A little schoolhouse fights to keep Mohawk language alive

by Sara Miller Llana and Riley Robinson from The Christian Science Monitor, Akwesasne Mohawk Territory

Preserving a treasured language can help sustain a way of life. One school has made that its mission.

154915Riley Robinson/StaffKawehnokwiiosthe teaches students at the Akwesasne Freedom School, May 18, 2023, in Akwesasne. She is herself a graduate of the school, which immerses students in the Mohawk language.

| AKWESASNE MOHAWK TERRITORY - Students and teachers, as well as some parents, sit on two wooden benches running the length of the hallway of their school, organized not by age or grade but by their clans.

They take turns reading from the Ohén:ton Karihwatéhkwen, which translates from the Mohawk language to “Words before all else.” These words, which recognize all life forces in creation, mark the day’s start at the Akwesasne Freedom School.

But the 60-odd students here wouldn’t understand these lessons if it weren’t for this little schoolhouse at the United States-Canada border that for decades has been fighting to preserve Mohawk language and culture. “This makes us who we are, and if we don’t have this, who are we going to be?” asks teacher Kawehnokwiiosthe, whose name in English means “She makes the island beautiful.”

“This is more than just language; it teaches us how to live,” she says.

154915Riley Robinson/StaffElder Wathahilostha uses worksheets that she has adapted by whiting-out any English and replacing it with Mohawk.

Kawehnokwiiosthe turns to her young pupils, who introduce themselves by their clans – Wolf, Bear, and Eel – and state that they are wisk, or age 5. Every class in K-8 that students take is full language immersion. When a child asks a question in English, Kawehnokwiiosthe responds in Mohawk.

Most parents pay tuition with a quilt sold at an annual auction in August. The school is run as a co-op, where parents do the cleaning (along with the students) and the maintenance work. Students come from American and Canadian sides of the border, but the school has never accepted funds from either government, says Alvera Sargent, who heads the nonprofit Friends of the Akwesasne Freedom School and is one of the last first-language speakers of Mohawk.

154915Riley Robinson/StaffAlvera Sargent, seated with her daughter, Jessica Sargent, and granddaughter, Lehaserenhawe Francis, is one of the last in the community who speaks Mohawk as a first language.

That makes her precious, says Waylon Cook, former teacher and now project manager of the school’s nonprofit arm. “We treasure our first-language speakers,” he says. “We treasure them because they are so important for us to continue on our language,” he says. “If you lose it, you can’t go to France like you could to learn French. There is nowhere else to do it but here.”

In 2021, Indigenous leaders in Kamloops, British Columbia, announced that they believed they found the remains of over 200 children on the site of the former residential school there. It shocked Canada, and spurred the search for hundreds more unmarked graves.

For Mr. Cook, the Akwesasne Freedom School has always been the path to justice for Indigenous children abused at residential schools – by being cut off from their language, spirituality, and way of life. The Akwesasne Freedom School offers the opposite of what residential schools did. “This is our own solution,” says Mr. Cook. “They’ve made it so hard to be who we are. And we won’t give up the fight to maintain our language and culture.”

154915Riley Robinson/StaffA teacher helps a young Akwesasne Freedom School student plant seeds.154915Riley Robinson/StaffElder Wathahilostha mentors a student at the Akwesasne Freedom School.

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Page created on 2/12/2024 12:16:02 PM

Last edited 2/12/2024 1:36:32 PM

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