For Catawba Children and Families, “Head Start is Heart Work”

Born and raised on the Catawba Reservation in Rock Hill, South Carolina, Executive Program Director at ISWA Head Start Melissa Harris’s career is dedicated to advocating for equitable and accessible early childhood education.

“I was raised by my mother, grandmother, and aunt. I’m from a matrilineal society. And I was taught compassion for others, but also being able to stand up and advocate for myself.”

A proud citizen of Catawba Nation, Harris values and embraces her native heritage. After finishing her studies, she decided to serve her community in Rock Hill, where she grew up and went to school.

When she started her career as the Director of Social Services for Catawba Indian Nation, Harris was charged with implementing the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978. For 11 years, Harris advocated for native children to stay within their tribal communities and supported native families before she decided to pursue advocacy as a career.

“It’s always been ingrained in my DNA to stand up for others and fight for fairness.”

Additionally, Harris is a Head Start mother. Her role as a Head Start parent brought her into the fold.

“I know what Head Start did for my own family, for my life. I’m grateful that I got the opportunity to see Head Start work, not only within my own home but also within the tribal community. I fell in love with the mission and vision. And I like the holistic approach because it falls right in line with my native value system,” said Harris.

Native Language in the Curriculum

Head Start programs are tailored to meet the needs of communities, including language and cultural preservation. Harris’s favorite part about her current position is being able to share and honor the Catawba native language and culture in the curriculum. The ISWA Head Start program played a significant role in improving efforts to revitalize the local tribal language, while collaborating with different groups of the community.

“Head Start was the catalyst for starting a conversation about reintegrating our language back into our community.”

The program offered native families vocabulary sheets, detailing the pronunciation and meaning of native words, to engage parents in cultural learning. The program also collaborated with a local cultural center to create an app that teaches the native language. This “new breath of life,” as described by Harris, boosted sharing among families in the Catawba community.

“I’ve always been very proud to be Catawba, that was something that my grandmother instilled in me. She taught me not to ever be ashamed of or shy away from who I am. There’s beauty in that and I just want to share that same positive message with our Catawba people […] It’s my duty to empower everyone, no matter what you look like. Anywhere you live on the reservation, you need to be a part of our culture. And, in this Head Start program, we lay the foundation for cultural engagement and learning.”

Catawba Culture in the Classroom

The Catawba people, like many AIAN communities, prioritize generation connections. Harris regularly invites community seniors to share their stories with children and spend time with them. A recent Head Start mother who joined Harris in the classroom was a high school dropout. Her child’s program encouraged her to earn her GED. This lead her to become a teacher’s aid and, eventually, to join Head Start as a teacher. Another Head Start mother creates native beaded outfits. She promotes her native craft in the community, while being engaged in her children’s education.

Navigating Challenges in a Changing Landscape

While celebrating and embracing native heritage is one of Harris’s greatest joys, staff shortages, COVID-19 impacts, and universal pre-k’s negative effect on enrollment continue to challenge her on the day-to-day. The ISWA Head Start program is mending partnerships with the local, state, and federal governments-historically strained relationships that disproportionately impacted native people’s access to education. The goal is to enable a healthy dialogue about the needs and merits of the Catawba families and children. These partnerships are crucial for the children’s transition to public schools, where the stories and voices of native peoples are often excluded from the curriculum.

Thankfully, nurturing community relationships inspires Harris and motivates her advocacy work.

“Head Start is heart work. It is work that absolutely comes from the heart,” said Harris. “With the National Indian Head Start Directors Association, we advocate for categorical eligibility. This would be a future where all AIAN will be categorically eligible for Head Start programs.”

Farah Samti

Farah is NHSA's manager of communications.

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