Ketchikan School District's finding in response to a complaint that lists of Southeast Traditional Tribal Values in district schools promote religious belief.

On April 6, Justin Breese filed a complaint with the district over one of the 14 "Southeast Traditional Tribal Values" that are displayed on posters around many schools in the district. The set of values were "developed, adapted, and approved at the 2004 Elders Forum on Traditional Values," according to the district's investigation of the complaint.

The values are as follows:

•   "Discipline and Obedience to the Traditions of our Ancestors"

•   "Respect for Self, Elders and Others"

•   "Respect for Nature and Property"

•   "Patience"

•   "Pride in Family, Clan and Tradition is found in Love, Loyalty and Generosity"

•   "Be Strong in Mind, Body and Spirit"

•   "Humor"

•   "Hold Each Other Up"

•   "Listen Well and with Respect"

•   "Speak with Care"

•   "We are Stewards of the Air, Land and Sea"

•   "Reverence for Our Creator"

•   "Live in Peace and Harmony"

•   "Be Strong and Have Courage"

The complaint

In his complaint, Breese wrote that "inclusion of specifically #12 'Reverence for Our Creator' shows support of this religious tenet by the school district."

"The result of this document being posted throughout the public schools promotes Tribal doctrine, proselytizing to district students the religious belief of Creationism and therefore the existence of a Creator," he wrote later in his complaint.

Breese's complaint adds that the list "would be useful for a lesson presenting the values and beliefs of others" and that "the school could use the document as educational material in classroom lessons to improve understanding and respect of another culture."

Regarding the complaint's objection to using the tribal values "as a method of determining student rewards," Becky King, who is married to Breese and who is a teacher at Ketchikan Charter School, explained at the board's April 13 meeting that at KCS, "a student is highlighted and given a reward for embodying the (tribal) value of the week" as part of a positive behavior intervention support.

The board's response

At that meeting, some members of the board said that they shared the concerns shared by King and Breese.

Board Vice President Keenan Sanderson said during his comments at the end of that meeting that he agreed with the importance of keeping religious promotion out of schools, but said he didn't believe the 'reverence for our creator' value promoted Creationism.

"In regards to the postings of the schools for the tribal values, I would agree that religion ... just can't be forced on and put in our schools. No matter what it is, it's supposed to be a sanctuary for everybody. No matter what your beliefs are, it shouldn't be necessarily forced on anybody," he said. 

"But as a tribal citizen myself of a couple different tribes, 'reverence to the creator,' from my understanding, doesn't have anything to do with religion. And in talking with a couple of tribal leaders about it, because I've gone through with all the different tribal values on that sheet that's being discussed, 'reverence to the creator' doesn't refer to a god or gods. It refers to ... not the religious creation, but the creation of something that is living," he continued. "You know, a creator could be, you know, your parents. A creator could be the mountains, it could be the fish that provides you sustenance. It doesn't necessarily create, you know, the world around us or doesn't give an explanation of how our planet or whatever is created. You might find different answers from people who you might ask depending on who you talk to, but from my understanding, and from a few other people's understanding, that particular ... tribal value does not refer to any religion."

The district's investigation

On May 25, the district delivered the conclusion of its investigation to Breese, determining that "there is no Southeast Alaska tribal religion, nor specific religious belief in Creationism amongst the Southeast tribes. Therefore, none of the Southeast Traditional Tribal Values are religious statements or tenets."

"It follows, then, that no intent exists, whether historically or contemporaneously, for the values to be used in a manner other than as cultural knowledge sharing," the report adds. "This has been confirmed by Southeast Alaska tribal leaders, and local and regional cultural experts, elders, and culture bearers."

In a Tuesday phone interview, District Business Manager Katie Parrott, who was designated to conduct the district's investigation, said that Ketchikan Indian Community Cultural Specialist Irene Dundas and Liz Medicine Crow, who is the president and CEO of the First Alaskans Institute, were among those that the district consulted as part of its investigation.

The district report draws on statements from an archived video of the Elders Forum to contextualize the values. For instance, the report quotes Klukwan Elder Joe Hotch, who explains in the video that "Tlingit value(s) means my way of life as a Tlingit person. It is very important that when we say Tlingit values, it means our way of life."

Hotch's comments "(demonstrate) the intent of the values to be firmly rooted in culture and sharing of historical traditions, i.e. ways of life," the report explains.

The report also quotes Ethel Lund, a Juneau elder, to explain that "reference to creation or Creator is in reference to all living things in nature," and that therefore there is "no intent to promote a specific religious doctrine related to creation or Creator."

Lund says in the video: "It seems like the cornerstone for Tlingit values has always been respect, and from that, everything else falls into place. So it seems to me, in developing our own values from those that we have as guidelines for us, we should start off with respect for self, and others, and for all creation.

"Because, I just spent, a couple weeks ago with the elders in Sitka, and they brought in, they had plans for some totems," she said. "And there's a whole ceremony that you go through, showing respect for the tree. We show respect for animals before we take them. So it includes, in my view, all creation.

"I remember," Lund continued, "as a small girl, coming in from the south end of Wrangell, where our village used to be located, and my grandfather pointing out a huge rock that said that rock had a spirit, and it welcomed people into the village. So, in the traditional view of life, there was reverence and respect for all life, and I think that should be the cornerstone of any development of values that we come away with."

Finally, the investigation report notes that the tribal value posters identify both state and federal government education agencies as sponsors at the bottom, "indicating appropriateness for use in public schools." Those organizations include the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's Circles of Care program, the Elderly Nutrition Program, the Johnson-O'Malley Program, Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative and the Association of Alaska School Boards.

The investigation concludes that "there is no religious doctrine or tenet related to or in association with the Southeast Traditional Tribal Values being taught or promoted in KGBSD schools, neither as part of a curriculum within the (Positive) Behavior Intervention & Support program at Ketchikan Charter School nor in display of the posters in schools and classrooms. Therefore, no change to the current use of the Southeast Traditional Tribal Values within KGBSD schools is recommended."

The board tonight will have the opportunity to revoke, modify or uphold the district's determination and recommendation regarding the tribal values posters.

Other meeting topics

Also tonight, the board will hold a work session to evaluate itself, set its goals and discuss the superintendent evaluation process.

The board also will consider approving an annual authorization of district bank accounts and authorized signers, and will review teaching contracts for the 2022-23 school year with 16 certificated individuals: Vance Churchwell, Heather Gause, Carissa Gibson, Sarah Hamilton, Misty Hancock, Shelly Hewitt, Tyson Hewitt, Alyssa Howell, Allison Londregan, Tyler Martin, Sara Orozco, Kieran Romero, Anne Schuerger and Hadlee Simonson.

Meeting information

Tonight's meeting will begin at 6 in the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly chambers at 1900 First Ave. There will be time for public comment near the start of the meeting.