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School district raises Haudenosaunee flag

LAFAYETTE, N.Y. - At a Nov. 12 ceremony attended by hundreds of students and community members, the purple banner of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy was raised for the first time over the high school in this Central New York town.

"Doing the right thing in the correct and appropriate manner will lead to improvement on how we treat each other and live together," said James Wolf, president of the LaFayette Board of Education. "Raising the Haudenosaunee flag alongside the U.S. flag is the proper, respectful thing to do. This action recognizes and celebrates two communities that come together as one at our schools."

Students Sarah Walsh and Steve Thomas spoke briefly on the history and significance of the American and Haudenosaunee flags, respectively. The Stars and Stripes was first to fly. After a fine rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner" by the school's vocal ensemble, the Haudenosaunee flag was hoisted. When it reached the top of the flagpole, the large crowd reacted with sustained applause.

"The raising of this flag today will not further divide us as people, but unite us as a community," said Thomas, a junior who lives at the nearby Onondaga Nation and attends the high school. "With the establishment of our flag, we Native students will feel represented in our school. We are sure that today's ceremony will usher in a new era based on understanding and respect of our culture."

The ceremony also included two Thanksgiving prayers, delivered in the Onondaga language by student Rich Bennett, and Native music from Robert Shenandoah and friends.

On June 26, the school board voted unanimously to raise the Haudenosaunee flag as a gesture of respect to the Onondaga Nation, whose students comprise almost a quarter of the high school student body. While many townspeople supported the idea, others demanded a taxpayer vote on the matter or called for a boycott of the ceremony.

No dissent was evident within the large, enthusiastic crowd. The sizeable number of guests from the nation, many of whom waved miniature versions of the purple and white banner, were visibly moved after the flag went up. Onondaga residents of the district had for years requested that their flag be flown at the school.

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At the school district's Oct. 9 biweekly meeting, the board was presented with a 100-signature petition against flying the flag. According to the published minutes of that meeting however, several students, parents and teachers agreed that raising the flag was a "courageous" act, the right thing to do.

Recent reports in local media paint an ambiguous picture of racial relations at the school. Some interviewees characterized LaFayette High as a "normal" place with little or no racial tension. Others cited disrespectful acts and attitudes by both Indian and non-Indian students. Regardless, the flags and the feelings they inspire are at the forefront at LaFayette High.

The Town of LaFayette, population 4,800, is located 12 miles south of Syracuse and borders the 7,300-acre territory of the Onondaga Nation, one of the six Haudenosaunee nations. The Nation School, which serves grades K-8, has been part of the LaFayette Central School District since 1954. At LaFayette High School, 120 of the 515 enrolled students, or 23.3 percent, are Native American.

Last June, the Lafayette Lancers boys' lacrosse team captured the New York State Class C State championship. The team, with a lineup featuring Indian and non-Indian players, has long been a powerhouse among Central New York's small schools.

A number of parents who opposed the flag raising reportedly pulled their children from school in protest, an act serving only to deprive the kids a positive experience in cross-cultural respect. During discussions preceding the flag raising, objections were raised that flying the Native flag would somehow denigrate the Stars and Stripes. The protocol observed at LaFayette conforms to Flag Code of the U.S. (Public Law 94-344, adopted July 7, 1976).

"No other flag or pennant should be placed above, or, if on the same level, to the right of the flag of the United States," the code reads. The phrase "to the right of the flag" means "to the observer's left." When the Stars and Stripes is in the position of prominence, it is on the left as viewed by observers.

"The idea of flying the Haudenosaunee flag has been discussed within our community for years - now is the right time," Wolf declared. He ended his remarks with advice given him as a child by his parents: "Treat other people as you would like to be treated, and to earn respect you should show respect."