee tribe, returning for a second term

Find SACIE’s presentation to the board here

Read the full report here.

Indigenous Mascots in North Carolina Schools

The SACIE’s report also requests that the State Board of Education strengthen a resolution written in 2002. The SACIE proposes that all public schools would eliminate the use of all Indigenous mascots, logos, and nicknames by the start of the 2023-24 school year. 

Since 2002, several North Carolina schools have eliminated the use of Indigenous mascots or imagery. In 2002, 73 North Carolina schools used Indigenous mascots/imagery, 43 schools in 2012, and as of July 2017, only 34 schools used Indigenous-themed mascots, logos, and names. This number does not include other schools that use terms like Warriors and Braves but do not have an Indian-themed mascot/logo. 

The council argues that it is the board’s responsibility to address these mascots, logos, and imagery. 

“Given the State Board of Education’s commitment to the well-being of American Indian students, to eliminating opportunity gaps by 2025, and to making schools and educators more culturally relevant and equity-focused, it is important for the State Board to reaffirm its opposition to American Indian mascots, nicknames, and logos, particularly those that employ and perpetuate offensive stereotypes about American Indians,” the report reads. 

According to the American Psychological Association, American Indian mascots can have negative effects on Indigenous students’ self-esteem, but also on non-Native students by limiting their view of Indigenous peoples and perpetuating stereotypes.

Dr. Stephanie Fryberg from the University of Arizona found that “The current American Indian mascot representations function as inordinately powerful communicators, to natives and nonnatives alike, of how American Indians should look and behave. American Indian mascots thus remind American Indians of the limited ways in which others see them.”

Fryberg wrote that the presence of American Indian-themed mascots coupled with a lack of accurate representation is what makes these images harmful.

Getting to graduation

Nationally, American Indian students have the lowest graduation rate out of all ethnicities at 74% – lower than the national average of 88%. Making it to high school graduation is a feat for American Indian students in our state and in our schools.

In North Carolina, the graduation rate for American Indian high school students is 83.4%, lower than the state average of 87%. In the 2020-21 school year, the graduation rate for American Indian students decreased by 1.7 percentage points from the previous year.

Many tribes and tribal communities present high school graduates with eagle or hawk feathers to commemorate this accomplishment, typically worn in the tassel of their mortarboard caps. States like Arizona, California, Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, and Washington have recently enacted laws that either preserve students’ rights or bar schools from enforcing dress codes banning tribal regalia.

Over the years, American Indian students who graduate from high schools in North Carolina have taken matters into their own hands.

For many students, this starts with an appeal to local school boards. Zianne Richardson and her sister, Evynn, were a part a group that appealed to the Warren County School Board in January 2019. A member of the Haliwa-Saponi Indian tribe located in Warren and Halifax counties, Zianne was eager to sport her eagle feather at graduation. 

The group created a formal presentation, wrote a script, and garnered support from their tribal community. They hoped their preparation would indicate the seriousness and urgency of their request. 

“We told them how important it was to us to have our eagle feathers with us at graduation,” Zianne said. 

Evynn Richardson wears her eagle feather at graduation. Courtesy of Evynn Richardson

In minutes from the board’s regular meeting on April 9, 2019, the superintendent and board attorney cite several reasons for prohibiting eagle feathers and other additional items to graduation regalia. The superintendent argued that continuing to forbid the items would “maintain dignity during graduation.” 

When the administration changed the following year, the school board changed its views on adding cultural items to graduation regalia. Two years later, Evynn graduated from Warren New Tech High School. She wore the eagle feather gifted to her during her coming of age ceremony, and a feather in honor of her sister. 

More recently, the Cumberland County Schools Indian Education department hosted an Eagle Feather Ceremony. This was the department’s first in-person ceremony since it started with a drive-thru ceremony in 2020.

While Indigenous students in Cumberland County Schools still cannot wear feathers at their graduation ceremonies, Jackson, the district’s Indian education coordinator, said his department is taking small steps. 

“It’s a work in progress,” Jackson said. “… We got the eagle feather approved, so to me, that was a huge accomplishment.” 

Both Jackson and the Richardsons encourage students and parents hoping to make changes to the requirements related to eagle and hawk feathers to contact their school boards.

NCNAYO provides cultural and academic support

The North Carolina Native American Youth Organization (NCNAYO) is a nonprofit organization that supports American Indian youth through various opportunities and activities, including an annual leadership conference each summer, a youth executive committee, and more. This not only allows youth to network with other Indigenous youth from across the state but also provides the opportunity for them to connect with adult leaders. 

