LEWISTON — The state commissioner of education and staff members of the New York State Education Department toured Tuscarora Indian School on Sept. 28 and inspected the beginning of school improvements underway after an $11.8 million pledge by the state.
Tuscarora Indian Elementary School serves Tuscarora Nation residents in prekindergarten through sixth grade. The purpose of Commissioner Betty A. Rosa’s visit was to obtain “advice, recommendations and guidance to promote, advance and support educational opportunity and state education policies for Indigenous students consistent with First Nation values and culture,” according to NYSED.
Rosa and NYSED staff members met with members of the Tuscarora Council, and Daniel Ljiljanich, superintendent of Niagara Wheatfield Central School District, said their conversation will help to build a relationship of trust and open lines of communication. Among things discussed was creation of an Indigenous Language and Culture teaching certification, he noted.
“It was a great opportunity for the commissioner to meet with members of the Tuscarora Council and community and learn more about the Tuscarora Nation,” Ljiljanich said.
Liz Corieri, Tuscarora Indian Elementary principal, introduced Rosa to her staff and brought the visitors into classrooms to observe the students and teachers. Among them, Rosa visited the Culture class, where teacher Vincent Schiffert was working with students on corn husk dolls. Schiffert and his students told their guests the story behind the dolls and why they had no faces.
“It is to remind children not to be vain and that it is wrong to think they are better than anyone else,” Schiffert relayed. “The Creator has given a special gift to everyone and that they should be thankful for that.”
Rosa helped some of the students with the construction of their dolls and then was presented with one before she left.
In the Language class taught by Caitlin Phillips, students were discussing the book “A Stranger At Home”, a true story about a young Native American girl whose family comes to claim her from a residential school and how she feels like an outsider when she returns home. Rosa asked the students questions about the story and what they would say to the main character if they could talk to her.
The Language students recited the Haʔ Kanęherathęhčreh speech, which opens and closes Akunęsye·niʔ (Haudenosaunee) gatherings and is often referred to as the words before all else.
“The speech acknowledges and gives thanks to everything we have in the natural world,” Phillips explained. “It starts by giving thanks to the assembled crowd listening that day and moves on to give thanks to all the aspects of the natural world, from the ground to the sky. The speaker ends each section with the phrase ‘Now our minds are one.’ The men in the gathering respond with a word of agreement, Čeh. This speech serves to remind us, on a regular basis, to always be thankful for everything. At the conclusion of this speech, everyone’s mind is focused and now ready to begin the business for which they have gathered that day.”
Rosa’s visit was “historical” for the school, Corieri said. The commissioner “interacted with the students, asked deep, rigorous questions and made every student feel special. ... We are hoping this is the first of many meetings,” Ljiljanich added.
Tuscarora Indian Elementary is within the Niagara Wheatfield district but its upkeep is the responsibility of New York State. Until recently, the school was sharing an annual allocation of $3.4 million for improvements with St. Regis Mohawk School (in Franklin County), Onondaga Nation School (in Onondaga County) and 14 other New York State buildings, leading to each one becoming increasingly dilapidated.