INSIDE AKWESASNE FREEDOM SCHOOL

January 14, 2020 at 4:45 am

A Mohawk tribe in upstate New York is fighting to reclaim its roots by taking control of its own education.

For more information on the Akwesasne Freedom School, click here. 

Aired on January 13, 2020. 

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>> IN NOVEMBER, THE NATION
CELEBRATES NATIVE AMERICAN
HERITAGE.
IN A GROUNDBREAKING FOUR-PART
MINISERIES CALLED "NATIVE
AMERICA," PBS RECENTLY PRESENTED
A LOOK AT OUR NATION'S FIRST
INHABITANTS, GOING BACK 15,000
YEARS, EXPLORING NOT ONLY THEIR
ROOTS AND THEIR CULTURE, BUT
ALSO THEIR TRIUMPHS AND THE
TRAGEDY THAT ULTIMATELY LED TO
THE TRAIL OF TEARS.
IT ALSO INCLUDED THEIR CURRENT
ENDEAVORS TO HOLD ON TO AND TO
REDISCOVER THEIR GLORIOUS PAST.
TONIGHT WE GO EVEN DEEPER INTO
ONE COMMUNITY THAT WAS ONCE
FORCIBLY SEPARATED FROM ITS
IDENTITY BY THE SYSTEMIC
DESTRUCTIONS OF THEIR NATIVE
LANGUAGE BY SETTLERS AND
MISSIONARIES.
THE MOHAWK ARE ONE OF THE FIRST
NATIONS TO INHABIT WHAT WE NOW
CALL NEW YORK, AND THEY'RE
RECLAIMING THEIR CULTURE THROUGH
THE POWER OF THEIR NATIVING ON
THE.
JENNA FLANAGAN HAS THE STORY.
>> LANGUAGE.
IT'S DEFINED AS A METHOD OF
COMMUNICATION USED BY A COUNTRY
OR COMMUNITY.
SOMETIMES WRITTEN BUT ALWAYS
SPOKEN, THE COMMONALITY BONDS
INDIVIDUALS WITHIN A GROUP AND
INFORMS ITS OVERALL CULTURE.
AS OF TODAY, THERE ARE ROUGHLY
6,500 LANGUAGES SPOKEN WORLDWIDE
WITH NEARLY 30% HAVING FEWER
THAN A THOUSAND NATIVE SPEAKERS,
PUTTING THEM IN A VERY REAL
DANGER OF GOING EXTINCT.
SO HOW DOES A COMMUNITY ENSURE
THAT THEIR LANGUAGE LIVES ON IN
FUTURE GENERATIONS?
YOU START WITH THE CHILDREN.
>> 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?
>> THAT'S ELVIRA SERGEANT, AN
ELDER MEMBER OF THE AKWESASNE
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.
>> IT'S A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT
LEARNING EXPERIENCE.
I MEAN, OVER TIME WE HAD TO
EVOLVE.
>> 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 4 TEACHER,
KNOWN BY HIS ENGLISH NAME LEVI
HEARN EXPLAINS THE LONG-TERM
CULTURAL EFFECT.
>> 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, 1700st.
>> ELVIRA SAYS SHE REMEMBERS HER
FAMILY STRUGGLING WITH THE
SEPARATION.
>> MY SISTER ACTUALLY WENT TO
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.
LIKE 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 THEY LOVED US, BUT OH,
GOD.
BUT IT WAS HARD FOR THEM TO SHOW
US.
>> THE BOARDING SCHOOL
SEPARATIONS LEFT A LASTING
