Are Southeast Alaska tribes’ traditional values inherently religious?
That’s a question Ketchikan’s school board is scheduled to tackle on Wednesday. A parent is asking the board to review the school district’s use of a document outlining 14 values promoted by Native leaders.
Patience, respect for nature, speaking with care, and humor — those are some of the values put together by Southeast Alaska tribal elders in 2004. They’re taught in some Ketchikan schools as part of the cultural curriculum. But one of the values — “reverence for our creator” — has some Ketchikan residents convinced that the school district is promoting religious beliefs in violation of the First Amendment. Justin Breese filed a request for the district to review the values on April 6. He spoke at a school board meeting about the topic later that month.
“I feel that one of the values of reverence for our Creators is undeniably a religious statement about creationism,” Breese said at the meeting.
At that meeting Breese said he believed in cultural education in the schools, but that the Southeast Traditional Tribal Values was not the right avenue.
“My concern is that these aren’t being included as any kind of lesson,” he said. “These are just a posting that’s made in every classroom in the school district, as far as I know. And I’d like some kind of direction to the superintendent to have it removed and maybe come up with a better plan.”
School district officials denied the request. Business Manager Katie Parrott signed a determination last month that found the values did not promote any particular religion.
Former Ketchikan Indian Community president and current Tribal Council Member Gloria Burns says the term “creator” isn’t about worship.
“It’s acknowledging, you know, the strength of the mountain and your responsibility to it,” Burns said.
Burns says it is more about how the individual connects to the things around them.
“It’s imperfect, there’s no way in English to say that with just one snapshot or word,” Burns said.
Breese has appealed the school district’s ruling. School Board President Stephen Bradford says the appeal process is required by the board’s bylaws.
“And we could either affirm or reject the conclusion of staff,” he said.
The board is scheduled to take up the question on Wednesday. If the board agrees with Breese, they’ll determine what to do about the Southeast Traditional Tribal Values program at a later date.
Ketchikan’s school board meets at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the White Cliff Building on First Avenue. Members of the public have a chance to weigh in at the beginning of the meeting. The meeting is livestreamed on local cable channels and the borough’s website.
Raegan Miller is a Report for America corps member for KRBD. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one. Please consider making a tax-deductible contribution at KRBD.org/donate.