American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Akwesasne Freedom School

The history of Native America would not be complete without mention of decades of forced assimilation through education in which speaking one's Native tongue was forbidden. Native students were often sent to boarding schools far from their homes, resulting in Native language decline and loss over a number of generations. However, across the nation, tribes have been making efforts at language revitalization and cultural reclamation, including the Mohawks of Akwesasne ("land where the partridge drums").

Beginning in 1979, an unprecedented effort to take control of their children's education began on the Akwesasne Mohawk Reservation with the establishment of the Akwesasne Freedom School (AFS). The Akwesasne Reservation, also known as the St. Regis Mohawk Indian Reservation, is located in northern New York and straddles the Canadian international border extending into Quebec and Ontario. The Mohawks are one of the five original members of the Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse) or Iroquois Confederacy, which also includes the Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca.

AFS was started in 1979 by a group of traditional Mohawk parents and community members who were concerned with the lack of cultural teaching and Mohawk language in public schools. AFS was dedicated to raising children in a traditional manner and to regaining what little remained of the Mohawk language. At its beginning, AFS held classes in makeshift classrooms during a two-year-long encampment. Conflict over tribal and state jurisdiction created division among the residents of Akwesasne, and families in the encampment decided not to send their children to public schools. Instead, they took responsibility for their children's education into their own hands. Parents, who had been forbidden to speak Mohawk in their own schooling, transformed themselves into teachers and carpenters building a grassroots community-based school.

Today, this pre-K through eight independent school is known for its language immersion program, conducting instruction in the Kanienkéha (Mohawk) language for grades pre-K through six. The school adopted a total immersion approach in 1985 in hopes of speeding up the process of developing language fluency. Students are placed in a transition program during seventh and eighth grades when English-dominant instruction prepares them to enter an off-reservation public high school. The school operates on a year-round, six-weeks-on/two-weeks-off basis and enrolls approximately sixty-five students. The schedule allows students to follow the natural seasonal cycle and helps ensure they are using the language on a year-round basis. Parents continue to play an integral role in the school's operation, sharing responsibilities from construction and cleaning to curriculum development.

The curriculum is based on the Ohén:ton Karàwahtékwen ("Words That Come Before All Else"), also known as the Thanksgiving Address, which pays respect to all living things. Students begin and end each day with its recitation while reading, writing, math, science, and history revolve around its teachings. Using art, song, and traditional stories, teachers instill values of respect, peace, and community. Community gardens and walks through nearby woods provide a natural environment for learning about traditional medicine plants and human relationships with the natural world. Students have the opportunity to attend traditional Longhouse ceremonies throughout the year as part of the curriculum. Originally a housing structure for extended families that went out of use in the nineteenth century, the Longhouse today refers to the traditional ceremonial place of the Haudenosaunee.

The school's goals are to ground students in their culture while teaching skills and knowledge necessary in the non-Native world. In 2002, AFS students were awarded the President's Environmental Youth Award for a wetland restoration project. Some alumni were awarded a place with the high school National Honor Society while others achieved valedictorian status. A sense of Mohawk identity, culture, and language provides a solid foundation for academic achievement.

AFS is independent of state and federal funding and relies primarily on support from the Akwesasne Mohawk Board of Education, private foundations, donations, and fund-raisers. An annual quilt auction is the largest fund-raising event for the school, and handmade donated quilts bring in thousands of dollars.

In 1986 toxic chemicals from a nearby industrial plant were found in the school wells. While bottled water helped the problem temporarily, a massive campaign to build a new school has been underway for the past several years. Partially completed, inadequate funding temporarily halted the project. However, AFS continues to work toward the goal of finishing its new building and toward supporting and encouraging Mohawk children to learn their roles and responsibilities as Haudenosaunees.

Louellyn White

Further Reading
Akwesasne Freedom School. Available at: Accessed February 23, 2005).

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