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New school for Meskwaki: School will teach tribal language, culture

TAMA, Iowa (MCT) – The grand opening of the new Meskwaki High School marked “one of the biggest days in our history – bigger than the opening of the casino,” said Jon Papakee, vice chairman of the Meskwaki Nation Tribal Council.

“It ranks at the top. It will last longer and do more good” than the Meskwaki Bingo Casino/Hotel, whose proceeds paid most of the facility’s $23 million cost, said Tribal Council member Don Wanatee.

Former Tribal Council Chairman Homer Bear Jr., who spoke his invocation in the Meskwaki language, said the school fulfills the dreams of tribal elders, who have long sought “to have a hand in” the cultural and academic education of Meskwaki youth.

Classes in the 108,000-square-foot facility began Aug. 19 with enrollment continuing to mount. “We don’t know how many students we have. We’re still entering them into the computer” as more transfer from the South Tama public schools, said Superintendent Jerry Stephens.

He said enrollment in the school has more than doubled since last year to about 325 students, with about 125 in grades 7 through 12. The school could easily accommodate all 450 eligible students, and “more of them will come when they see the facility and the education it provides.”

The ceremony Aug. 21 opened with a Meskwaki color guard, accompanied by tribal drummers, presenting the U.S. and Meskwaki flags. It closed with the students and their families circling the gymnasium floor to cut a giant red ribbon into hundreds of keepsake pieces.

Papakee said the school will teach students their Meskwaki culture and language and reinforce their identity as members of the Meskwaki Nation.

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“It symbolizes our achievement as a nation, our endurance and our destiny.”

Krystal Diver, a 16-year-old junior, said the school’s emphasis on culture and language is as important to her as its spacious gymnasium and attractive exterior.

Thomas Findley, vice president of Leo A. Daly architects, said the school was designed to reflect the tribe’s culture and its connection with nature, Its geothermal heating and cooling system “takes advantage of God-given energy,” reflecting the tribe’s commitment to wise use of resources, he said.

Students must be at least one-fourth American Indian to attend the Meskwaki school.

Tribal funds paid for $19 million of the $23 million addition, with the remainder coming in a federal appropriation.

The school was built during the past 18 months by Knutson Construction of Iowa City. “It is a spectacular shining jewel in the state of Iowa,” said company representative Darin Knapp.

(c) 2009, Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.