Seneca Faithkeepers School tries to keep alive the tribe's language

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue May 25 15:52:33 UTC 2004

>>From the Buffalo News, 5/20/2004

Seneca Faithkeepers School tries to keep alive the tribe's traditional ways, language

News Staff Reporter

Last winter, at a meeting of the Seneca Tribal Council, an 8-year-old boy
stood up to give the invocation.  In front of a council filled with smoke
shop owners and casino enthusiasts, the boy spoke the language of his
forefathers, the language of the Longhouse. "This little boy spoke for
eight to 10 minutes, all in the Seneca language," said Rickey L. Armstrong
Sr., the tribe's president. "I was in awe listening to this."

And it all happened because Lehman "Dar" Dowdy doesn't want Seneca
tradition to die.  "Ninety-nine percent of Senecas don't know how to speak
the Seneca language. Everywhere you look, our old ways of life are
disappearing,"  said Dowdy, 65. To counter that loss of heritage, Dowdy
and his wife, Sandy, in 1998 started the Seneca Faithkeepers School, where
the boy learned to speak the Seneca language.

The school is located in the woods of the Allegany Reservation, in a long
cedar building modeled after the longhouses, where traditional Senecas
hold religious ceremonies. In that building, Seneca children and teenagers
spend five days a week learning their nation's language, its history and
traditions, from farming techniques to an ancient game played with dice
carved from animal bones.

Attending the school is a major commitment for young people and their
parents. Because the Faithkeepers program is not geared to meet government
requirements, each student needs tutoring or home schooling to learn
subjects such as math, English and science. Twelve students, ages 8 to 14,
now attend the school which, the Dowdys realize, is just a small step
toward saving the Senecas' heritage.

"I would like to see each of these 12 kids grow up and teach 12 other kids
about our language and customs," Dowdy said. "And hopefully, that second
group will go on to teach others." The school teaches students the ways of
the Longhouse religion, as specified in a spiritual guide called the
Gaiwi:yo:h. Pronounced Guy-wee-yo, the book provides the moral code for
Longhouse Senecas.

The roles of males and females at the school follow Seneca traditions that
aren't always in step with modern America. Only girls are taught to cook.
Only boys can play - or even watch - a popular winter sport called
"snowsnakes," which involves pushing spears of polished hardwood down a
quarter-mile ramp lined with ice.

Students maintain the big, bountiful garden behind the school, growing
corn, tobacco and scarlet runner beans. One recent afternoon, an elder
named Marilyn Cooper taught the girls how to sew colorful "ribbon shirts"
that are worn for tribal ceremonies. The children learn about traditional
song and dance, self-esteem, the earth's natural energy forces - wind,
water, thunder, sun, moon and stars - and the use of plants and bushes to
make medicines.

"I like the school . . . especially the cultural stuff," said student
Robynn George, 13, who first introduced herself by her Seneca name,
Gayenesha'a:h. "I like learning about our traditions." Dowdy is a
Longhouse faithkeeper who leads many of the ceremonies at the Cold Spring
Longhouse on the Allegany Reservation. As a teacher, he gives his lessons
a different spin from what the students would hear in public schools.

"When I teach them about George Washington, I tell them about the things
that George Washington did to our nation," Dowdy said, referring to the
army sent to burn and destroy Seneca villages during the Revolutionary
War. Students pay nothing to attend the school. Most expenses are covered
by donations from Senecas who believe in preserving the nation's old ways.
Merle Watt, a wealthy Seneca smoke shop owner, raised much of the money
and provided laborers to build the school.

The Seneca Nation donated 10 acres for the school, does repairs on the
building, provides some tutors and pays Dowdy as a part-time employee.
Earlier this month, the nation government donated more than $70,000 to the
school after a fund-raiser at the new Seneca Allegany Casino. Armstrong
said it would "sicken" him if the nation completely lost touch with its
old ways. He said many Seneca elders still recall the days when they
learned to speak their own language before English.

"I'd like to see a second Faithkeepers School started on the Cattaraugus
Territory," Armstrong said. "Anything that Dar Dowdy asks for, I think we
should step up to the plate and help him."

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