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WS/FCS Recognizes Native American Heritage Month
November 30, 2023 – Nussan Olrun was born in Alaska, lived in New Jersey, and eventually settled in North Carolina. She’s been to a diverse range of schools, and she’s attended a lot of American history classes in her time. She’s heard multiple retellings of the events of World War II, the colonization of North America, and the struggle for the right to vote. One thing she didn’t hear much about, and that she would have liked to see in a prominent place in her curriculum, was the various cultures of Native American people who lived here even before the United States was established. For Olrun, her fellow Cup'ik people, and millions of other Native Americans throughout the country, their stories could use a little more attention.
There are 574 Native American and Native Alaskan tribes that are recognized by the federal government, and even those don’t tell the whole story of North America’s indigenous peoples. For example, North Carolina recognizes eight tribes within its borders, but only the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indian is recognized federally. It’s virtually impossible to mention all of the numerous technological, agricultural, artistic, linguistic, and cultural accomplishments that Native societies could claim before colonization, to say nothing of what Native American trailblazers continue to do today, but as a student, Olrun noticed that those stories were conspicuously absent from many of her history classes. The few occasions when she heard about Native Americans in school were usually tied to the first Thanksgiving, Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Western Hemisphere, and other stories tinged with tragedy that were presented in much more innocent terms.
“I would like to see more representation,” Olrun said. “We do have heroes and we do contribute just as much as any other race that was here in America.”
Olrun went to school in the 80s and 90s, but her daughter Nussaalar, who attends the Early College today, says that there’s still room for improvement. A few things have gotten better – Indigenous Peoples’ Day has gained favor as a counter-celebration to Columbus Day, for example – but for the most part, her education on her ethnic history has come from her own research, stories from her family, and a small selection of representative movies like Disney’s Brother Bear (not Pocahontas, she says, which is riddled with historical inaccuracies). She still feels like her heritage is a blind spot in her classes, and she doesn’t want to wait until college to talk about everything Native Americans have done and continue to do for America.
“When you’re learning about Natives in social studies, it’s a sliver,” Nussaalar said. “There’s a lot more to our history than just getting colonized and moving forward.”
There are some efforts underway to expand students’ horizons when it comes to Native American Heritage. For example, Wiley Middle School took an opportunity this month to host Savannah Jane Baber, the Coordinator for Virginia Indian Programs at Virginia Humanities and a member of the Lumbee and Chickahominy tribes. Baber spoke with students about her experience as a Native American student who transitioned from rural to urban life when she went to school in Winston-Salem, and students were curious to know more about the connections between her tribal heritage and her life in their hometown. Baber’s career puts her in a unique position to help bridge the gap between Native and non-Native populations and increase mutual understanding between communities. Once those conversations begin, she finds that most students want to know a lot more.
“I think a big part of my personal Native experience that has been really meaningful to me is that I’ve had the opportunity to share my culture with people who aren’t Native, who are from all around the world and who maybe have never met a Native person before,” Baber said. “It’s always been really significant to me to be able to provide that education to people who are interested.”
Wiley is looking into other opportunities to connect students with Native American innovators. Magnet Coordinator Juandalynn Jones-Hunt is working to provide classes with conversations involving NASA Researcher Dr. Freda Porter, medical student Aminah Sane’ Ghaffer, baseball player Ty Cummings, and more. There’s a lot for students to learn from Native Americans in their community, and it’s essential to find opportunities to highlight those lessons.
“It allows students to be more aware of the community within their community,” Jones-Hunt said. “There are still Native people among us, and their culture is important.”
Native American Heritage Month has just come to a close, but there are new opportunities all of the time to appreciate Native American heritage. Mindfulness is the only requirement. Olrun hopes that every future year of Native American Heritage Month will provide more representation than the last so that future generations of her people will know that they’re as much a part of American history as anyone else.
“It brings the human part of history for us,” Olrun said. “We want our voices to be heard.”
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