Ketchikan’s school board meets in closed session in the Ketchikan High School library in March 2021. (Eric Stone/KRBD)

Ketchikan’s school board on Wednesday rejected a resident’s challenge to using  Native values in local schools. The board voted 6-1 to uphold school district administrators’ determination that the Southeast Traditional Tribal Values document posted in district schools did not constitute prohibited religious teaching.

Justin Breese is the resident who raised the issue. He outlined his concerns to the board.

“The school district is currently posting the list of Southeast Traditional Tribal Values produced by the Central Council Tlingit and Haida (Indian) Tribes of Alaska. My complaint is that while many of these values are secular, they also contain items which are religious or spiritual in nature, one specific being the ‘reverence for our creator,’” Bresse said.

He argued that posting the 14 values in public schools and incorporating them into lessons violated the separation of church and state required by the First Amendment.

Native leaders, though, turned out in force to push back against the idea that the values document was inherently religious. Lisa DeWitt-Narino is a former member of Saxman’s tribal council and a Tlingit language educator.

“Sonya Skan, Director of Education and Training at KIC, former school board member, once shared that the particular value of ‘reverence for our creator’ means to have a deep respect for something or someone who creates something, or, you could say, a deep respect for something outside of ourselves,” she said.

Many of those who testified asked the board to expand cultural education in schools.

Paul Robbins Jr. was the only school board member to vote against upholding administrators’ determination that the tribal values are school-appropriate.

“We as a school district, as a public school district, and as a government organization, do not need to extol one above other cultures, we need to represent all of them. So if we were to do this properly, we would keep these but add others next to them,” he said.

But most board members said they supported having the Southeast Traditional Tribal Values posted in public schools, including Board President Stephen Bradford

“I think it’s entirely appropriate that we have these traditional tribal values. We don’t label them as the KGBSD values. We don’t say these are values that you have to adopt,” he said. “We simply are acknowledging that these are the traditional values of the people who have lived here since time immemorial.”

Bradford, who’s also an attorney, said he did not believe posting the tribal values violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.