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What’s the Answer? A Charter School Expansion or the Further Destruction of Sacred Seneca Burial Grounds

We are all excited to see the city of Buffalo reworked into a world class city. For some of us, nothing can stand in the way of making this happen, and that’s an admirable stance to take. But when we say “nothing”, do we really mean “nothing“?

Let’s take a step back and consider why Buffalo is different than other cities. We are a great city because of our people, our history, our heritage, and our love and respect for one another.

I want to see Buffalo built up, just as much as the next person. I want to see this city strong. At the same time, I understand that Buffalo is only as great as the sum of its parts. The parts that I am referring to include buildings, businesses, parks, schools, and people. All of its people. And when we talk about people, it’s important to talk about heritage.

Recent rally where Carl Jamieson (Cayuga) gives a statement to the media outside of the Maritime Charter High School. Photo: Langelle Photography

Last month, I learned that there was a proposal on the table, to build an expansion of the Maritime Charter School on Buffum Street in South Buffalo. The charter school has outgrown its 266 Genesee Street location, and has purchased the former School 70 (long closed) at 102 Buffum to house its seventh and eight grades (now operational). This is great, considering that the building is already there – there’s no issue at hand. But moving forward, the school is looking to consolidate and expand to Buffum Street, which would further disrupt the site of the Indian burial ground. According to WBFO, “there is a $13 million plan for a gym and a high school building to open in September 2020. That would consolidate 450 students and 75 faculty.” The developer of the three-story, 65,000 sq.’ building, and 24,000 sq.’ gym is Ellicott Development.

Carl Jamiesona Cayuga with Seneca roots, who recently attended a charter school board meeting, and a rally to stop the destruction of Seneca Burial Grounds (lead image) put the historic nature of the land into perspective by saying, “The proposed expansion is just a few hundred feet from Seneca Indian Park which was a Seneca burial ground where Red Jacket and Mary Jemison were once buried (disinterred), and just one block from Indian Church Road where only a few years ago Buffalo Sewer Authority excavated and unearthed remains of the deceased. Buffalo sits on what is traditionally Native land from time remembered, most recently it was the home of the Seneca of the Buffalo Creek Reservation.”

Photo by Giacalon
Seneca and allies entered a charter school board meeting where Carl Jamieson (rear left) spoke to the board. Photo: Langelle

There was a time when this wouldn’t even be a dilemma. The historic burial site would be bulldozed (with or without disinterring the bodies), two new buildings would be built, and progress would move forward without a second thought. But these days, people are more sensitive about these types of issues, which is why there has been a lively discourse underway.

“Buffalo Creek and Buffum Street are sacred lands and very rich in history, and I think that a lot of suggestions of putting a school on a place that’s sacred territory… I think there are better places for maritime schools,” added JamiesonWe are asking the Maritime Charter School to stop their plans for expansion onto what even NYS’s Historic Preservation Office has described as a site having ‘high cultural, historic, and archeological sensitivity.'”

Degawenodas Ni Ah Agatayonih (standing on right) speaks briefly to the charter school board | Photo: Langelle

There is no question that the land is sacred. We are also aware of the painful tragedies that befell the Six Nations, and other North American tribes, throughout history. There’s really not much more that could have been taken away from these proud indigenous people.

Now, if someone was to ask you what you would do… what would you say? Would you further desecrate a sacred burial ground to ensure that the expansion went ahead? Or would you move forward with the expansion? Or would you hold off, to conduct additional research, and promote additional discussions?

According to a neighbor by the name of Art Giacalone – a lawyer (now retired) who has spent nearly 30 years representing residents in land use and environmental matters – it was well known that the land was sacred, before the charter school opted to acquire School 70 and the surrounding land. I spoke to Giacalone who said that he doesn’t have an issue with the school taking over the existing building because it is in line with the scale of the neighborhood, and does not further disrupt the burial ground. But, Giacalone noted, it was most likely the intention from the start, to identify the entirety of the property for a full scale expansion.

Giacalone, who is fighting the expansion, wrote in his blog that “An expanded Maritime school would need an additional 57 parking spaces, and, as a result, the beautiful green lawn and majestic trees on the east side of the existing school building would be removed and be replaced by an asphalt parking lot.

The number of buildings would increase from 1 to 3.  The foundations of the two new buildings would expand beyond the existing paved area at the rear of the school and onto the grassy slope and a portion of the wooded area. See Charter school addition site plan.

“NYS’s Historic Preservation Office has described the 102 Buffum Street parcel as having ‘high cultural, historic and archeological sensitivity’ due to the likelihood that the Mission House (school) of the Buffalo Creek Indian Reservation was located at the site, and its proximity to the Seneca Indian Park (burial grounds).  Archeological resources of great significance to Native American communities, including human remains, could be disturbed if expansion is allowed. See SHPO 06-19-18 letter re 102 Buffum.”

I recently spoke to Degawenodas Ni Ah Agatayonih, born into the Wolf Clan of the Onondowa’ga:’, who shared with me his insight into the process. Degawenodas (He who thunders) also spoke briefly at a recent charter school board meeting. Degawenodas and I talked for about an hour, not just about the situation at hand, but about life on the reservation, and the history of his people (Iroquois Confederacy – Haudenosaunee) who inhabited this area when it was known as Buffalo Creek. 

School 70 – photo by Giacalone

Regarding the charter school board meeting, Degawenodasand said that he was thankful to be able to speak. Reflecting upon this, he told me that he felt that it was his responsibility to share his perspective. “I’m here to educate and enlighten,” he pointed out. “We are dealing with people who will uphold the laws of NYS and the US government – it’s their court system and their rules. But just because it’s a law doesn’t mean that it’s right. This land is, and will always remain, our ancestral territory. We’re still stewards of the land, here to protect it and safeguard its future. We still see it as our responsibility. I say this with no anger or frustration. I come in peace, but I am armed with the weapon of truth. I’m here to educate and enlighten people about the Great Law of Peace. I am here to build a relationship, and to get to know these people. I ask that they do the same, for mutual respect. I ask that they take the time to research, and consider all options. I am representing our people… our ancestors.”

Word has it that an archeological review is underway, though it is unclear where it stands at this point in time. Hopefully, there will be a resolution that will call for both parties to sit down to further discussions, before any more decisions are made. When speaking with Giacalone, he told me that all of the headaches could have been prevented from the start, but that he feels the intention was always to move forward with the expansion despite concerns that there were sensitive issues at hand. Giacalone made mention that he felt that the school would have greatly benefited by expanding to the waterfront, where the students would actually have access to Lake Erie. He noted that if the proper unbiased archeological study had been made from the start, which would have retained a third party to survey the history of the site, learn its history (both oral and written), and properly inspect the land, we wouldn’t be faced with this problem.

Lead image by Giacalone

Written by queenseyes


Newell Nussbaumer is 'queenseyes' - Eyes of the Queen City and Founder of Buffalo Rising. Co-founder Elmwood Avenue Festival of the Arts. Co-founder Powder Keg Festival that built the world's largest ice maze (Guinness Book of World Records). Instigator behind Emerald Beach at the Erie Basin Marina. Co-created Flurrious! winter festival. Co-creator of Rusty Chain Beer. Instigator behind Saturday Artisan Market (SAM) at Canalside, Buffalo Porchfest, and Paint vs. Paint. Founder of The Peddler retro and vintage market on Elmwood. Instigator behind Liberty Hound @ Canalside. Throws The Witches Ball at Statler City, the Hertel Alley Street Art Festival, and The Flutterby Festival.

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