IMPACT ON THE FAMILY.
HOWEVER, ELVIRA WAS TOO YOUNG TO
BE TAKEN TO BOARDING SCHOOL, SO
SHE LEARNED TO SPEAK MOHAWK AT
HOME.
>> THAT'S ALL I HEARD GROWING
UP.
BUT EVENTUALLY EVEN THAT PART
GOT LOST.
>> AND IT'S THAT SAME NATURAL
WAY THAT GUIDES THE FREEDOM
SCHOOL.
>> WE ACTUALLY STARTED THE AGE
OF 1 WHERE THEY CAN GO INTO OUR
LANGUAGE BECAUSE A LONG TIME
AGO, THIS WAS THE FIRST
LANGUAGE.
NOT ALL PARENTS CAN SPEAK THE
LANGUAGE.
SO THEY'RE NOT HEARING IT UNTIL
THEY ENTER SCHOOL.
>> AND THE FOCUS IS ON
DEVELOPING CONVERSATIONAL SKILLS
OVER COMPULSORY.
>> I THINK THEY REALLY SHOULD
TRY TO LEARN THAT 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.
>> IT'S JUST BEFORE 8:00 A.M. AT
THE AKWESASNE FREEDOM SCHOOL,
AND THE KIDS ARE ALREADY GETTING
DROPPED OFF FOR THE DAY.
THE SCHOOL ENCOMPASSES A SMALL
CAMPUS OF THREE 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 WHOSE
CONVERSATIONAL SKILLS ARE STILL
DEVELOPING, AND THAT CHILD CAN
BE ANY AGE.
.
>> MY NAME IS KAHNAGOHE.
CAN YOU SAY IT?
>> KAHNAGOHE.
>> YES.
>> SHE IS NOT ONLY PROFICIENT,
SHE IS THE LEVEL 8 LANGUAGE
TEACHER AND BREAKS DOWN MOHAWK
PRONUNCIATION IN A WAY MY
ENGLISH ONLY BRAIN CAN PROCESS.
>> KAH -- HER AND THIS IS --
COMES FROM THE WORD GASANA,
WHICH MEANS A NAME.
AND THIS GOHE IS A JOURNEY.
SHE WHO RETRIEVES NAMES.
>> THAT IS SO AMAZING THAT
THAT'S YOUR NAME GIVEN WHAT YOU
TEACH.
>> 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.
CLAN MOTHERS OF THE LONG HOUSE
ARE IN CHARGE OF PICKING NAMES,
AND THERE ARE NO REPEATS,
JUNIORS, OR SENIORS.
AS SHE CONTINUES EXPLAINING THE
ON THE
PHONETICS TO ME, SHE EXPLAINS
HOW SPEAKERS EXPLAIN THE MODERN
DAY.
>> OUR LANGUAGE IS DESCRIPTIVE.
THE WAY WE HAVE ADAPTED TO ALL
THESE NEW WORDS IS JUST TO
DESCRIBE WHAT IS GOING ON.
SO LIKE IF YOU WERE A CAMERA
PERSON, WE'D SAY OH, HE IS A
FILMER.
>> HOW YOU THEN DESCRIBE WHAT A
JOURNALIST DOES?
LIKE IF I WERE TO DESCRIBE
MYSELF IN THE MOHAWK LANGUAGE,
HOW -- HOW WOULD I CALL MYSELF?
>> I'M TRYING TO THINK
YEGALANUS.
SHE TELLS STORIES.
>> OH, I LOVE THAT.
WAIT, HOW I DO I SPELL THAT?
>> I CAN SPELL IT ON THE BOARD.
>> OH, PLEASE DO.
>> THIS YE IS PRONOUN FOR HER.
AND THIS DO IS THE TELLING OF
AND THIS IS HABITUAL.
SO SHE IS A TELLER.
SHE IS A STORYTELLER.
>> I ABSOLUTELY LOVE THAT.
WORKING WITH LONG HOUSE
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 MOHAWK
CULTURE AND LANGUAGE, AND ABOVE
ALL, A PASSION FOR IMPARTING
