September 1, 2022 | By Kellen M. Quigley | Olean Times Herald
Photo: The Salamanca City Central School District main campus on Iroquois Drive. Photo: Courtesy of Olean Times Herald.
SALAMANCA — The Salamanca City Central School District has taken another step to show its solidarity with the Seneca Nation and all Indigenous peoples by adopting a Land Acknowledgment Statement.
Gabriele Papa, a member of the district’s Native American Curriculum team, spoke on the history of such statements, how Salamanca created theirs and the intended use for it.
Land Acknowledgment Statements began in the 1970s in Canada at different educational institutions and organizations that wanted to recognize the history of the lands non-Natives had settled on. Papa said the movement began slowly but she has seen a big growth in them in recent years.
“There’s a couple different perspectives on them,” she said. “One view from Indigenous people is that it’s a really great initial step and reconciliation in recognizing the history that occurred. And then there’s the other side that tends to believe it is the very least organizations can do and there are many other tangible ways to benefit Indigenous communities, whether it’s scholarships, different programming, curriculum, those kinds of things.”
Conversations about the district adopting its own statement began the previous year, but not many of the team members had no experience with it, Papa said. But when they attended the National Indian Education Association conference in October, the first thing attendees did was a Land Acknowledgment Statement — and it was an inspiration.
“We wanted to make sure that when we were doing it, it wasn’t just something that we’re standing up and doing just to check a box,” she explained. “We wanted it to be authentic and to really recognize and acknowledge the harsh parts of history but then also celebrate the intention behind it and what the district is doing.”
As they were creating the statement, the team shared its progress with the local Indigenous community to make sure the facts were accurate and had the right history, Papa said. Because Salamanca is an educational organization or institution, she said they wanted to be sure they acknowledged a vital part of history — the forced assimilation that occurred through boarding schools.
“We did that, and it’s all very heavy, but then toward the end of it we get a little bit lighter and we really wanted to focus on the positive things that our district is doing and continues to do,” she said. “There’s a lot of different ways you can benefit, both native and non-native students, through education. Just having these things said to them helps open that door and have that conversation about what occurred and what we are doing.”
Papa said the curriculum team is a superb example of what the district is doing to provide tangible benefits. She said they are working to maintain the relationship between the school district and Seneca Nation, which is a lot of what they were hoping to gain from it.
The team intends to share the statement and have it available when students, staff and visitors are coming to the district so they can read it and consider where the district is and what the history of the land may be, Papa said.
“Additionally, thanks to (Seneca history teacher Jerry Musial), we’ve made it available for the different grade levels so it’s not going to be this heavy language that elementary students aren’t going to understand or it may be a little too much,” she said. “Even though they are young, it’s really important that we teach young children that they can’t take things that don’t belong to them.”
Through doing a Land Acknowledgment Statement, Papa said their hope is they are empowering the Indigenous students to recognize the land that they exist on and empowering that resiliency.
“We are still here, we still have our language, we have our culture and we have an ongoing history,” she added. “I often call it a ‘living history,’ so I think it is really important as part of our Land Acknowledgement Statement.”
Dr. Mark Beehler, district superintendent, read a full version of the Land Acknowledgement Statement at the board’s regular Aug. 23 meeting. He also read an abridged version designed for elementary students at the special meeting Tuesday.
“Moving forward, it is the intention that the Land Acknowledgment Statement will be read, or a version of it will be read that would be age-appropriate or venue appropriate, subsequent to the Pledge of Allegiance at our school functions,” Beehler said. “It should really serve as an acknowledgment of the territory and land that we are currently on and work toward reconciliation with the Indigenous peoples of this area.”
Beehler thanked the Native American Curriculum team for the tremendous amount of work they put into the statement. He said various versions of it will be distributed to the schools, noting the acknowledgment will be part of additional learning for the students.
Kerry John, board vice president, also thanked the team for their work on the statement. He said he believes nothing will ever be enough in terms of Indigenous reparations, but it is a good beginning step.
“It was well thought out and expressed very well,” added Theresa Ray, board president. “It was a nice job.”