“We really center it around them being prepped and prepared to kind of lead when they leave high school,” Dr. Leslie Locklear, co-chair of the NCNAYO adult advisory committee, said. 

NCNAYO was established in 1979 when it first began supporting American Indian students in North Carolina by fostering cultural leadership and providing college prep. The organization has two major arms: the adult advisory committee and the youth advisory committee. While both are important to the function of the organization, it is the youth advisory committee that plans the annual conference and monthly meetings. This group prepares meeting agendas, chooses the location for the annual conference, and plans the sessions and guest speakers at the conference. 

“What I love about (the youth advisory committee) is they do think outside of the box, and they’re willing to go big or go home,” Locklear said.

On the other hand, it is the adult advisory committee that puts the youth’s ideas into motion. They monitor the budget, reach out to their contacts, and handle minute details. 

Prior to the conference, the youth advisory committee plans visits to each of the tribal communities in the state, where they learn from elders and leaders in these communities, often partnering with Indian Education coordinators in these areas. Each monthly meeting has anywhere from 30-60 participants.

This year at East Carolina University was the first in-person NCNAYO conference since 2019, when the conference was hosted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. To further support students, the conference took a particular focus on social and emotional well-being. Locklear said allowing students to “reconnect” after the pandemic was a priority.

Students attend a series of workshops with topics ranging from Indigenous agriculture practices, art as activism, the history of North Carolina tribes, college and career readiness, and more. Students participated in a series of sessions that allowed for cultural exploration related to Native American dancing, drumming, art, food, etc.

What students have to say

Indigenous students in North Carolina attend schools with Indigenous student populations as high as 80% and as low as .1%.

Some students who attend schools with lower Indigenous student populations say they tend to take on the role of “educator” — holding the responsibility of teaching their classmates about American Indian culture and history. Other students at schools with higher Indigenous populations continue to take on the role of student.

Ava Cummings is a rising 10th grader at Smithfield-Selma High School in Johnston County, North Carolina. Cheyenne McNeill/Education

Ava Cummings is a rising 10th grader at Smithfield-Selma High School in Johnston County. She’s Lumbee and Coharie. American Indian students comprise .28% of the student population in Johnston County Schools. Cummings says she doesn’t know any other Native students at her school.

“So, it’s both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s a bad thing, because obviously, sometimes you feel isolated. But it’s also a good thing because it’s a good opportunity for me to like share my culture with people that don’t know a lot about it,” she said.

Despite not knowing any other American Indian students at her school, Cummings says having more Native American teachers at her school would allow her non-Native classmates to learn more.

“I think a little bit more representation. Even though I may be the only Native there, it’s still good to like make the students aware that we still exist and our culture is very important,” she said.

Joseph Cintron is a rising 10th grader at Purnell Swett High School in Pembroke, North Carolina. Cheyenne McNeill, EducationNC

Joseph Cintron is a rising 10th grader at Purnell Swett High School in Pembroke. Cintron is a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. He said attending school with other Native American students and having Native American teachers is a benefit for him and his classmates.

“It’s not unusual. At my school there’s a bunch of Native Americans, so you really don’t have to stand out, you get to fit in,” Cintron said. “They teach us about our culture.”

Purnell Swett High School’s student population is just over 80% Native American.

Logan Lynch is a rising 8th grader at Warren County Middle School in Warrenton, North Carolina. Cheyenne McNeill, EducationNC

Logan Lynch is a rising eighth grader at Warren County Middle School in Warrenton, and a member of the Haliwa-Saponi tribe. He said being a part of a small group of Native students at his school allows him to help educate his classmates.

“I think we should try to probably bring in more Native students and get the population up so that we can educate a lot more people that probably don’t know a bunch of stuff because it’s been wiped away from us,” he said.

Ja’Coa Richardson is a rising 9th grader at Warren County High School. Cheyenne McNeill, EducationNC

Ja’Coa Richardson is a rising ninth grader at Warren County High School. A member of the Haliwa-Saponi Indian tribe, Richardson said his culture is often mocked.

“Sometimes it’s hard because people make fun of you and your culture. We got this whole thing with the schools and we’ll have a culture day and a lot of us will go down to the schools,” he said. “They make fun of us. We need to have more programs based on the subject.”

Around 9% of students at Warren County High School are Native American.

Behind the Story

The terms American Indian, Native American, and Indigenous are used interchangeably in this article. According to the National Museum of the American Indian, all of these terms are acceptable, however, the general agreement is to refer to Native people by their specific tribal name. Native peoples often have individual preferences on how they would like to be addressed. A best practice is to use the language that members of the community use to describe themselves.

Cheyenne McNeill

Cheyenne McNeill is a communications strategist for EdNC.