Published June 16, 2017
ONONDAGA NATION —In a strong show of sovereignty and solidarity, Onondaga Nation parents escorted their children from the Onondaga Nation School today. The Onondaga Nation Council of Chiefs issued the following statement, addressed to LaFayette Central School District Board Chair Stephanie Dow. It was meant to be handed to Principal Diane Ellsworth, but she was not at work.
“The Onondaga Nation Council of Chiefs has decided that our children’s last day of school for the 2016-2017 school year will be Friday, June 16, 2017. This decision was reached with consultation with our Clan Mothers and community due to the lack of collaboration, respect, and communication by Principal Diane Ellworth, Superintendent Laura Lavine, and the LaFayette Central School Board.”
By noon on June 16, only five students of the over 130 that attend the school remained at school.
On June 7, over twenty Onondaga Nation Clan Mothers, Chiefs, Faithkeepers, and citizens met with representatives of the LaFayette School District, including outgoing Superintendent Laura Lavine, to discuss with good minds the problems around the management of the Onondaga Nation School, including the hiring process. While some members of the school district appeared to be listening, the official response received by the Onondaga Nation’s attorney on June 14th makes it clear the district, under the leadership of Syracuse mayoral candidate and current Superintendent Laura Lavine, still does not understand the harm they are perpetuating.
At the heart of the issue is a cultural disconnect about whose school it is. The LaFayette School District treats the Onondaga Nation School like they own it, despite its unique situation. The Onondaga Nation School for grades K-8 is one of three schools in New York State located on sovereign Indigenous territories. The schools are provided by the state via contract with local districts, an arrangement stemming from obligations created by treaty agreements. It is the only school on the Onondaga Nation territory. The school’s land is owned by the Onondaga Nation, and they have the right to contest the State’s contract and choose a different district, an option that is looking ever more appealing to some.
“The LaFayette Central School District seems to think they have the ultimate authority over the school,” observes Tadodaho Sid Hill. “This is our school, with our children, on our Nation. The ultimate decision on who will be Principal here, who the teachers are in our schools, needs to come from the Onondaga Nation, to ensure our children are being taught well, in a culturally appropriate manner. To do otherwise just perpetuates generations of injustice.”
It takes a history lesson to really understand what is at stake. In 1887 Colonel Pratt started the “Indian” boarding school system. Children on indigenous territories across North America, including the Onondaga Nation, were taken forcibly from their parents and sent to these schools, to “kill the Indian, and save the man.” Forbidden to wear their traditional clothing, keep their culture, or speak their language, students suffered emotional and physical abuse and some were even killed at these schools. The intergenerational impact of this trauma is well-documented and continues today. In 2008 the Prime Minister of Canada apologized for their Indian Residential Schools. The United States has yet to do so.
“The choice of a new principal who is a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve was a big red flag to us, it threatened to continue that trauma,” noted Onondaga language teacher Sue Parsons in the June 7th meeting, referring to the appointment of Warren Smith by the school district.
This is not the first boycott of the Onondaga Nation School over how it is run. In the 1970s the Onondaga Nation boycotted the school, ultimately gaining better control over the school’s curriculum, encouraging the teaching of language and culture and traditional arts. An Onondaga principal was hired at that time. Community members were asked to come in and teach their knowledge and skills.
More and more Onondaga teachers were hired, reflecting a greater awareness throughout North America of the importance of culturally relevant education.
“Education provides much more than information. It also provides an opportunity for our youth to see their instructors as role models,” writes Deborah Sanchez (Chumash/Tohono-Akimel O’odham), Professor of American Indian Studies at California State University, Long Beach. “It is not just what is taught but who is doing the teaching. It’s evident that mainstream education has systematically omitted the brutal actual history of this country and the many contributions of the indigenous people. The systematic erasure of our existence compels culturally appropriate education. This gives our young people more of what they need to navigate this modern world, provides the very necessary opportunity to see themselves as successful and, most importantly, to see themselves as valuable, relevant participants in this complex society.”
“There are a number of issues going on at the school recently that we have been trying to address,” said Tadodaho Sid Hill to the assembled parents at the school. “It took far too long to get the boiler replaced, for example. But not hiring one of our people from the Nation was the last straw.”
The newly hired principal, Warren Smith, declined his appointment on June 2, sparking renewed hope that the woman chosen by the Onondaga Nation to be principal, and who was one of three finalists considered, would now get the position. Simone Thornton grew up at the Onondaga Nation, attended the school, and has served as a teacher there for over 20 years. She knows the culture and its people intimately. She went back to school at SUNY Oswego to gain the necessary credentials to serve her community as an administrator and leader in its educational system. Her appointment as Principal would continue the healing of the past and support the educational engagement of Onondaga Nation youth.
In the June 14th letter, the LaFayette School Board uses absurdly unyielding adherence to policy to provide excuses why they cannot hire Simone Thornton. They use the same lines about lack of experience and proper credentials they were giving before the meeting with Nation leaders, demonstrating they have not listened at all to the Onondaga Nation leadership’s input.
“Experience with our school, our language, our culture, and our community is far more valuable experience for being a good Principal of our school than a few years’ experience as an administrator of an affluent suburban school,” noted Awheñheeyoh Powless, whose son is in Kindergarten at the school. “Simone’s experience is the most valuable there is; the kind it takes being part of a community your whole life to know.”
There is recent precedent for a teacher becoming principal at Onondaga Nation School: prior principals Carol Erb and Ken McCaffery followed the same advancement track.
LaFayette administrators also point to the lack of a particular NYS certificate as the reason they could not hire Ms. Thornton, a mere technicality as she has completed all the necessary coursework. Ironically, the certificate Ms. Thornton holds instead – School District Leader- qualifies her for Ms. Lavine’s job as Superintendent. The incoming Superintendent, Jeremy Belfield, graduated in the same class from SUNY Oswego as Ms. Thorton. Ms. Thornton has since submitted the necessary paperwork to the state for the School Building Leader Certificate and expects no difficulty in obtaining it.
“Ms. Lavine and the school board are operating under an antiquated assimilative philosophy that is not new to us,” explains Clan Mother Jozetta Skye. “It is damaging and does not belong in our education system today. The LaFayette Central School District needs to follow our priorities, rather than impose their own. We acted together today as a community to emphasize this point, and are looking closely at other issues with the operation of the school.”
“The apparent unwillingness of the LaFayette School Board to listen and find creative solutions or change their policy is telling,” said Amy Gibson, who has a child in the district. “They do not understand the importance of having Ms. Thornton as principal of the school, to the well-being of our entire community. I ask Ms. Lavine: can you hear us now?”
Onondaga Nation School students are being provided with alternative activities and lunches at the Onondaga Nation’s sports pavilion for the rest of the school year. The District’s last day of school is June 30th. A special graduation for the 8th grade is being planned by the community.