Indian Flag, and Hackles, Raised at School

By Sean Cavanagh — November 26, 2003 4 min read
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As symbols go, the flag that weaves and snaps today in front of LaFayette Junior-Senior High School seems innocuous enough: the white outline of a tree, alongside a row of squared shapes, against a purple backdrop.

Yet the effort by members of the local Onondaga Native American community to have that banner mounted outside the 515-student school in upstate New York has proved anything but simple.

On Nov. 12, the school district held a ceremony to raise the flag of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, a historical union of Indian nations, alongside the United States flag.

The move was the culmination of years of effort on the part of the American Indian community in LaFayette, a rural hamlet of 5,200 residents just south of Syracuse. The flag drew objections, however, from some military veterans, parents, and students, who complained that the move showed disrespect for the U.S. flag and accorded the Onondagas special treatment.

Residents of the Onondaga Nation, which borders the town, have contended for years that their customs and traditions were neglected within the LaFayette Central School District. In some cases, they say, there was open prejudice, but more recently, they saw a lack of understanding of Native American tradition.

The raising of the flag will help them feel more included in the school community, some say.

“It’s good that our community is talking about these issues that have been simmering,” said Wendy Gonyea, a community liaison for the Onondaga Nation, who has a son at the junior-senior high school. “Maybe we will reach some kind of mutual understanding.”

Emblem of Peace

Ms. Gonyea remembers more tension between American Indian students and non-Indian classmates in the 1970s, when some Indian students protested what they saw as poor treatment by school officials. Relations have improved since then, she said, with the 1,100- student district making changes to accommodate the Onondaga population, and members of both communities participating in student government and sports, such as lacrosse and volleyball.

But efforts to fly the Haudenosaunee flag never caught on. “It’d get talked about, but then the kids would graduate,” Ms. Gonyea said.

She credited Mark P. Mondanaro, who was hired as the superintendent in LaFayette more than a year ago, with bringing changes. He threw his support behind raising the Indian confederacy’s flag, and the school board went along in June. With Mr. Mondanaro’s backing, the district was also scheduled to hoist the Haudenosaunee flag outside a district elementary school last week.

“It’s a complex community,” Mr. Mondanaro said. “Two separate communities that have to coexist together.”

The Haudenosaunee flag symbolizes the coming together of five warring Indian nations that inhabited the Northeast region in and around New York: the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk. According to Native American history and oral tradition, those nations were warring until they were united by the Peacemaker, forming the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, also known as the Iroquois Confederacy.

Two Flags, Two Nations

The Haudenosaunee flag depicts a white pine, which has needles clustered in groups of five, symbolizing the different nations.

Today, most Native American students in the LaFayette area attend the Onondaga Nation School from kindergarten through 8th grade, then switch to LaFayette’s junior-senior high.

Even before raising the flag, school leaders heard threats that it would be torn down. One member of the local community, Jean Schneible, who has two children in elementary school in the district, said she would have no problem with the flying of the Haudenosaunee flag—if it flew below the American flag. The two flags now fly at equal height, on separate flag poles.

“How they went about this is all wrong,” Ms. Schneible said. She said she would have her two sons stay at home rather than take part in the flag-raising ceremony at Grimshaw Elementary School.

Ms. Schneible said she has heard complaints that Native American students act up when the Pledge of Allegiance is recited at the junior-senior high school. “If they want to establish a better rapport, they need to respect us in the way they want us to respect them,” she said.

In addition, she said she planned to file an objection with the New York state education department, challenging the legality of raising the Native American flags.

Like some other critics from the community, Ms. Schneible noted that the U.S. flag does not fly on a flagpole outside the Onondaga Nation School. Mr. Mondanaro, however, said that choice was left to leaders of that American Indian community. “It wasn’t meant to be a one-for-one decision,” the superintendent said.

That controversy seemed distant to the students, parents, and tribal leaders who gathered at LaFayette Junior-Senior High for the flag-raising ceremony on Nov. 12. Stephen Thomas, a Native American student and Ms. Gonyea’s son, discussed the history of the Haudenosaunee flag. Sarah Walsh, a junior at the school, told the audience about the creation of the U.S. flag. The audience sang the national anthem and an Onondaga hymn.

“It was a celebration of both flags,” Mr. Mondanaro said. “Right now, we have the opportunity to show, in our small part of the world, how two nations can get along.”


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