In February, a stare-down between a Native American man beating a drum and a white teenager in a MAGA hat caused a national stir outside the Lincoln Memorial.
Three years ago, President Trump began calling Sen. Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas.”
And 10 years ago, Leslie Locklear, a member of the Lumbee and Waccamaw Siouan tribes, was a freshman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her classmates asked if she lived in a teepee.
“As a younger Native woman, I spent countless hours explaining myself and my race,” she said. “It was both infuriating and exhausting to have the same conversation, in every class, with every new group of people, for countless semesters.”
From Locklear’s freshman year to today’s recent headlines, general confusion about Native American culture and history remains.
Locklear said her peers’ comments were the fault of an American public school system that doesn’t teach the roles of American Indians in an accurate way. Educators see long-term problems with glossing over Native American history starting in elementary school.
“Not only is it not accurate, there is a significant portion of information missing,” said Locklear, now the program director for the First Americans’ Teacher Education Program at UNC-Pembroke.
Native Americans compose about one percent of the U.S. population. American Indian/Alaska Native residents make up 1.8 percent of North Carolina’s population as of 2014. North Carolina was one of only 15 states to have 100,000 or more residents from this group.
“When a voice is so small, it’s very easy to overlook it,” Locklear said.
Kayla Trevethan, who teaches social studies in Wake County, thinks her first- and second-grade students aren’t getting much information about Native American life and history, even though they could handle it.
“I don’t really think that, you know, it’s the best teaching practice to be reading and sharing literature with younger kids that pretty much just paints this happy-go-lucky picture of Native American lives,” she said. “Because that is not what happened.”
According to the North Carolina State Board of Education, teachers are required to teach changes in American Indian life before and after European exploration in the fourth and eighth grades, but Locklear said this leads primarily to discussions of the Trail of Tears and that’s it.
Some educators say what’s taught is whitewashed.
Christopher Scott, an assistant professor at UNC-CH and member of the Lumbee tribe, said that classroom instruction enforces that the world just began when Christopher Columbus came to the new world.
“We don’t teach kids that a holocaust happened in our country to the Natives that were here,” Scott said.
When she was a kindergartner in Charlotte, Erin Stacks learned about Thanksgiving by dressing up and joining her fellow Indian and Pilgrim classmates to peacefully eat a meal together. They held hands and broke bread, learning that the Indians and Pilgrims were allies who shared knowledge and thrived together.
This rendition of the Thanksgiving story has been played out for decades, but it glosses over the true relationship between indigenous people and Pilgrims.
Today as a senior at UNC-CH, Stacks has seen improvements in her peers’ education on Native culture but there are still glaring gaps of knowledge.
“You can ask people when did Blacks in our nation receive the right to vote, when did women receive the right to vote, people know these things,” she said. “But you ask someone when did Native Americans receive the right to vote, and people don’t know that it was 1924 because it’s not taught as intensely in our school system.”
While the North Carolina education standards for elementary school call for a discussion of the Trail of Tears in the fourth grade, Locklear does not think this goes far enough to educate students about tribes outside of the federally recognized Eastern Band of Cherokee.
A study conducted by social studies scholars in 2013 found that 87 percent of state-mandated K-12 education standards placed Native Americans in a solely pre-1900 context, not mentioning the ongoing battle for civil rights.
Trevethan’s second-grade students learned about Native Americans by studying the concept of artifacts left behind from past civilizations.
“I’m not totally sure that (my students) have an awareness that there are still Native Americans today, almost like it was a thing of the past,” Trevethan said. “Wow.”
Scott and Locklear worry about American Indian students’ sense of identity.
Scott, a former elementary principal, has seen the education system penalize students for displaying their culture. For example, students who are Lumbee have a linguistic marker that varies from standard English. Because of this, Scott said they can’t write the way they speak at home because it is viewed as incorrect. These punishments for showing ethnic identity in the classroom can lead students to choose between success or showing their heritage.
“You learn to hide,” he said. “You learn these traits of invisibility. You learn to mask who you are because that’s safety.”
Locklear sees the same thing.
“I’m spending 12 years in a school system that does not mention my people, does not recognize my people,” she said. “And then in those critical middle school, early high school years, where I’m trying to develop my identity and all I see in the media is Pocahontas, and the savages, and the cowboys and the Indians, it almost harms that positive identity development.”
Stacks said that her sense of Native American identity started forming because her family kept traditions alive, but she had to explain to students what her culture was.
“It kind of started in middle school,” she said, “when I kind of realized that Native Americans live in society normally and that my classmates didn’t understand that.”
Today, Stacks answers more questions from college classmates about cultural appropriation than the questions Locklear faced during her time at UNC-CH. Around Halloween, Stacks and the Carolina Indian Circle carry signs in the heart of campus to educate their peers about costumes that hypersexualize Native women or fuel cultural stereotypes.
Stacks can provide this education, but she said the earlier people can be taught about Native American tradition and culture, such as in elementary school, the better.
The State Advisory Council on Indian Education advocates to end low achievement rates among Native American students and provides an annual report to schools displaying the achievement gap between Native students and others in the subjects North Carolina tests.
Olivia Oxendine, a member of both the state Board of Education and the Lumbee tribe, said the gap was startling. By providing an annual report highlighting the difference in testing between Native students and other groups, Oxendine said creative teachers can build lesson plans around this information.
The standards might be too skimpy and too focused on only one tribe, but publishing information on the achievement gap and requiring it on every school’s website is a step in the right direction, Oxendine said.
The advisory council’s website provides resources on teaching about Native Americans and, for instance, how to teach about Thanksgiving.
Scott said that the burden of accurately teaching this information can’t just lie on educators, but also on policy.
Right now, Stacks calls the amount of information in the school systems about her people “empty,” but she has hope that will change one day.
“I feel like society is slowly moving toward becoming more receptive and more aware,” she said.
But for educators like Locklear, there’s no reason why the learning shouldn’t begin at a very early age.
“To me, it is just the right thing to do, to tell the truth,” she said, “to not basically lie about the history of what this country was founded on.”
Sophie Whisnant is a senior in the UNC School of Media and Journalism studying reporting. From Wilmington, North Carolina, Sophie has worked at the Wilmington Star-News as a Gatehouse Media intern. She has also interned at Creative Loafing, a lifestyle magazine, based in Charlotte. Sophie is pursuing a career in entertainment writing for a magazine.