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Turtle Territory

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The way the Iroquois Oneida tell it, the Sky Woman needed a place to land as she plummeted from a hole in the sky. The turtle volunteered to catch her on his shell, so the other animals went to the bottom of the water to drag up earth, which they placed on the turtle's back.

And life on Earth began.

Last year, members of the Oneida Nation on their reservation near Green Bay, Wis., decided that their new school should pay tribute to that beginning. This year, the "turtle school" opened its shell to nearly 500 students on Sept. 12.

Kindergartners take classes in the turtle's tail. The others, 1st through 8th graders, are grouped in its feet, except the right forefoot: That's where lunch is served.

Being sent to Principal Sandra Orie's office means you're somewhere in the turtle's belly, padding down floors with inlaid designs of leaves and flowers. On your way, you're likely to pass the school's computer labs, music rooms, and other common activity areas. The largest of two gymnasiums occupies the turtle's head.

"I almost have to pinch myself when I go to work," Orie says. Like many Oneida who grew up on the reservation and left as adults, she recently returned "to close the circle."

Architects went through a dozen different designs before settling on the brown stucco and stone 160,000-square-foot structure.

"Everybody had a different idea of what a turtle should look like," the principal architect, Todd Bushmaker, says. The turtle, along with the wolf and bear, also represents one of the clans from which the Oneida trace their ancestry.

The Oneida's bustling gaming empire--which each year draws some three million visitors and nearly $90 million--helped finance the $12 million school.

The old school, which still stands just across the road, reported about half the enrollment of its turtle reincarnation, officially named the Oneida Nation Elementary School. Tribal officials attribute that increase, in part, to the new school's emphasis on Oneida language and culture.

Building the turtle, a Bureau of Indian Affairs contract school, has allowed the tribe to convert the old school into its first high school. Before, older students scattered to the five public school districts surrounding the 66,000-acre reservation, which is home to some 3,800 Oneida.

"The turtle was an effort to keep people together," Jeff House, a spokesman for the Oneida Nation, says.

Together, but also a bit lost at times, according to some teachers and students, with hallways that sweep in circles below a luminous skylight.

"At least you can come back to where you started," Orie says of the new school's floor plan.

Tehassi Hill, now an 8th grader, had attended the old school since preschool. "It was pretty cool to come here because I was getting kind of sick of our old school," he says.

As community enthusiasm for the school grows, the architect is careful to note that building an addition would mar the turtle's symbolic structure.

No worry, Orie says. There's still the bear and the wolf.

--Lynn Schnaiberg

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