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Akwesasne Freedom School
Akwesasne Freedom School

Akwesasne Freedom School's mission: Cultural survival

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At the Akwesasne Freedom School on the Akwesasne Mohawk reservation near Massena, kids spend their whole day, including recess, completely immersed in the Mohawk language. Nora Flaherty has more.

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School administrator Aroniahes Herne

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Nora Flaherty
Digital Editor, News

Recess at the Akwesasne Freedom school looks and sounds like it would anyplace else—Kids are running around shrieking, laughing and playing some ballgame only they understand.

But there’s something else going on, too:

I actually just got yelled at because I was talking English, by one of my students.

School administrator Aroniahes Herne walks me past a garden boasting some really impressive tomato plants and sunflowers…and then we head inside, past the school’s pet chinchilla, to where kindergartners and pre-k kids are in class. They greet me in Mohawk as we go by. 

The goals of the school are to keep our language alive, and to keep it from dying out, and also our culture as well. We have probably 3 families left who speak—our community’s 20 to 25,000. And now a lot of our elders are sick, and we need to preserve these things because…our language is dying out very quick.

He and others see the school’s mission as cultural survival. Mary Arquit has three kids here:

keeping our language alive is important, because without it we no longer exist as a people. Without it we’re not able to communicate with the creator or with the other species on the planet, it’s the way we pick medicine, it’s the way we live. All these things are not possible without the language.

The Akwesasne Freedom School came out of a moment when cultural survival was very much on the minds of people here. Beverly Cook was one of the founders of the school.

We were behind a barricade at the time, we were in a conflict within the community over principles of sovereignty at the time.

In 1979—at the close of a decade that had seen conflicts between Native Americans and government forces across the country— a conflict between two factions within the community, had escalated into an armed confrontation with the New York State Police.

Troopers sealed off part of the reservation, for about a year….right as Cook’s daughter was reaching school age:

And behind the barricade in the atmos of political upheaval, I couldn’t imagine sending my daughter to public school. It just didn’t work for me, and the other parents were likeminded, it was really important for us to know our kids were going to know who they were…and why their parents were behind a barricade.

Cook had worked as a nurse at one of the public schools on the reservation—the St. Regis Mohawk School—and she hadn’t liked what she’d seen:

I watched them put little Mohawk children through a play about Christopher Columbus and Washington and the presidents, they dressed up the kids, and to celebrate the accomplishments of these people who did nothing but destroy us

For the first year, Cook and the other parents held the Akwesasne Freedom school behind the barriers. Parents, community members, teachers and activists taught kids native history, traditional arts and crafts, and more mainstream subjects like reading and writing.

After that year, the school continued, and in 1985 the parents—who still pretty much run things here—adopted a total Mohawk immersion program.

These days, the school occupies three buildings and a lot of outdoor space, and it goes from pre-kindergarten through 8th grade.

Kids don’t spend a lot of time in the classroom doing bookwork—School administrator Aroniahes Herne says they spend a lot more time outside:

There’s actually a trip on Friday, they’re taking the entire school on boats on the river to look at the islands, talk about them, kids are going to learn, fish, swim, do all those things our ancestors used to do.

The Akwesasne Freedom School is a lot bigger than it once was…but even now, Herne says its 60 or so students only represent 1 or 2% of the total number of kids on the reservation.

A big reason for that is that a lot of parents worry a Mohawk immersion education won’t prepare their kids for public high school.

Parent Mary Arquit says she finds those arguments frustrating:

Sometimes I get upset when I hear people talking about they’re behind in English, math, etc., it’s hard not to get angry because I see how far ahead they are in thinking and science and at the same time my son who’s in summer school now is pulling a 97 in social studies, his English isn’t great but he knows who he is.

Arquit, founder Beverly Cook and school administrator Aroniahes Herne all say they’re hoping that in the next few years they can get together the resources to take the school all the way up through 12th grade.

I’m Nora Flaherty, North Country Public Radio, Akwesasne.

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