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SALAMANCA – Relations between the Seneca Nation and non-native Salamanca residents have never been considered productive, but they have started deteriorating even more, according to members of both populations who are looking for answers.

One solution might be reinstating a class that taught about Seneca culture in the Salamanca schools.

Maxine Dowler, a Seneca elder, member of the Cattaraugus-Allegany BOCES and former educator and administrator in the Salamanca schools, told the Board of Education last week that there needs to be a dialogue to create more of an understanding between the two populations.

“We are looking for respect,” Dowler said. “It seems the word has lost its meaning along the way.”

Strained relations have created a negative environment around the city and Dowler said she believes a dialogue involving the community, school administration, teachers, parents and students is needed to find the disconnect between the two cultures and find ways to fix it.

“I believe we need to talk this out,” Dowler said. “This is important. You are in Indian territory. You are a resident, and respect goes both ways. We have to work together to get it back. You have to know our culture. You have to be honest and truthful. I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding.”

District Superintendent Robert J. Breidenstein said there has been a lack of parent engagement and school engagement.

“What we need to do is continue to expand the conversations we have already started,” he said. “We need to get comfortable with one another so we can sit down and talk about the issues that have kept the two cultures apart for so long. We need to find a pathway to get closer to our goal.”

Part of the solution under consideration is Seneca culture classes at the elementary level throughout the district. Because of economic concerns, the program of teaching about the Seneca culture, customs and language was scaled back.

A letter to the School Board from concerned community member Annie Tallchief sought the return of the classes at Seneca and Prospect elementary schools.

“I sent the letter to start a conversation about the reinstatement of the program,” Tallchief said. “We need to have these things to keep from losing our culture, and our language.”

The language component is one of the most challenging aspects, officials said.

“Finding someone that is qualified to teach the language is very difficult,” said School Board member Robert Crandall.

The program to teach all elementary students in the Salamanca City Central School District about Seneca culture was instituted through New York State in 1973. Over time, it lost considerable funding, according to Crandall, Breidenstein, and Dowler. To keep the program alive in tough economic times, the district has called upon members of the Seneca Nation to come into the schools and teach the students about the culture. The effort has been sporadic, according to Tallchief.

“Since it is an issue of funding, can we ask the state to help out to help us save our language and our culture?” Tallchief asked.

Breidenstein said he is meeting with members of the Seneca Nation Education Department to build more of a relationship. The two entities work together well, he said, but on some issues, such as those brought up by Dowler and Tallchief, there needs to be more of a conversation.