THOSE TRADITIONS ON TO 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 TURN TO SOME
OF THE SCHOOL'S MOST
ENTHUSIASTIC TEACHERS, THE 7 AND
8-YEAR-OLDS OF LEVEL 2.
>> WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?
>> HI!
SEGO?
IS THAT HOW YOU SAY IT?
>> ONA.
>> ONA!
>> AND WHAT DOES ONA MEAN?
BYE.
SO WHEN I LEAVE TODAY, I'M GOING
TO SAY ONA TO ALL OF YOU GUYS.
>> AS SHE IS KNOWN BY HER
ENGLISH NAME, TARA SKITTERS IS
THE SCHOOL'S 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.
>> SO IT'S A VERY SMALL
PERCENTAGE OF PEOPLE WHO COME
HERE.
THE FAMILIES THAT WANT THEIR
KIDS HERE, A LOT OF THEM ARE
TRADITIONAL WHO, YOU KNOW,
FOLLOW THE LONG HOUSE AND THE
LONG HOUSE TRADITIONS.
I THINK OUR OVERALL VALUES ARE
MORE OF THE CONCENTRATION,
RESPECT, AND TAKING CARE OF THE
EARTH.
AND BEING KIND TO ONE ANOTHER.
>> 42 FAMILIES COMPRISING OF 71
KIDS CURRENTLY ATTEND THE
AKWESASNE FREEDOM SCHOOL.
AND TO HELP IMMERSE THEM INTO
THE CULTURE OF THE LONG HOUSE
TRADITIONS, EACH DAY STARTS WITH
A COMMUNITY SOCIAL.
TEACHERS AND STUDENTS GATHER IN
ONE OF THE LARGER CLASSROOMS AND
BEGIN WITH LOOSELY TRANSLATED
THE BUSINESS BEFORE ALL ELSE.
THANKS IS GIVEN TO THE CREATOR
FOR EVERYTHING.
IT'S AN IMPORTANT PART OF THE
LONG HOUSE TRADITION, WHICH
FOCUSES ON BEING GRATEFUL FOR
THE GIFTS THE EARTH GIVES AND
HOW THEY AID PEOPLE IN LIFE.
THEY PARTICIPATE IN SEVERAL
MORNING SONGS.
SONGS ABOUT HUNTING OR GATHERING
ARE PERFORMED IN CEREMONIAL WAY.
THESE ARE OPEN EVENTS THAT
ANYONE CAN ATTEND, BUT FOR THE
MOHAWK, SACRED CEREMONIES ARE
CLOSED TO NON-NATION MEMBER,
EVEN THOUGH THE FREEDOM SCHOOL
HAS LESS THAN 100 KIDS ENROLLED,
THE AKWESASNE MOHAWK COMMUNITY
IS 16,000 STRONG, AND THE
RESERVATION OVERLAPS THE
U.S./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, THAT'S OUR BORDER, NOT
THEIRS.
>> WHEN THEY'RE HERE, THEY TALK
ABOUT BEING IN THE AMERICAN OR
CANADIAN SIDE, BECAUSE WE
OURSELVES DON'T FEEL AS WE'RE A
PART OF THE AMERICAN OR CANADIAN
GOVERNMENT.
WE FEEL THAT WE'RE A SOVEREIGN
NATION STILL.
>> TARA SAYS ONE OF THE BIGGEST
WORRIES THAT PARENTS HAVE IS
THAT ALL THIS MOHAWK IMMERSION
WILL LIMIT THEIR CHILD'S ABILITY
TO LEARN ENGLISH AND MATRICULATE
INTO ONE OF THE NEARBY PUBLIC
HIGH SCHOOLS.
>> THE REALITY IS ENGLISH IS
EVERYWHERE.
THEY'RE GOING TO LEARN IT.
I TELL PARENTS ALL THE TIME
DON'T STRESS ABOUT IT.
IF YOUR CHILD IS READY TO LEARN
ENGLISH, TEACH THEM AT HOME.
DON'T WORRY ABOUT IT.
THEY'LL GET IT.
BUT ONCE THEY LEAVE HERE, WHERE
ARE THEY GOING TO LEARN THE
