INSIDE AKWESASNE FREEDOM SCHOOL

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. 

TRANSCRIPT

> 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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