While there is wide debate about when, exactly, people came to live in what is now North Carolina, archaeologists believe that indigenous people have lived here for at least 11,000 years.1 There are even some estimates of 19,000 years. According to Dr. Mary Ann Jacobs, Chair of American Indian Studies at the University of North Carolina Pembroke, many tribal groups had origin stories that originate them in their ancestral lands for all time.

By comparison, the few centuries that our state has been inhabited by people who originated elsewhere make up a very brief period of time. Most of North Carolina’s past was an exclusively American Indian past and the descendants of those first inhabitants of North Carolina have remained vital parts of our state history ever since. North Carolina’s rich American Indian history provides students with fascinating topics for historical study — the cultural traditions of southeastern tribes in the era before contact, Nanye’hi’s (Nancy Ward’s) efforts to create peace between the Cherokee and white settlers, the story of Tsali during Indian Removal, the actions of Henry Berry Lowrie’s band, the creation of American Indian schools within the state, the experiences of Lumbee farmers during the Great Depression, the contributions of American Indian war veterans, the conflict between the Ku Klux Klan and the Lumbee in 1958, the participation of North Carolina’s American Indian population in social reform movements, the resurgence of interest in the Cherokee language, and much more. This is a history that is interesting in and of itself and also important for understanding the history of our state as a whole. Thus, it makes sense to try to incorporate the people who have inhabited this land for the longest period of time as a significant part of our study of the state’s history, from the distant past to the present.

North Carolina’s American Indian history also provides a lens through which to view the culture, values, and attitudes of not only native people, but also the people of European and African descent whom they encountered. Interactions between American Indians and newcomers to this land often revealed sharp contrasts in the ways that various groups saw themselves, others, the world, and spirituality. When we study American Indians in North Carolina, we are not just learning about native people, though that is an important goal in itself — we are also learning about early European explorers, colonists, and political leaders through their attitudes toward and interactions with American Indians. Studying these contrasts can help students understand all of these groups more clearly while also honing critical thinking skills.

Our state’s large American Indian population also makes American Indian history an important topic for all of North Carolina’s students. The 2000 census showed that nearly 100,000 American Indians were living in North Carolina, giving the state the largest American Indian population east of the Mississippi River. Moreover, American Indians were living in each of one hundred counties of North Carolina. Chances are, most North Carolina teachers either have taught or will teach a significant number of American Indian students during their careers, and teachers in certain counties with large American Indian populations (for example, Columbus, Cumberland, Guilford, Halifax, Hoke, Jackson, Mecklenburg, Robeson, Scotland, Swain and Wake) may be very likely to have American Indian students in any given class.2 Including American Indian history throughout the curriculum sends a strong message to American Indian students that their own community’s history and culture is valued by the teacher and considered an important part of all students’ educations. Moreover, including this history throughout the academic year allows non-Indian students to learn more about the history and culture of their American Indian peers, helping to dispel stereotypes and create cross-cultural understanding.

Many students have substantial misunderstandings about American Indian history that must be corrected through accurate, respectful teaching about American Indians and student activities that promote critical thinking and explicit discussion of stereotype. Hollywood movies, especially those from earlier eras, typically depict American Indians in inaccurate and often offensive ways, reinforcing negative stereotypes. Even movies that attempt to portray native people fairly accurately tend to focus almost exclusively on the American West of the mid-to-late nineteenth century, giving young people the false impression that all native people lived like western tribes when, in reality, tribal cultures and historical experiences are widely varied and richly diverse. Students often also believe that American Indians are a people of the past, failing to realize that they are still important members of their own modern communities. Teaching explicitly about the indigenous people of North Carolina and incorporating American Indian history throughout the curriculum can help dispel these myths and leave all students better informed.

For the benefit of all of the students in their classrooms, teachers will want to adapt these materials for use in their own unique North Carolina communities. There are eight state-recognized tribes in North Carolina, and teaching about the American Indian communities within each teacher’s own county can heighten student interest and build on the sense of place that students have in their own home communities.

Teachers may find Christopher Arris Oakley’s book Keeping the Circle: American Indian Identity in Eastern North Carolina, 1885-2004 (University of Nebraska Press, 2005) especially helpful in learning more about American Indian life in their home counties. Teachers may also wish to explore the publications available from the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, or the Native American Resource Center at UNC Pembroke. The Native American Resource Center, with support from the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs, is creating video documentaries about each of the state’s recognized tribes, some of which are already available for purchase and others will be added in the future. Three documentaries have been completed so far. Local historical societies, museums, libraries, and historic sites may also be able to assist teachers in finding resources, guest speakers, and field trip opportunities that will highlight the American Indian history of each of North Carolina’s counties.

Teaching about American Indians in North Carolina gives our students a more inclusive and accurate sense of North Carolina history, allows students to see the historical cultural diversity of our state, and invites opportunities for critical thinking. At the same time, incorporating American Indian history into the curriculum can send a strong and welcome message to the American Indian students in North Carolina classrooms that the experiences of their ancestors matter to you and are respected and valued in your classroom. For non-Indian students, instruction in American Indian history can dispel damaging stereotypes and disprove inaccurate myths while providing an introduction to a fascinating history that they may not otherwise have known much about. Incorporating American Indian history throughout all the decades of North Carolina history is not only more inclusive, it is also more accurate — North Carolina’s native people have always been and will continue to be important to our state’s history, and our teaching should reflect that reality.