Tribal Government & News

Willamina School Board OKs display of Tribal flags in district buildings

06.30.2015 Brent Merrill Tribal Council, Education

WILLAMINA -- The Willamina School Board approved a new policy regarding flag displays that accommodates a request from Tribal Council Chairman Reyn Leno to hang the Grand Ronde Tribe’s flag in the school gym during its Tuesday, June 23, meeting held in Willamina High School Library.

The Tribe’s flag will now hang next to the U.S. and Oregon flags at the district’s schools for its approximately 30 percent Native American student population to see.

The revision to the district’s flag policy came after a June 17 meeting held in Grand Ronde between Tribal Council, retiring Superintendent Gus Forster and School Board Chairman Craig Johnson and Vice Chair Clinton Coblentz.

“This is important to have gotten this far,” said Leno, who was joined at the meeting by fellow Tribal Council members Toby McClary, Tonya Gleason-Shepek and Jon A. George.

The issue of the Tribal flag was presented as policy INDB – flag displays and salutes -- under decision items.

“You have two policies before you. One is the original policy and the second policy kind of reflects the discussion that we had with Tribal Council out there,” said Forster. “We came back and changed the original policy and put some additional language in there. So you have two policies before you and basically you have three different choices – you can vote down the policy, you can adopt the policy that was originally in your packet or you can adopt the policy that was handed out tonight with the additional language.”

The board moved to accept the revised policy with the additional language and it passed unanimously.

The next item was consideration of the original request made by Grand Ronde Tribal member Angela Fasana, who is a Willamina High School graduate and parent of a current Willamina student.

Fasana’s original request was inspired by her visit to Pendleton, where she saw the Umatilla Tribal flag hanging in the high school gym. She sent an e-mail to Forster, requesting that the school district hang the Grand Ronde Tribal flag since about a third of district students identify as Native American.

Forster placed it on the School Board’s April agenda, but it was pulled from the “action item” list by Johnson, who suggested the Tribe pay $25,000 to hang the flag for five years.

At a tense May School Board meeting attended by more than 100 people, Tribal and community members were allotted slightly more than 40 minutes to testify regarding Fasana’s request. No one spoke in opposition to hanging the Tribal flag, but the School Board did not comment or take action on the proposal.

The ensuing controversy prompted Fasana, who had been the Tribal liaison to the School Board for eight years, to mount a last-minute write-in campaign for School Board that received more than 40 votes in the May 19 election.

Johnson said before the board voted on the Tribal request that he wanted to thank Tribal Council members for hosting the meeting he attended in Grand Ronde.

“I want to thank the Tribal Council and Steve Bobb for having us come out there and have a roundtable, and try and kind of talk about things,” said Johnson. “We got some things figured out and now we can move forward, and I just wanted to thank all of you.”

The board then moved to accept Fasana’s request and passed it unanimously.

Board member Dan Heidt, in his last meeting on the School Board, said he was concerned that Fasana was not a sovereign nation and that the policy’s new language stated that the request must come from a sovereign nation.

“No offense to Angela, but she isn’t a sovereign nation,” said Heidt.

Johnson said the request “maybe should have been reworded a bit – it is actually coming from the Tribe.”

Leno, who is also Fasana’s father, said the request was now officially coming from the Grand Ronde Tribe based on discussions between Tribal Council and School Board members.

The board voted again and approved the request, now officially from the Tribe, to hang the Grand Ronde flag in the school gymnasium.

After the meeting, Forster was said he was glad this issue was over, but that it didn’t distract him from concentrating on classrooms issues.

“It really didn’t bother me a bit,” said Forster. “People kept asking me what my opinion was on the whole thing and I really don’t have an opinion because it’s basically a board issue. When we have something like this that in my opinion does not directly impact the classroom – I don’t spend a lot of time with those things. My role is to support what goes on in the classroom. This was kind of an interesting issue to deal with because I’ve never had to deal with it in my 38 years of education. And so it was an interesting one to go through and develop that policy.”

Forster, who retired on June 30, said the board was intent on developing a policy before voting on the Tribal flag request.

“There was a lot of miscommunication on both sides because the board’s intent was to develop a policy all along,” said Forster. “The board did their job, which is what they were going to do all along. They did a good job of that.”

Forster said the Willamina School District currently has three gyms on campus and that a Grand Ronde Tribal flag will be displayed in each building.