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Disgruntled Mohawks Take Over N.Y. School

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The Salmon River school district, surrounded by dairy farms in the northernmost reaches of New York state, has had a decidedly atypical back-to-school season.

The day before school began on Sept. 5, about 40 Mohawk Indians from a nearby reservation walked into a district elementary school and declared a peaceful takeover. They announced that they were creating their own school district in an effort to gain more control over the education of children from the reservation.

Since then, officials in the 1,600-student district have been caught in the middle of an age-old battle over tribal sovereignty and unity. Mohawk supporters held around-the-clock vigils last week at the elementary school. By week's end, a settlement had been reached and the school was set to reopen this week.

"I keep shaking my head and thinking, 'Am I wacko or is this as crazy as this appears to be?'" said Superintendent Michael Singleton, who joined the district last year. "I remember telling somebody recently that September and October are usually kind of quiet. And by gum, I don't know what that's like anymore."

District officials had expected about 340 students, all of them Mohawk Indians, to enroll in the pre-K-4 St. Regis Mohawk School in Hogansburg. The Salmon River district is one of about a dozen districts that New York state pays to educate American Indian children who live on reservations.

But leaders from the St. Regis Mohawk reservation have long disagreed with Salmon River officials over hiring practices and curriculum. Even the school's location is a matter of dispute. Tribal leaders insist that it sits on reservation land, while state officials claim it doesn't.

Those disagreements apparently came to a head this summer.

'Confusion and Disbelief'

On the morning of Sept. 4, as teachers prepared for classes the next day, tribal representatives handed Mr. Singleton a letter that said the Mohawks had formed their own school district and were reclaiming the school. By day's end, some 200 Mohawks occupied the brick building.

The sit-in continued throughout most of last week. On Sept. 12, the school board approved an agreement that will give the Mohawks greater involvement in the schools, in exchange for allowing the St. Regis school to open.

During the sit-in, parents of about half the expected St. Regis student body sent their children to school. Those students were being taught by the 50 teachers and support staff from the closed school at the district's other school complex, 10 miles down the road.

"There's a lot of confusion and disbelief among parents," Mr. Singleton said.

And among employees, too, he added. Some tribal leaders have suggested that their all-Mohawk district would apply to the staff as well as to the students. Hiring is one of the long-simmering issues that led to the tribe's occupation.

For decades, some of the St. Regis Mohawks have complained that the district has not hired enough Indian teachers and staff members, and that it has not taught enough Mohawk language and culture in school, a tribal spokeswoman, Adeline Herne, said in a telephone interview last week from inside the St. Regis school. Forty-two of the district's 300 employees are Indian.

It was unclear last week whether state law would allow the creation of a school district run by the tribe, as the St. Regis Mohawks demanded. Bill Hirschen, a spokesman for the New York education department, said current law does not say whether the state can give school aid to a tribe for educating reservation children, rather than contracting with a traditional public school district.

A Turbulent History

The St. Regis Mohawk tribe has about 7,000 members, many of whom live on the 14,000-acre reservation.

But the greater Mohawk community is split by the St. Lawrence River, which runs along the border between the United States and Canada--a border many Mohawks do not recognize. The community is governed by three bodies--one for the Canadian reservation, one for New York state's, and the so-called traditional council that claims to represent all Mohawks.

For years, Canadian Mohawk students have attended Salmon River schools at New York state expense, Mr. Singleton said.

But starting this fall, state officials said those students would have to pay tuition. That move--in addition to the historical tensions between Mohawks and the district--led to the takeover.

The Mohawks have seen numerous power struggles over the years. In 1990, armed clashes between rival tribal factions over the issue of casino gambling on reservation land led to several deaths.

State and district officials said last week that they were treading lightly in this latest event to ensure that it remained peaceful.

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