Recently, Lauren Carpenter and Paiton Funderburk, both members of the Catawba Tribe, were given an assignment in their high school’s American history class. The task: debate the pros and cons of the Indian Removal Act, both in class and with a longer paper.
The Indian Removal Act, signed by Andrew Jackson in 1830, forcibly removed 100,000 Choctaws, Cherokees, Chickasaws, Creeks and Seminoles from their traditional homelands. Forced to march westward under U.S. military coercion, 25 percent of the men, women and children died of illness, starvation, exposure and exhaustion.
As the only two American Indian students in the class, Carpenter and Funderburk were deeply uncomfortable with the assignment, and discussed their concerns with their teacher and principal. Both students, along with their parents and other tribal members, explained that the assignment was culturally-insensitive and inappropriate.
“A teacher would never ask students to articulate and defend both sides of The Holocaust,” says DeLesslin George-Warren, Special Projects Coordinator of the Catawba Cultural Fellowship Program. “You wouldn’t ask students if Hitler’s policies were beneficial to Jewish people or gay people or socialists in Nazi Germany.”
Although their teacher and principal sympathized with their concerns, both students were still required to write a paper asking them how Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Policy benefited tribes. Reluctantly, both students wrote papers, which they knew they needed in order to pass American history so they could graduate from high school and fulfill their dreams of earning college degrees.
“This experience has made me more aware of how our culture – and other cultures – are misrepresented in the classroom. It has really affected my views on our education system,” says Carpenter. “This experience has been really eye-opening,” agrees Funderburk. “It shows a lack of knowledge within the education system about Indigenous people.”
In 2016 First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) launched Reclaiming Native Truth: A Project to Dispel America’s Myths and Misconceptions, a co-led nationwide research initiative funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and other supporters. As part of this initiative, researchers collected and analyzed data from focus groups, in-depth interviews and thousands of online survey responses to identify damaging and pervasive American Indian stereotypes, and then explore potential strategies for challenging these harmful narratives.
Among the many findings, this groundbreaking research revealed that American Indian myths and misconceptions are most often learned in the classroom and ingrained in the minds of students at very young ages. In parent/teacher focus groups, both demographics acknowledged that American Indian culture and history are often “underrepresented and inaccurate” in K-12 curriculum. Furthermore, this research also indicated that many people are angry and disappointed that the information they were taught in school was “so sparse or misleading.”
Seventy-two percent of those surveyed emphasized that it is “necessary to make significant changes to school curriculum.” Although some states such as Oregon, California and a handful of other school boards have started working with Native leaders to correct previously harmful narratives about local tribes, many other school administrators and teachers have yet to follow their lead.
Indeed, many teachers admitted in their Reclaiming Native Truth focus groups that the “history of Native American peoples” and “pre-Columbian American history and culture” are two of the “worst subjects in terms of coverage and accuracy.” The key to overcoming these limitations is for schools to partner with tribes to develop culturally-sensitive curriculum that is grounded in the tribe’s specific culture and history.
Unfortunately, until such curriculum changes occur, American Indian students must sit in classrooms that dismiss and devalue their culture and history.
“I’ve told other students about Catawba and they seem genuinely interested in our tribe,” says Funderburk. “It’s a shame that Catawba knowledge isn’t integrated into the education system.” The Catawba Indian Nation has lived alongside the Catawba River in present-day North and South Carolina for more than 6,000 years. The U.S. dramatically reduced the tribe’s land base from 144,000 acres to a 700-acre reservation located approximately 30 miles from Charlotte, North Carolina.
“Our reservation is less than 15 minutes away from the city,” says George-Warren. “And still most people don’t know who we are or where we live.”
Currently, George-Warren is working closely with Catawba parents and students to draft a letter to the newly-elected school board to encourage local schools to partner with the Catawba Indian Nation to incorporate Catawba culture and history into K-12 curriculum. George-Warren is hopeful that the school board will be receptive to this collaboration.
In 2018, First Nations awarded the Catawba Cultural Center a grant of $19,950, through the Native Youth and Culture Fund, to launch a fellowship program to develop the cultural and leadership skills of five Catawba youth. Through this program, Catawba youth are mentored by accomplished traditional artists in their area of interest and later teach their skills to Catawba youth participating in summer programs. Carpenter and Funderburk are among the first cohort of fellows.
“I am really, really proud of Lauren and Paiton for taking a stand so other students won’t have to go through the same thing,” said George-Warren.
Both Carpenter and Funderburk will graduate high school this spring and head to college in the fall. Carpenter, a Dreamstarter for Running Strong, has her sights set on medical school to become a cardiologist, and Funderburk intends to pursue a master’s degree in wildlife conservation. However, before both students embark on this new adventure, they will spend the summer mentoring Catawba youth ages 5-12, thereby inspiring and empowering a new generation of culturally-conscious leaders.
By Sarah Hernandez, First Nations Communications Officer