MOHAWK LANGUAGE?
>> HOWEVER, ONCE THE FREEDOM
SCHOOL KIDS START ATTENDING
PUBLIC HIGH SCHOOLS, COMMUNITY
LONG HOUSE ELDER ELVIRA SAYS
IT'S A BIT OF A CULTURE SHOCK.
>> WE HEAR BACK FROM THE
STUDENTS, OH MY GOD, I CAN'T
BELIEVE THE WAY THEY TALK TO
THEIR TEACHERS.
OR OUR STUDENTS, THEY FIND THEM
QUIET, BUT IT'S BECAUSE THEY'RE
RESPECTFUL.
>> AND TARA AGREES.
SHE SAYS IT'S NOT UNCOMMON FOR
HER TO GET CALLS FROM FORMER
STUDENTS ON BREAK, ASKING IF
THEY CAN COME BACK AND HELP FOR
THE WEEK.
BUT TO TRULY EXPAND THE SCHOOL'S
CAPACITY, TARA SAYS THEY'RE
HOPING TO BUILD A NEW STRUCTURE
THAT CAN HOUSE EVERYBODY.
>> HAVING A NEW BUILDING WOULD
REALLY HELP US ALL TO BE IN ONE
BUILDING SO THERE IS NOBODY IS
SEGREGATED FROM ANYBODY ELSE.
IT'S GOOD FOR THOSE YOUNGER KIDS
TO SEE THE OLDER KIDS USING THE
LANGUAGE, THE OLDER KIDS DOING
THINGS BECAUSE THAT GIVES THEM
ROLE MODEL.
>> TO PAY FOR ALL OF THIS, THE
AKWESASNE FREEDOM SCHOOL CHARGES
A UNIQUE TUITION.
EITHER $500 PER STUDENT, OR A
DONATED QUILT.
TARA SAYS EACH ONE CAN BRING IN
A FEW THOUSAND DOLLARS,
GENERATING ENOUGH TO FUND THE
CURRENT SCHOOL.
FAMILIES CONTRIBUTE HAND-MADE
QUILTS BASED ON THE NUMBER OF
CHILDREN THEY HAVE ENROLLED, AND
SOME QUILTS ARE EVEN DONATED BY
PROFESSIONALS.
>> THIS IS A QUILT DONE BY THE
PEACEMAKERS OF NEW PALTZ, NEW
YORK.
THEY'RE ALWAYS VERY UNIQUE, AND
PEOPLE COME HERE JUST TO BID ON
THESE, BECAUSE THEY'VE BEEN
DOING THIS FOR I WANT TO SAY
20-SOMETHING YEARS NOW.
>> IN ALL, TARA SAYS THE MISSION
OF THE AKWESASNE FREEDOM SCHOOL
IS TO ENSURE THE SUCCESSFUL OF
THE MOHAWK CULTURE AND LANGUAGE.
>> YOU KNOW, I WANT PEOPLE TO
KNOW THAT WE'RE NOT EXTINCT.
PEOPLE THINK THAT AN INDIAN IS A
CERTAIN WAY OR THAT WE ARE ALL
THE SAME.
AND WE'RE NOT.
SO THERE ARE 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 ARE SO LITTLE OF US
COMPARED TO OTHER POPULATIONS,
BUT WE'RE HERE.
WE'RE DOING IT.
WE'RE GOING KEEP DOING IT.
NOT GOING NOWHERE.
WE HAVE KIDS WHO ARE LEARNING
ALL THIS STUFF, AND THEY'RE
GOING TO CARRY IT ON.
AND WE'RE JUST DOING OUR THING.
>> BIG HUG BEFORE I GO,
EVERYBODY.
FOR "METROFOCUS," I'M JENNA
FLANAGAN.

Funders

MetroFocus is made possible by James and Merryl Tisch, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bernard and Irene Schwartz, Rosalind P. Walter, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Janet Prindle Seidler, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.

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