American Indian heritage embraced by students

By Michael Futch
Fayetteville, North Carolina (AP) June 2011

Donnie McDowell used to conceal his Lumbee heritage. He considered it personal.

That was before the Douglas Byrd High School student became involved in the Dream Catcher Project of the Cumberland County schools Office of Indian Education.

“Now I’m more out loud and proud of it,” he said. “I know who I am.”

McDowell, an 18-year-old senior, is among 45 American Indians and Alaskan natives expected to graduate from the program this evening during a ceremony in the Gray’s Creek High School auditorium in Hope Mills. The public is invited to attend the ceremony from 6 to 9 p.m.

Billy Mills, the second American Indian to win an Olympic gold medal, will serve as guest speaker. Mills is a member of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) tribe of South Dakota.

American Indian recording artists Dark Water Rising and Jana are scheduled to perform.

Trudy Locklear and Darlene Ransom established the Dream Catcher Project in Cumberland County schools three years ago. The program has been made possible through a four-year, $1 million federal grant, with the aim of keeping American Indians in school.

The program is offered in five county high schools: Douglas Byrd, Cape Fear, Jack Britt, South View and Gray’s Creek. American Indian students in grades nine through 12 are eligible.

“We have the highest dropout rate, the highest suicide rate, the highest alcoholic and substance abuse rate,” said Ransom, coordinator of the county schools’ Office of Indian Education. “It’s because of despair and hopelessness. There’s a lot of mistrust. It’s important they see someone like them.”

About 400 students are involved in the project.

Dream Catcher, Ransom said, is making a difference: the dropout rate for American Indian students has decreased this school term.

“We are educating these children,” she said, “and opening doors normally not open to them.”

“And it’s all about relationships,” piped in Patrice Locklear, the Indian Education academic adviser for the five high schools.

At Douglas Byrd, 37 students are enrolled in the program.

Anchoring the program is the extracurricular course “Expanding the Circle,” which is taught on Thursdays at Douglas Byrd. The students go on field trips together and watch movies and programs on Indian history and culture.

McDowell joined the program his junior year.

“What we are giving him, he’ll have for the rest of his life,” Ransom said. “I want for Donnie what I want for my children.”

McDowell plans to attend the University of North Carolina at Pembroke in the fall on scholarship and grant money. There, he hopes to pursue studies in Indian education and American Indian history before getting into Lumbee politics.

“We are the first Americans,” said Ransom, who is Lumbee. “We should be proud of who we are.”