New Niagara University Courses Embrace Tuscarora Culture, Language

February 27, 2017  |  by Michael Freedman

  • Mary "Betsy" Bissell is teaching a new course at Niagara University that introduces students to the Tuscarora language.

    Mary "Betsy" Bissell is teaching a new course at Niagara University that introduces students to the Tuscarora language.

  • Tuscarora language course

Tuscarora Indian School Principal Elizabeth Corieri is on record stating that she would like to see an indigenous languages teaching certificate program offered for instructors in New York state.

Until then, Niagara University has collaborated with the Niagara Wheatfield Central School District to develop a strategy to help ensure the preservation of the language.

This strategy includes a new sequence of university-level courses that introduce students to the Tuscarora language, a native dialect belonging to the Iroquoian language family. Basic conversation, grammar and orthography skills will help students acquire communicative competence, while becoming aware of the unique cultural and historical context.

Niagara’s College of Education worked in tandem with the university’s department of modern and classical languages and three teachers from the Niagara Wheatfield Central School District to develop the three-course sequence: Tuscarora 1, Tuscarora 2 and Tuscarora Culture.

The first course was approved by NU’s senate curriculum committee in November and is being offered to students in the spring semester. It is being taught by Mary “Betsy” Bissell.

It is believed to be the first course of its kind, especially in Niagara County, where 1,152 people identified themselves as Tuscaroras in the 2010 census. The Tuscarora Indian School, one of the few in New York’s educational system serving entirely native student populations and situated on Native American territory, has 104 students, 22 teachers and additional support staff.

As part of this partnership NU’s College of Education presented a Cultural and Multicultural Foundations of Education class last semester at the Tuscarora Indian School, which is one of four elementary schools in the Niagara Wheatfield Central School District.

Co-taught by Dr. Michael Smith, associate professor of education at NU, and JoAnne Weinholtz, a recently retired Tuscarora School culture teacher, the course examined the ways in which diverse disciplines act as the basis upon which Western educational practices are built. It also allowed participants to scrutinize educational paradigms, theories and practices that either strengthen and expand the democratic possibilities of schooling or maintain the current correspondence between educational success and students’ socio-economic and cultural identities.

The future teachers participating in this course completed service learning hours at the Tuscarora School each week, where they were able to apply their new learning with children in the school.

“This is an international partnership that was forged right in our backyard,” said Dr. Chandra Foote, dean of NU’s College of Education. “As a Catholic and Vincentian institution, our mission calls on us to embrace individuals from all races, ethnicities and cultures, and this curriculum is another way for us to fulfill that mission.”

Dr. Foote added that, in the future, she would like to see the Tuscarora language and culture courses offered to Niagara Wheatfield students who participate in the Niagara University Senior Term Enrichment Program (NUSTEP), a concurrent enrollment program that allows high school students to earn college credits.