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Unspoken Link To Senecas' Past

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  • Unspoken Link To Senecas' Past

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    Unspoken Link To Senecas' Past

    School works to keep the tribe's language and spirituality alive

    Diana Louise Carter
    Staff writer

    (January 30, 2005) - STEAMBURG - The wall calendar in this rural schoolhouse
    in Cattaraugus County doesn't have the traditional grid of numbers on it.

    Students at the 8-year-old Faithkeepers School instead use a large drawing of
    a snapping turtle surrounded by small pictures, each corresponding to one of
    the 13 plates on the turtle's back.

    The plates represent each moon of the year - maple sugar moon, strawberry
    moon, harvest moon. And the 28 small rectangles around the edge of the turtle's
    shell represent the 28 days in each of the lunar months, said Sandra Dowdy, the
    head teacher here.

    At this school, students of Seneca heritage are learning to speak the
    language that has almost gone silent in their community - Seneca - as well as to
    understand and participate in the Longhouse ceremonies that define them as a
    people. For traditional Iroquois, the Longhouse is the center of both religious
    and political life, but it's hard to participate if you can't understand the
    language spoken there.

    "It's like an alternative-type school. It's not for everybody. It's for ones
    who are interested in Longhouse," said founder Dar Dowdy.

    Indeed, a handful of last year's 15 students left so they could participate
    in sports at nearby high schools. But the Dowdys still feel they are producing
    a new generation of faithkeepers: people who can lead the sacred ceremonies of
    the Longhouse.

    "We make sure our children will be able to take part," Sandy Dowdy said,
    referring to rituals such as the midwinter ceremonies held in mid-January that
    mark the beginning of the Iroquois year. The children, ages 7 to 15, have learned
    to make fire the traditional ways - with flint or a bow drill - so they can
    ignite the ceremonial fires in the Longhouse. They have learned passages of
    the Thanksgiving Address, the prayer that opens and closes every Iroquois
    gathering, so they can follow along.

    But the Dowdys are in a race against time, as speakers of Native American
    languages everywhere are dying out, possibly spelling the end of the languages
    for some native nations.

    Lori V. Quigley, a professor of linguistics at the State University College
    at Buffalo, grew up and still lives on the Allegany Reservation. She estimates
    there are just 60 fluent speakers among 7,200 members of the Seneca Nation of
    Indians, who live on or have family ties to Allegany and the Cattaraugus
    Seneca Reservations. Most of those speakers are elderly, lacking the energy,
    training or wherewithal to take on a classroom of rambunctious kids.

    "For 30 or 40 years we've been teaching language, but we haven't been able to
    produce a new fluent generation," Quigley said.

    State and federal education policies that encouraged assimilation - sometimes
    by force - as well as the adoption of modern lifestyles dependent on
    off-reservation jobs have made English the standard language for Senecas.

    For 40 years, New York state turned away federal funds that would have helped
    pay for cultural education for Native American students in public schools,
    said Lawrence M. Hauptman, a history professor at the State University College
    at New Paltz. The state finally accepted the money in the 1970s. Still, Native
    American students couldn't learn their own languages in school until the late
    1980s, Hauptman said.

    "They had to take French or Spanish and they could not take an Indian
    language, even with certified teachers, and count that toward their language
    requirements," Hauptman said.

    As the language goes, so goes the culture, most Native American experts say.

    "That's how history, that's how experience, that's how wisdom is
    transmitted," said Andrew J. Lee, a Harvard University administrator of Seneca heritage
    who helped the Faithkeepers School get a $10,000 grant from a social issues
    foundation. The grant has provided stipends for elderly reservation residents to
    come and speak in Seneca with the children twice a week.

    Teaching about life

    Both Lee, who has traveled the country examining cultural programs on
    reservations, and Jon Reyhner, a bilingual and multicultural education professor at
    the University of Northern Arizona, say the Senecas' language problems are
    emblematic of Indian nations everywhere. "We have grandparents on the Navajo
    reservation that can't speak to their grandchildren. The grandparents only speak
    Navajo. ... The kids only speak English. How can you pass down traditional
    family values in a situation like that?" Reyhner said.

