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Niagara Wheatfield’s Tuscarora School helps kids navigate two cultures

LEWISTON – Colorful projects line the school hallways, carefully written in the children’s native Tuscarora language and in English. They are a reminder that the Tuscarora Indian School offers a collaboration between two cultures and that these young children live in both worlds.

The prekindergarten through sixth-grade students learn the rich history of the Tuscarora culture. And, the staff, under the direction of Principal Elizabeth Corieri, also strives to prepare them for the future.

The Tuscarora Indian School is one of the few in the New York State educational system serving entirely native student populations and situated on Native American territory, in this case, the Tuscarora Nation in Lewiston.

Teacher Joanne Weinholtz calls the native language and culture taught at Tuscarora “the heart of our children’s education.”

“We’re helping to plant our students’ roots,” said Weinholtz, who has taught at the school for 30 years. “Their families are the first to do this but we also contribute, so that no matter where they are, they know who they are.”

One of four elementary schools in the Niagara Wheatfield Central School District, the school at 2015 Mount Hope Road has 104 students, 22 teachers and additional support staff.

A dozen other districts throughout New York contract with the state to provide an education to native students, with a commitment to preserve their respective traditions, languages and cultures. But these schools are not located on native lands and may not have all native students.

Corieri came to the Tuscarora School as a teacher in 1992 and became principal 17 years ago.

“We want to create a caring atmosphere at all times – for our students to be kind and compassionate,” she said.

“We strive each day to keep our academic standards high and promote deep thinking in each classroom,” she added. “We take pride in our weekly paper, the Tuscarora Times, to keep our connections between home and school. And we strive to create a positive mindset for our students to take through middle school and high school with confidence.”

Promoting the integration of native language and culture into a day already jammed with the state’s Common Core requirements calls for “a lot of collaboration,” Corieri admitted.

Weinholtz has taught native culture classes as part of the students’ daily curriculum for the past 25 years.

“I also collaborate with teachers who are teaching social studies and English Language Arts, for example, but from a cultural perspective,” she said.

“At Thanksgiving time, I teach the history of 1620 and 1621 and we use maps of the areas where the indigenous people were, prior to their first contact with Europeans,” Weinholtz said. “We look at what was going on in Europe at that time and where we, the Tuscaroras, were at that time in history.

“It was a new world to the Europeans but an ancient world to us,” she said. “We already had a very knowledgeable and sophisticated culture here at that time. So, the history of Thanksgiving is actually very complex.”

Weinholtz has a unique perspective, as she attended Tuscarora as a student. She’s been able to use new technology, like her classroom’s Smartboard, to take students on virtual tours of places like Plymouth, Mass.

Her bright corner classroom is filled with native artifacts, like rugs, pelts, pottery and beads – and dozens of books. She also teaches a Native American culture class for middle school students who choose to return to the Tuscarora school after their own school day has ended.

Fellow teacher Patricia Pineda offers lessons in beadwork and social dance after school as well.

Ten-year-old Landen Johnson, a fifth-grader, said of Weinholtz’s culture classes, “It’s very educational. We just learned about the first Thanksgiving and the archaeology. We learned about the Pilgrims and other white people that came over and about the Tuscarora and where they were then.”

Landen also said he “knew some simple words” in his native Tuscarora tongue when he started school, but Corieri said she’s heard him converse in Tuscarora and she’s impressed.

The students start taking classes in the Tuscarora language as early as Pre-K, according to Vince Schiffert, who teaches the language to grades three through six, and also teaches Native American studies at the high school. Tina Pineda is the other Tuscarora language teacher at the elementary school.

They both attended Tuscarora as children and recalled that the language was not offered until the early 1970s. While the Tuscarora language is integrated into the lessons throughout the students’ career at Tuscarora Indian School, it is an elective in middle and high school.

Corieri said she would like to see an indigenous languages certificate program offered for instructors in New York State to ensure the preservation of the language.

Charles Rinaldi, retired superintendent in the Gowanda Central School District, which serves a large Seneca population, said an effort is underway to explore this.

He said there are currently five certifications listed by the state Education Department in Seneca language instruction, but no clear path to attain them.

He said the Seneca Nation and SUNY Fredonia have initiated a project, partnering with school districts that serve Seneca populations; Gowanda, Silver Creek, Lake Shore, Salamanca and Akron; along with Niagara-Wheatfield, the state Education Department and Erie 2 Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES. Together, they are seeking a defined program acceptable to all parties.

The results would be a new “indigenous languages certification model in Seneca, which could be expanded to include other Six Nation speakers,” Rinaldi said. He was referring to the Tuscarora, Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga and Oneida.

He said the concept is relatively new and that, “We are trying, together, to explore this path.”

In the meantime, the staff at Tuscarora Indian School continues to explore the old ways with new generations, yet prepare its young pupils to become global citizens in the 21st century.

“Our students discuss contemporary, global issues and need awareness of the world and compassion for fellow humans,” Weinholtz said.

Summarizing the school’s mission, she added, “This is a passion and way of life. My Dad always says, ‘We can create what we want.’ So much of what happens here in school spills over to the community at large. So many of our young people graduate from these programs and go out and do even more.

“And, the spill-over effect can even be felt throughout our Tuscarora building,” Weinholtz said. “Principal Corieri encourages the Tuscarora/Haudenosaunee culture’s belief of the ‘power of the good mind.’ ”