Unhappy with the education their children receive in traditional public schools, leaders of the Seneca Indian Nation plan to start their own independent school in the fall of 2010.
They also intend to seek state and federal aid for the new school, and the diversion of those funds has public school administrators worried.
Planning for the new school–which would be known as the Seneca Academy and would have campuses on the two main Seneca Nation territories–is being done with help from experts at Buffalo’s prestigious Nichols School.
Seneca leaders complain that their children aren’t learning enough about Seneca traditions, culture, language and history in the public schools.
“Basically, we’re sending Seneca children into a foreign enterprise which is designed to educate them into becoming good New Yorkers and good Americans,” said Robert Odawi Porter, counsel to the Seneca Nation.
“Through history, [educators] have tried to turn Indian children into white people,” he said. “We’re trying to preserve our Seneca identity.”
Those accusations draw heated denials from public school administrators, who say they provide American history and language courses to help Senecas succeed.
In addition, the educators are concerned that losing Seneca students would mean the loss of millions of dollars in government funding and could lead to layoffs in districts where Seneca students attend school in large numbers.
The decision also has set off a debate among the Senecas themselves, with some tribe members worried about the effects of separating their children from the outside world.
Seneca children for generations have received their education at schools run mostly by white people. Currently, about 1,050 Seneca children attend public schools in the Salamanca, Gowanda,
Lakeshore and Silver Creek districts where they attend classes with white, Hispanic and black children.
But some Seneca leaders also claim that their children can be treated unfairly in the public schools.
Seneca students who attend public schools have unusually high suspension rates and unusually low graduation rates from high school, Porter said.
“There are obviously good people involved in public education,” the Seneca attorney said, “but they’re selling a product that doesn’t work for us.”
The plan approved by the Seneca Tribal Council last August calls for the establishment of the Seneca Academy, which would run schools on the Cattaraugus and Allegany reservations. Nichols School headmaster Richard C. Bryan is advising the Senecas and is a member of the Seneca Academy’s board of trustees.
Brian Seneca, a tribe member who lives in Irving, likes the idea of a separate school.
“Our Seneca language is disappearing,” said Seneca, who has two sons in the Silver Creek schools. “My sons are getting a good education. They do get some training in Seneca history and language, but I would like them to get more.”
Joyce Waterman Cruz, 64, of North Collins, also supports a Seneca school, saying it will help preserve the tribe’s heritage.
“But I want to make sure this school teaches them about the outside world, too,” said Cruz, who has five grandchildren attending the Lake Shore schools.
But Maxine Black, 69, and Reggie Crouse, 72, of Salamanca, are not in favor of the new Seneca school. Both said they consider it a bad idea to segregate Seneca children from others.
Seneca culture, history and language are already taught in public schools and can be reinforced by individual families, they said.
“The bad part about it is isolating the kids from other people,” Crouse said. “It’s not ‘us versus them.’ We’re all part of the same world.”
Decades of dispute
Many Senecas have felt that some public school teachers show little sensitivity about the Indian nation and its customs, said Lana Redeye, who served as the tribe’s education director in the 1970s and 1980s.
Hard feelings also stem from the negative experiences many Senecas had at the state-operated Thomas Indian School, which closed in the 1950s, and long-standing resentment over the fact that the Seneca Nation owns all the land in Salamanca and leases property to city residents, she said.
In the early 1990s, Seneca parents staged a boycott and temporarily pulled their children out of the Salamanca schools because they felt Seneca culture was being ignored and some Seneca students were mistreated, Redeye said.
This year, one Seneca elementary school student was threatened with suspension for refusing to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance, Waite said.
And a Seneca girl at the high school was threatened with suspension because she put up posters accusing Christopher Columbus of “grand theft, genocide and racism” against American Indians.
Public schools reply
One charge that some Seneca leaders make against public schools is that the public schools seem determined to turn Indian children into whites. Redeye, Waite and Carrie Peterson, the tribe’s other education director, said they strongly agree with that statement.
Leaders of the school districts that serve Indian children said they are stunned and upset by the allegation.
“That’s an astonishing statement to me,” said O’Rourke, superintendent at Silver Creek. “We worked very hard to be partners with the Seneca Nation and its Education Department. We teach Seneca language and Iroquois history to all our students, not just the Native Americans. We have great respect for the cultural identity and the language of the Senecas.”
Silver Creek staffers took a reporter to a first-grade classroom where 6-year-olds–both American Indians and whites–were learning full sentences in the Seneca language.
Each child could count to 31 in the Seneca language.
In Salamanca, Seneca customs and culture are taught at the elementary, middle and high schools, and Seneca language instruction is offered beginning in seventh grade, Hay said. Those programs are regularly evaluated by an Indian education committee.
The school districts also provide training for their teachers about American Indian customs and the bad experiences that some Senecas have had with public schools in the past.
Andrea Cooke, a Seneca who teaches in the Gowanda Schools, said it’s important for Seneca children to learn about their tribe and its history. At the same time, she said, they must also learn about the world outside the Seneca reservations.
“Do our native children walk in two different worlds?” Cooke said. “I think they do.”