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New York’s Mohawk tribe works to restore their culture

For decades, Native American children were forcibly removed from their families and lands to attend boarding schools where English was mandatory and their own languages were forbidden. But in 1979, a small Mohawk tribe in upstate New York formed The Akwesasne Freedom School, where today Mohawk children continue to learn their native language and culture. Special correspondent Jenna Flanagan reports.

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  • Alison Stewart:

    November is National Native American Heritage month. As it comes to a close, we have an intimate look at New York's Mohawk tribe and its fight to restore and maintain its language and culture for the next generation and beyond.

    NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Jenna Flanagan has our story.

  • Elvera Sargent:

    The language gives us our identity. It teaches us the culture, it teaches us how to be, it teaches us how to be grateful, and without that, who are we?

  • Jenna Flanagan:

    That's Elvera Sargent, an elder member of the Akwesane Mohawk Nation, which lies at the northern border of New York State. The Mohawk are working hard to not only maintain their language but ensure it has a future with its language immersion school. The Akwesasne Freedom School, was founded in 1979, after decades of Mohawk children, being forcibly removed from their families and native lands to attend boarding schools run by priests, where English was mandatory and the Mohawk language forbidden. Effectively putting up a barrier between the people and their culture. Freedom School level four teacher, Tehonwenhnirasethe, or as he is known by his English name Levi Herne explains the long-term cultural effect.

  • Levi Herne:

    Most of the families in this community aren't traditional because of what had happened with boarding schools and different types of assimilation with the Jesuits, even in the 16, 17 hundreds.

  • Jenna Flanagan:

    Elvera says she remembers her family members struggling with the separation.

  • Elvera Sargent:

    My sister actually went to a residential school and my uncle and they would be there all year come home, if once a year. But what I know with that is that they were not allowed to speak the language they were punished. My sister doesn't know the culture at all. She still knows the language. She gets stuck, so it has had a lasting impact. Maybe people my age and maybe a little older. We didn't have that nurturing, nurturing from our parents because they didn't know how to nurture us or show us love, we knew or they loved us but, oh God oh, but it was hard for them to show us.

  • Jenna Flanagan:

    The boarding school separations left a lasting impact on the family, however, Elvera was too young to be taken to boarding school, so she learned to speak Mohawk at home.

  • Elvera Sargent:

    That's all I heard growing up. But then eventually even that part got lost.

  • Jenna Flanagan:

    And it's that same 'natural way' the guides the Freedom School.

  • Elvera Sargent:

    We actually start at the age of one where they can go into our language nest because long time ago this was their first language. Not all parents can speak the language so they're not hearing now until they enter school.

  • Jenna Flanagan:

    And the focus is on developing conversational skills over compulsory.

  • Elvera Sargent:

    I think they really should try to learn with another speaker, with an elder. I'm afraid with it being in a classroom all the time that it's going to become a classroom language and I don't want to see that happen.

  • Jenna Flanagan:

    It's just before 8am at the Akwesasne Freedom School and the kids are already getting dropped off for the day. The school encompasses a small campus of 3 buildings. But it's not structured like an American public school. The kids aren't regulated by grade, but rather their Mohawk language ability level. So a child at level 2 isn't necessarily a 'second grader' but rather a kid who's conversational skills are still developing. And that child can be any age.

  • Kahsennakohe:

    My name is Kansennakohe, can you say it?

  • Jenna Flanagan:

    Kansennakohe?

  • Kahsennakohe:

    Yep, Kansennakohe.

  • Jenna Flanagan:

    Clearly I am a newcomer to the language. But Kahsennakohe is not only proficient, she's the level 8 language teacher and breaks down Mohawk pronunciation in a way my English only brain can process it.

  • Kahsennakohe:

    Her, and this is, this comes from the word Kahsenna, which means a name, and this kohe is a journey. She who retrieves names.

  • Jenna Flanagan:

    That is so amazing that, that's your name given what you teach for a living.

