There’s an old saying that history is written by the victors. It’s not entirely accurate, as evidenced by both Lost Cause narratives and the paucity of historians on battlefields. But there is a kernel of truth in there regarding the distortion and dilution of history over time, before it reaches the eyes and ears of schoolchildren. History, more precisely, is taught by the victors.
On Tuesday, the North Carolina Charter Schools Advisory Board voted to reverse its recommendation for approval of a charter school set to open in Robeson County. Robeson County is home to the Lumbee Tribe, a state-recognized Native nation that is the largest tribe east of the Mississippi River. The reason for the reversal, according to Board member Lindalyn Kakadelis, was that the proposed curriculum was too Indigenous. Specifically, Kakadelis said the curriculum dabbled in “red pedagogy,” a term made popular by Red Pedagogy: Native American Social and Political Thought, a 2004 book written by Connecticut College professor Sandy Grande offering a Native-first exploration of the question of whether “the good life can be built upon the deaths of thousands.” Per the News & Observer:
“I did not find one thing in the book that talked about the greatness of America,” Kakadelis said. “Now let me make it perfectly clear: America has sins. There are things I wish we had never done, slavery included.
“Bad marks on our country. But we learned from them and we’re changed and we’re not what we used to be. I’ve got to say that everything I found was divisive instead of bringing unity.”
The decision was handed down in the middle of Native American Heritage Month, and the reasoning behind it reeked of a uniquely white fear of losing control of the national historical narrative. But it also pointed to the complicated role charter schools are playing in North Carolina and across the United States when it comes to underserved populations like the Lumbee.
History, especially American history as it relates to the Native population, is neither unifying nor comfortable. Yet, speaking from personal experience, the North Carolina public education curriculum, particularly as implemented in rural communities, has long been focused on unity, if your idea of unity is peddling Lost Cause ideology, questioning Darwinian principles, and lauding United States military action. This unifying curriculum depends, much like the nation’s reenactment culture, on a presumed norm of whiteness—more specifically a type of conservative, capitalistic whiteness, against which non-white narratives and Marxism are seen as inherently provocative.
Until the 1960s, North Carolina oversaw and funded segregated schools (and hospital wings, and movie theater sections, and cemeteries) for its Native population, the funding for the Indian schools coming from the minuscule coffers of the state’s Department of Negro Education. This included a school for the Lumbee called the Indian Normal School of Robeson County, currently known as the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. These were not quite boarding schools in the vein of the infamous Carlisle Indian School (which aimed to erase Indigenous identities): In many of these schools, the Native kids were allowed to be themselves and to be taught by teachers who came from their communities.
When many of these schools were shut down to comply with the federal diktats of the Civil Rights Era, the Native children were herded into similarly under-funded public school alongside their white counterparts. This was where the real assimilative efforts began. Despite Native kids learning alongside white children, the history books, from the late 1960s to present day, never managed to catch up to the fact that Native people are in fact still alive and present and thriving. And so, for many, the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre (more often framed as the Battle of Wounded Knee) was the final piece of Native history imparted by their public school education.
One of the defining political aspects of the Lumbee Tribe is the fact that they have not been recognized by the federal government, meaning they are not allowed full access to federal Indian Country programs. (Congress also underfunds these programs.) Because of this, and because the community has struggled to overcome the devastating economic effects of twentieth-century segregation efforts, Robeson County ranks among the state’s lowest by nearly every socioeconomic measurable. Were the Lumbee able to enforce their sovereignty, they could take ownership of their own social services, as has been done by the Eastern Band of Cherokee, the state’s only federally recognized tribe. Instead, they are forced to rely on the state for hospitals, child welfare, and, of course, for schools. As a result, charter schools are the only tool available for shaping the education received by their children, and their ability to do even that is limited to what the state government and its various committees deem appropriate.
One of the consequences that sprang from the 2010-2018 Republican supermajority in North Carolina’s state legislature was the 2011 decision to lift the cap on charter schools, previously set at 100. That decision, combined with the GOP-led legislature offering minuscule budget raises for the school systems, heralded a devastating decline for rural public schools, as evidenced by a November 2019 study released by The Rural School and Community Trust (RSCT). At present, North Carolina’s rural districts are allotted over $1,000 less per student than comparable rural districts elsewhere in America, according to the RSCT report. On the whole, roping in urban and suburban areas, the average North Carolina teacher salary is $8,000 less than the national average.
As a result of this nosedive, the number of charter and private schools operating in the state has skyrocketed, and the whims of the parents sending their children to these institutions have quickly been codified by the state legislature. To wit: After allowing for the creation of these schools and after loosening the regulations on immunizations, between 2013-2017, the number of kindergartners allowed to skip their shots for faith reasons doubled, leading to numerous disease outbreaks.
Beyond such peculiar carve-outs, which extend to charters in other states, there arises the larger issue of communities of color being forced to choose between inadequately funded public schools and public charters that contribute to this underfunding. Recent studies have shown that the rise in charter schools in North Carolina has directly led to the re-segregation of public schools—it’s the reason why charter advocates are able to boast high numbers of minority student populations in their defenses of the charter system. The same issue is being explored by presidential candidates on a national scale, with Senator Elizabeth Warren calling for an end to federal funding for charters. That the Lumbee have been pushed to this point is not an accident. It’s the entire charter model.
It’s in this context that the Robeson County decision seems so perverse. “To be clear, I’m not a supporter of charter schools but this is wrong on so many levels,” wrote Grande, responding to the news on Twitter.
Given North Carolina’s history of segregating and assimilating its Native population, the repeated failure on the part of the federal government to recognize the Lumbee, and the lack of adequate Native-focused teaching materials in the state’s lesson plans, this charter feels necessary. And if one is operating under the notion that Christian extremists can operate vaccine-free plague breeding grounds, surely a historically marginalized Native community should be allowed merely to teach its own history.
But the more complex issue is that all North Carolina public school students are being short-changed—both in actual funding dollars and in the sense that they are denied the true proud and storied history of their Indigenous neighbors and classmates. That’s happening in part because of charters like this, that increasingly seek to fill the gaps left by the General Assembly in Raleigh, but do so by pulling funds from the traditional public school system, inciting a cycle that benefits the charter and private school crowd.
Native children, from stories passed down by our elders, know how the U.S. treated our parents and grandparents. Hearing this reality taught honestly in the classroom is monumentally important as a form of representative education, but ultimately, Native children are not the only ones who need to hear it most. The American-backed genocide of Native peoples, its past and ongoing betrayal of legally binding treaties, and its multi-factored erasure of the modern Native citizen all needs to be extended to the public school curriculum, in North Carolina and all 49 other states. In looking only to a handful of specialized charter schools to provide this education, as has also been the case in Oklahoma City and Denver, American school systems are limiting their students’s ability to learn the unvarnished history of this nation. And ultimately, like in North Carolina, it’s clear that even there, the limits of what can and cannot be taught are defined not by the Natives in the classroom, but by white state-level officials: Charter schools’ promise of autonomy—so frequently cited by their defenders—is delivered no more equitably than any other resource in an unequal society.