By Sarah Nagem
A state education advisory group is doubling down on its efforts to convince North Carolina school districts to stop using Native American-themed mascots and logos.
But the recommendation, made most recently last month to the State Board of Education, raises a key question in Robeson County, home to the Lumbee tribe and many Tuscarora people: What about schools with a long history of educating Native American students?
About 39% of the nearly 20,000 students enrolled in Robeson County public schools are Native American, according to the State Advisory Council on Indian Education.
Two schools in the district use mascots with Native American themes – Oxendine Elementary School, home of the Braves, and Pembroke Middle School, home of the Warriors. At both schools, Native Americans account for more than 80% of the student population.
The district has not faced pushback about the mascots, Jessica Horne, a spokeswoman for Robeson County schools, told the Border Belt Independent in a brief statement.
“They are a source of pride for our Native American students, especially students within those schools and communities,” Horne said.
Mascots with Native American imagery have been debated for years, from professional sports teams to K-12 education.
Much of the debate in North Carolina has centered on the Red Raiders mascot at South Point High School in Gaston County, where fewer than 1% of students are Native American. A red logo features a Native American man wearing a war bonnet.
The Lumbee Tribal Council spoke out against the mascot in 2021, with one member calling it “very offensive and demeaning,” according to news reports.
John Lowery, chairman of the Lumbee tribe, recently told the Border Belt Independent that many Indigenous people are against the use of Native American mascots in schools that don’t have a strong tribal connection.
But, he said, it’s different for schools that predominantly serve Native American students. “We’re not mad at that,” he said.
Tiffany Locklear agreed.
Locklear, a Lumbee and a professor at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, serves as chairwoman of the State Advisory Council on Indian Education, which is urging the State Board to call for the elimination of Native American mascots by the 2024-2025 school year.
“In Gaston County,” Locklear said, “we feel like it’s a stereotype. In Robeson County, we feel it’s more reflective of who and what we are.”
The number of Native American-themed mascots and logos in North Carolina’s public schools has dropped by more than half since 2002, when the advisory council first recommended doing away with them.
The council cited “educational, curricular and psychological reasons” and described such imagery as “offensive, demeaning, and disrespectful to American Indians, their culture, and their heritage.”
Now, 34 schools across the state use mascots and logos with Native American themes, according to the advisory council.
Ultimately, it is up to school districts and local boards of education to determine mascots and logos, which become a big part of schools’ athletic programs.
In its recommendation last month, the advisory council urged the State Board of Education to send letters to superintendents and school board members “reiterating” the 2002 stance.
The council also recommended that the state board remind school districts to file an annual report about their “efforts to review their mascots and educate personnel on the effects of American Indian students.”
‘We should listen’
Robeson County has had to defend Native American mascots before.
In 1992, at the NCAA’s request, UNC Pembroke changed its Indian mascot to a red-tailed hawk. A decade later, it was among 31 schools identified by the NCAA as having potentially controversial mascots.
The school, home of the Braves since 1946, pushed back, saying its mascot and logo reflected its history.
Founded as the Croatan Normal School in 1887, the college was established to train Native American teachers. The school changed its name several times, becoming Pembroke State University and later UNC Pembroke under the statewide university system.
As the conversation surrounding K-12 school mascots re-emerges publicly, what about Oxendine Elementary and Pembroke Middle?
Locklear said the state advisory council hasn’t heard any complaints about the schools.
The idea, she said, is for all school board members across the state to listen to the people who elected them to office.
“We should listen to the voices of folks when they feel like they’ve been made a mockery of,” Locklear said.