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Meskwaki dispute enters the classroom

MESKWAKI SETTLEMENT, Iowa - Families on both sides of a tribal leadership dispute are refusing to send their children to the settlement school, citing disagreement with the school administrator or fears of violence.

School started Aug. 21 with about 60 of the 160 expected students attending. On Aug. 25, only 100 students had shown up for class, administrators said.

School board member Rhonda Pushetonequa's son has spent his first few school days at home playing video games. Pushetonequa won't send her son to school after the administrator accepted operating funds released by contested tribal chairman Alex Walker Jr.

"I told him about school and that he would be going somewhere and he said, 'OK, whatever," Pushetonequa said. "He's pretty easygoing about it. He knows we'll do the best we can."

In March, Meskwaki tribal members voted no confidence in an elected tribal council, led by Chairman Alex Walker, after the council refused to honor petitions to hold a recall election. Hereditary Chief Charles Old Bear appointed a new council, which occupied the tribal center and took over government operations. Tribal members again tried to legitimize the appointed council in a May 22 special election, but the BIA, NIGC, and state of Iowa all continue to recognize the Walker council as official Meskwaki leadership.

Under advice from the BIA, school administrator Joel Longie, Ojibwa, signed teacher contracts, renewed his own contract and received school funding held by the Walker council.

"The funding that comes from the bureau had already come to the elected council," Longie said. "The only option I had as a school administrator was to work with the council and open the school."

"The move was not political whatsoever," he said. "The move was logical and the only step I could have taken as an administrator. It's my job to keep the school going."

But Bear council members pressured him to try and help force the Walker council into handing the school funds to them, saying they could pay for school expenses out of reserve funds, at least until an Oct. 21 recall election, Longie said. When Longie went to Walker, they branded him a traitor, he said.

Even though Walker dissolved the school board last April, Pushetonequa, Chairman Harlan Brown and others continue to meet under the authority of the Bear council. Earlier this month, they voted not to renew Longie's contract.

The school board had been considering the move for some time, Brown said. He declined to cite specific reasons for this consideration. There have been no disciplinary actions against Longie in his two-year employment with the tribe.

"Of course, the final straw that broke the camel's back was his refusal to leave," Brown said. "It tells me, personally, that he was just looking out for number one, contrary to what he thinks is best for the school, best for the parents, and best for the Meskwaki people."

The acting school board has met with parents to discuss education alternatives while the settlement school protest continues, but no study groups or home school activities have as yet been established, Brown said. About half the tribe's children attend the settlement school. Other students attend public schools in nearby towns. Brown said he thought most of the children involved will not enroll in other schools.

"Parents have allowed their students to stay home," he said. "Based on some comments I've received, they'd rather have their students stay home than go to the local public schools. That's why we created the tribal school."

The tribe does not have any truancy laws, Brown said.

"We never had that problem before - we didn't have to worry about it," he said.

Back at school, teachers are trying to make the best of the situation.

"They're not involved in the political part of things, Longie said. "At least not during the school day."