Central Council president weighs in on lawsuit over the use of tribal values in a Ketchikan school

Tlingit and Haida President Chalyee Éesh Richard Peterson in his office. (Claire Stremple/KTOO)

When Chalyee Éesh Richard Peterson looks at the list of 14 traditional tribal values, he doesn’t see anything exclusive to one religion. He’s the president of the Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, which created the list in 2004.

“They’re inclusive and about, you know, literally one of them is ‘holding each other up,’” Peterson said. “But I think if you go down the values, it’s hard to take issues with any of them. I would imagine if they do, maybe the one around the creator, but I think that’s a personal one to anybody. What does that mean? It doesn’t specify any religious, or anything else, any specific religion.”

Peterson was talking about the value “reverence for our creator.” He said Southeast Alaska tribes don’t have a common religion, and the value means something different to everyone.

“I know what it means for me,” he said. “Make it personal to yourself. If you are atheist, make it about your parents — or ignore it. I think there’s room for values that we don’t always necessarily fully adopt.”

The reference to a creator is at the center of the lawsuit filed by Justin Breese and Rebecca King. They argue that the value is clearly a religious statement, and that makes it inappropriate for a public school.

The lawsuit is against Ketchikan’s school district and Ketchikan Charter School for posting the values in hallways and common areas and for using them as part of a behavioral reward program. The plaintiffs argue it’s a violation of the First Amendment and Alaska’s state constitution.

“We don’t think that the school district should be speaking to any type of spiritual or religious type value. Those types of values are things that are best passed down in a family, where your parents teach the students about their religious and spiritual beliefs,  Breese said. “And that’s not the place for the government to step in and teach those kinds of spiritual and religious values to students.”

He doesn’t object to the value being included in lessons about Alaska Native culture, but he said posting the values in classrooms and hallways strips out necessary context.

“When it’s on the list, and that list is posted everywhere, and you’re pulling items off the list, the student reads the whole list,” he said. “So, it’s hard for me to see how a student could make the distinction between whether this is a value that I need to follow and is endorsed by the school district, and is actual creationism or not.”

Peterson said he’s open to a conversation about the meaning of “creator,” but he doesn’t believe that a lawsuit is the right way to do it. He said he doesn’t understand why the parents take issue with the values being posted in school.

“It’s hard not to feel like this might have some bearings in racism,” he said. “I don’t like to leap to that conclusion. But, you know, it’s hard to find when you go down this list of values, where we can’t all, no matter what our cultural background, find a way to connect to those — Native, non-Native, other ethnicities should all find some commonality in these values.”

The lawsuit was filed in Ketchikan Superior Court July 25 and was assigned to judge Katherine Lybrand. Ketchikan’s school district has yet to respond in court.

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