  • Jenna Flanagan:

    And that's one of the tenets of the Mohawk Way, or culture. Every individual has their own name, just one, that's unique to themselves. As she continues explaining the phonetics to me, she shares how modern day speakers make the ancient language work in present day.

  • Kahsennakohe:

    So our language is descriptive. So the way we've adapted to all these new words is just to describe what is going on.

  • Jenna Flanagan:

    How would you then describe what a journalist does? Like if I were to describe myself in the Mohawk language, how would I call myself?

  • Kahsennakohe:

    I'm trying to think? Maybe Iekaratons? She tells, she tells stories?

  • Jenna Flanagan:

    Oh, I love that! Yeah. Wait, how do I spell that?

  • Kahsennakohe:

    Lekaradons? I could spell if for you on the board?

  • Jenna Flanagan:

    Oh please do.

  • Kahsennakohe:

    This Le, is a pronoun for her and this tons is the telling of stories, and this is habitual. So she is a teller, she is a storyteller.

  • Jenna Flanagan:

    I absolutely love that!

  • Jenna Flanagan:

    Working with longhouse traditions, the Akwesasne Freedom School has its own set of standards and requirements for teachers. They aren't looking for traditional American certificates or degrees, but rather a membership within the nation, fluency in the Mohwak culture and language, and above all, a passion for imparting those traditions onto the next generation. Throughout the school, the kids are encouraged to help one another in their language development, and in some classrooms, absolutely no English is spoken at all. So to further my meager Mohawk language skills, I turned to some of the schools most enthusiastic teachers, the 7 and 8 year olds in level 2.

  • Akwesasne Freedom School Kids:

    Sekon!

  • Jenna Flanagan:

    Sekon? What does that mean?

  • Akwesasne Freedom School Kids:

    Hi!

  • Jenna Flanagan:

    Hi! Sekon, is that how you say it?

  • Akwesasne Freedom School Kids:

    Ó:nen!

  • Jenna Flanagan:

    Ó:nen?

  • Jenna Flanagan:

    Kanerahtens, or as she's known by her English name, Tara Skitters, is the schools Office Manager. She handles admissions, budgeting, hiring, and ensuring the school meets its overall mission, and part of that is creating a familial atmosphere for the kids.

  • Kanerahtens:

    It's a very small percentage of people that come here. The families that want their kids here a lot of them are traditional who, you know, follow the longhouse, and the longhouse traditions. I think our overall values are more of the concentration. Respect and taking care of the Earth and being kind to one another.

  • Jenna Flanagan:

    Even though the Freedom School has less than 100 kids enrolled, the Akwesasne Mohawk community is 16-thousand strong and the reservation overlaps the US Canadian border. So kids who live on the New York side also have friends and family in the Ontario and Quebec provinces. The Freedom School has students from both sides of the border, but according to level 4 teacher Tehonwenhnirasethe, that's our border, not theirs.

  • Tehonwenhnirasethe:

    When they're here, they talk about being in the American and Canadian side, because we ourselves don't feel, um that we're a part of the American or Canadian government. We feel that we're a sovereign nation still.

  • Jenna Flanagan:

    Tara says one of the biggest worries that parents have is if all this Mohawk immersion will limit their child's ability to learn English and matriculate into one of the nearby public high schools.

  • Kanerahtens:

    The reality is, English is everywhere. They're going to learn it. But once they leave here where are they going to learn the Mohawk language?

  • Jenna Flanagan:

    In all, Tara says, the mission of the Akwesasne freedom school is to ensure the survival of the Mohawk culture and language.

  • Kanerahtens:

    You know people think that an Indian is a certain way or that we all are the same and we're not. There's so many different nations, different clothes, different cultures, different songs. Everything is different. And you know we have to work really hard to maintain those things. There's so little of us, you know like compared to other populations, but we're here, we're doing it, we're going to keep doing it. We're not going nowhere. We have kids who are learning all this stuff and they're going to carry it on and that's, we're just doing our thing.

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