    Exactly, Dar Dowdy said. "We're trying to teach everything they need to know
    about life, how to conduct yourself."
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  • #2

    The Dowdys - he's 66 and she's 57 - are fluent in Seneca and therefore
    unusual for their generation. People their ages were the last to attend Indian
    boarding schools, where native languages were prohibited, sometimes even by Seneca
    teachers. The Thomas Indian School, closed since the 1960s, still stands at
    Cattaraugus. Some Senecas went there as day students or boarding students.
    Others boarded at schools in other states.

    "Sometimes people say the language is disappearing a lot faster when you
    don't wash the kids' mouths out with soap for speaking it," said Reyhner,
    explaining that older generations rebelled against such punishments from their
    teachers by speaking their language on the sly.

    A retired Navy man, Dowdy had dreamed of starting a school for years. He was
    inspired by Tom Porter, a Mohawk leader who started the Akwesasne Freedom
    School, a Mohawk-language immersion school on the St. Lawrence River, and who
    later established a community near Fonda, Montgomery County, where adult language
    immersion classes are offered to the public.

    "We've got to stop talking about this and start doing something," Dowdy said.
    His wife was already teaching Iroquois culture classes in public school, but
    she grew dissatisfied with the required separation of church and state. That
    concept is foreign to traditional Native Americans.

    "We feel our children have lost spirituality," she said. Three generations
    now have been unable to understand the Longhouse ceremonies, and therefore miss
    out on the spiritual life of their own people.

    Speaking Seneca

    On a snowy but sunny winter day, four boys of different ages worked on
    presents for their parents. They burned images of animals that represent Seneca
    clans - hawks, deer, beaver and turtles - into wooden plaques.

    While the older boys lingered over details in their artwork, 7-year-old Deven
    Redeye moved on to playing with Legos while watching a PBS documentary on
    native nations.

    Despite the lofty ideals of their teachers and linguistic experts, the boys
    all told tales that suggest the school's greatest benefit is being with
    students and teachers like themselves. They call each other by their Seneca names,
    and greet and thank each other in Seneca.

    "I'm surrounded by Indians instead of being surrounded by white people,"
    Deven said. When he was in public school, he was often teased about being Indian,
    he said. "I end up beating them up when they do that."

    Being with people who understand your culture is no small thing, said
    Quigley, because non-Indian educators often discriminate against Indian students. She
    said that because she is Seneca, she was never even offered a college catalog
    by her guidance counselor at a Cattaraugus County school. Not only did she
    become one of the few graduates of that school to attain a doctorate, but also
    she's on a presidential advisory council on education.

    Low expectations may help explain why Native American students underperform
    in most public schools, Quigley said, but studies have shown that in places
    where they are learning their own languages, the students do better than similar
    students who learn only English. It may have to do with the extra brain
    stimulation caused by the study of language.

    "There's a thing about identity and who you are and where you come from that
    I think is wrapped up in success," Reyhner said.

    Knowing history

    The Faithkeepers School operates year round, alternating six-week sessions
    with one-week vacations. Sandy Dowdy said that as the year goes on, she'll teach
    an increasing number of classes in Seneca. On Wednesdays, student teachers
    from a nearby college in Pennsylvania help with tutoring, but generally the
    academic subjects are left to home-schooling lessons. The exception is history -
    Native American history.

    "They probably know more about our history than 90 percent-plus on our
    reservation," Dar Dowdy said of the students.

    The Akwesasne Freedom School takes a different approach, teaching all
    academic subjects in Mohawk. But the head teacher there, Elvera Sargent, said the
    Dowdys have "a good approach because there is a lot to teaching the language and
    culture, and there isn't enough time in the day to teach that and teach
    academic subjects, too."

    But at least two of the students admit they're ignoring their home-school
    lessons and one, who has attended a private Quaker school, worries that he's not
    keeping up with other sophomores.

    Still, they learn lessons many other students might envy. Earlier in the
    year, the students built a half-mile nature trail that they will continue to
    develop with signs identifying culturally significant plants.

    In the late winter, the students typically tap maple trees and boil the sap
    into sugar, a skill that has been part of their people's traditions for time
    immemorial. In November, they attended a treaty commemoration in Canandaigua, an
    annual event particularly important to the Seneca people. In 2002, they
    traveled to the Cahokia Mounds, remains of a 10,000-year-old native civilization in
    southern Illinois just outside of St. Louis.

    Dianna Beaver, who has taught in public schools herself, doesn't share her
    son's worries about keeping up. "In schools they have so much down time. What he
    does get is so intensive and to the point," she said.

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