winter, at a meeting of the Seneca Tribal Council, an 8-year-old
boy stood up to give the invocation.
In front of a council filled
with smoke shop owners and casino enthusiasts, the boy spoke the
language of his forefathers, the language of the Longhouse.
boy spoke for eight to 10 minutes, all in the Seneca language,"
said Rickey L. Armstrong Sr., the tribe's president. "I was
in awe listening to this."
And it all happened
because Lehman "Dar" Dowdy doesn't want Seneca tradition
percent of Senecas don't know how to speak the Seneca language.
Everywhere you look, our old ways of life are disappearing,"
said Dowdy, 65.
To counter that
loss of heritage, Dowdy and his wife, Sandy, in 1998 started the
Seneca Faithkeepers School, where the boy learned to speak the Seneca
The school is located
in the woods of the Allegany Reservation, in a long cedar building
modeled after the longhouses, where traditional Senecas hold religious
In that building,
Seneca children and teenagers spend five days a week learning their
nation's language, its history and traditions, from farming techniques
to an ancient game played with dice carved from animal bones.
Attending the school
is a major commitment for young people and their parents. Because
the Faithkeepers program is not geared to meet government requirements,
each student needs tutoring or home schooling to learn subjects
such as math, English and science.
ages 8 to 14, now attend the school which, the Dowdys realize, is
just a small step toward saving the Senecas' heritage.
"I would like
to see each of these 12 kids grow up and teach 12 other kids about
our language and customs," Dowdy said. "And hopefully,
that second group will go on to teach others."
school teaches students the ways of the Longhouse religion, as specified
in a spiritual guide called the Gaiwi:yo:h. Pronounced Guy-wee-yo,
the book provides the moral code for Longhouse Senecas.
The roles of males
and females at the school follow Seneca traditions that aren't always
in step with modern America.
Only girls are taught
to cook. Only boys can play - or even watch - a popular winter sport
called "snowsnakes," which involves pushing spears of
polished hardwood down a quarter-mile ramp lined with ice.
the big, bountiful garden behind the school, growing corn, tobacco
and scarlet runner beans. One recent afternoon, an elder named Marilyn
Cooper taught the girls how to sew colorful "ribbon shirts"
that are worn for tribal ceremonies.
The children learn
about traditional song and dance, self-esteem, the earth's natural
energy forces - wind, water, thunder, sun, moon and stars - and
the use of plants and bushes to make medicines.
"I like the
school . . . especially the cultural stuff," said student Robynn
George, 13, who first introduced herself by her Seneca name, Gayenesha'a:h.
"I like learning about our traditions."
Dowdy is a Longhouse
faithkeeper who leads many of the ceremonies at the Cold Spring
Longhouse on the Allegany Reservation. As a teacher, he gives his
lessons a different spin from what the students would hear in public
"When I teach
them about George Washington, I tell them about the things that
George Washington did to our nation," Dowdy said, referring
to the army sent to burn and destroy Seneca villages during the
Students pay nothing
to attend the school. Most expenses are covered by donations from
Senecas who believe in preserving the nation's old ways. Merle Watt,
a wealthy Seneca smoke shop owner, raised much of the money and
provided laborers to build the school.
The Seneca Nation
donated 10 acres for the school, does repairs on the building, provides
some tutors and pays Dowdy as a part-time employee. Earlier this
month, the nation government donated more than $70,000 to the school
after a fund-raiser at the new Seneca Allegany Casino.
Armstrong said it
would "sicken" him if the nation completely lost touch
with its old ways. He said many Seneca elders still recall the days
when they learned to speak their own language before English.
"I'd like to
see a second Faithkeepers School started on the Cattaraugus Territory,"
Armstrong said. "Anything that Dar Dowdy asks for, I think
we should step up to the plate and help him."