This school is in the Oneida Nation, which straddles Brown and Outagamie counties (where the building is located). Built of precast concrete, the school takes the form of a huge turtle. The design exemplifies a post-1970 movement to incorporate aspects of indigenous traditions into modern buildings. The turtle is significant to the Oneidas, for it is one of their three clans (the others are the Bear and Wolf) and also represents the earth and the earth’s gifts to people. In the beginning, according to Oneida oral tradition, Sky Woman journeyed to the watery darkness below, where she landed on the back of a turtle. There she met the creatures of the water and sky, and together they created on the turtle’s back the “Great Turtle Island,” the earth. Later, one of Sky Woman’s twin grandsons created all that is good in nature—rolling hills, streams, beautiful and beneficial plants, and animals—while the other created the jagged rocks and cliffs that form river rapids, along with thorny and poisonous plants. The turtle shape of this school reminds Oneidas of valued traditions.
The building’s interior reflects the unusual shape. The language and cultural classrooms cluster at the center of the turtle’s circular shell, reflecting the importance of those subjects to the Oneidas. A central atrium is lit by a skylight. The turtle’s head (recognizable from the outside by the eyes painted on its sides) encloses an enormous, balconied gymnasium, which accommodates assemblies of the reservation’s residents. Legs and tail hold classrooms, a gymnasium, and the cafeteria. The school’s many culturally referential details include stepped storytelling corners in the youngest children’s classrooms and tile designs drawn from wampum belts, traditionally used by Native Americans to deliver messages and record important agreements.