November is Native American Heritage Month, and students at Guilford County Schools have been learning about Indigenous Peoples’ history and culture.
Stephen Bell from the Lumbee Tribe is Guilford County Schools’ American Indian Education Coordinator.
This month, he’s organized multiple school assemblies sharing Native dancing, artwork, and songs with children.
“I think one of my favorite opportunities to share with kids when we're going through these assemblies is for them to see a Native person in regular clothes, but then also a Native person in regalia and to help them understand that this is something that is really important, just like we would wear to a graduation or wear to a wedding," Bell said. "We don't just put on these clothes to pretend that we're Native. We put this on for very important occasions, and it's a celebration of our culture.”
In addition to assemblies, the American Indian Education Program has hosted roundtable discussions, provided history lessons on its website, and created teaching guides with input from Native families.
Bell says this education challenges the inaccurate beliefs and harmful stereotypes students might have about Native people. He attributes those, in part, to the erasure of Native history in schools.
“The state standards are really lacking when it comes to Native history and even more so lacking when it comes to Native history after 1900,” he said. “Think about how much has happened in our country in the last 120 years. And it really erases so much that it's no wonder that kids, and now adults think that Native people don't exist. Because in your history books, you sort of never hear about them again.”
That has a negative impact on Native students, Bell says.
“My kids will tell me that when they tell someone that they're Native or tell someone that they're Lumbee, they're often responded with, ‘Well, you don't look like a Native,’ or ‘Where are your feathers at?’ Or, ‘Do you live in a teepee?’ sort of thing,” Bell said. “All the way up to some kids have said, ‘There's no way you can be Native because we killed you all.’”
He says those messages can impact students in a social-emotional way, but also academically.
“I think of how we can, from a system level, really support our Native kids. And why Native American Heritage Month is so important is that we feel, and are invisibilized and erased so, so frequently,” he said. “It's really important to elevate us not just in November, but all throughout the year.”
Guilford County Schools has students from more than 30 Tribes and Nations.
Amy Diaz covers education for WFDD in partnership with Report For America. You can follow her on Twitter at @amydiaze.