MetroFocus: May 9, 2023

Long Island is on the frontlines of the global climate crisis, ranking among the most vulnerable metro areas in the country. Decades of nitrogen pollution from aging septic systems and fertilizer runoff have only made the situation worse, and the Shinnecock Indian Nation is helping lead the fight to keep communities from going underwater. The Shinnecock Kelp Farmers, a multi-generational, women-led nonprofit, is expanding their kelp hatchery and farm in Southampton to counter the effects of climate change and restore the waters they’ve lived on for thousands of years. The group recently teamed up with The Nature Conservancy, the global conservation organization, on their expansion and joining us to discuss these efforts are: Tela Troge, Director of the Shinnecock Kelp Farmers, and Tiffany Waters, Global Aquaculture Manager for The Nature Conservancy.

Then, Jenna Flanagan travels to the Akwesasne Freedom School in upstate New York for a firsthand look at a Mohawk tribe’s fight to reclaim its roots by taking control of its children’s education- starting with an encouraged ban on speaking English, in favor of their native language and culture.


tonight the women led indigenous owned aqua farm taking on climate change and saving shores to the power of kelp.

Meet the community fighting to reclaim its roots one student at a time.

How they are bringing their language back as MetroFocus starts right now.

this is MetroFocus with Rafael Pi Roman, Jack Ford, and Jenna Flanagan.

MetroFocus is made possible by Sue and Edgar, the Peter Peterson and Jonah fund.

Bernard and Denise Schwartz, Barbara Zuckerberg and Jody and John, Dr. Robert and Tina foundation.

The Ambrose foundation, estate of Roland Garland.

Dr. Vagalose.

The estate of Worthington Smith.

good evening and welcome to MetroFocus.

I am Jenna Flanagan.

Long Island it ranks among the most vulnerable metro areas in the country when it comes to the rest -- risk of climate change.

Decades of pollution from septic systems and fertilizer runoff have made the situation worse and the Indian nation is leading the fight to keep communities above water.

That help farmers, a multigenerational nonprofit is expounding their kelp hatchery and farm in Southhampton to counter climate change.

The group recently teamed up with the nature Conservancy on their expansion.

Taylor is the director of the kelp farmers and Tiffany water is global aquaculture monitor.

If they join us tonight as part of our heirloom promise an initiative on the human stories of climate change and solutions.

For people who might not be clear or understand, what does kelp have to do with climate change and more importantly sewage runoff that could be I guess exacerbating the problem, how does kelp help fix the problem?

kelp is a type of seaweed.

It is a natural resource for my tribal nation.

It grows in abundance around our territory and has been relied on for a number of different purposes relevant to the climate crisis we are in, sugar kelp particularly has an incredible ability to sequester carbon and also extract excess nitrates from the water, which are causing varying levels of oxygen and marine fishery die offs that we are trying to prevent and kind of go against some of the over development and lack of appropriate septic systems.

It is an ancient plant that has been in relation with our tribe for many, many years.

It continues to have moderate impact on our ecological well-being here.

Tiffany, so how do you farm kelp?

And I guess how do you even expend a farm?

When most people think about farming, they think above ground.

How does this work?


no, that's a great question.

A lot of people do not realize actually how many greenhouse gases are admitted through food production.

It is 25% of admissions, 75 percent of habitat degradation, 80% of water use.

What makes seaweed farming special is it does not have those effects.

Seaweed farming is something that is low greenhouse gas emissions, admitting requires no feed, no fertilizer to grow.

It is growing off of the nutrients in the water column.

So in addition to it not requiring excess nutrients beyond what is existing, it is cleaning up the water that it is feeding from.

It is this incredibly important production system that we have.

Generally farming is done through long lines but it can also be depending on where you are in the world also along the bottom.

So lots of different ways to actually form seaweed globally.

It is a massive industry in Asia and a newer industry for North America and Europe.

that's very interesting because it sounds like a I guess Greenway to deal with some of our waste problems.

Is this the only part of the country where kelp farming is being used to help clean the water?

not at all.

In fact, I would say even though 99% of seaweed farming that is occurring right now commercially is in Asia, there is a growing wave within North America of folks that are interested in using seaweed farming.

The Shinnecock kelp farmers are pursuing this for ecosystem services that seaweed farming can provide.

In addition to the food.

And the jobs and the products it can provide.

Some of the areas where it seaweed farming is popular in the U.S. is Maine and Alaska.

90% of the seaweed farmed in the U.S. is coming from those states.

There's a lot of interest in other areas including the West Coast where we work with tribes and first Nations were interested in seaweed farming.

going back to the first Nations of course, I am wondering if you can tell us about the history that your people have with not just farming kelp, but using it.

What is it that I guess perhaps people coming here did not realize about the importance of kelp?

went up my nation -- my nation is a first contact nation, when we encountered the first European colonists, they were cold and they were hungry.

And we helped them and we helped them by showing them how to use seaweed to insulate their homes.

And how to use seaweed to fertilize crops together with a mixture of fish.

And so traditionally we used this mixture as a bio stimulant for corn, beans and squash, which is known as the three sisters.

But when you add kelp as a soil abetment to flowers, vegetables, gardens, farms, it has this incredible bio stimulant property that increases production of this nation for again thousands of years before Europeans came.

Beyond the practical uses, there is cosmetic uses.

There is so many uses.

They are looking at textiles.

For my nation we were able to use our seaweed history to obtain a political recognition known as federal acknowledgment by showing our reserve treaty rights to seaweed as an abundant natural resource.

It has allowed us to grow our industry in states like Maine, Connecticut, Alaska in terms of regulating seaweed.

I want to go deeper because I'm sure a lot people would've picked up on the fact that I said your form is in Southhampton.

That is a location that I would say everybody knows about.

What has been your journey in getting sovereignty over such popular waters?

it is a continuing struggle for sure.

The Shinnecock nation's ancestral territory has been reduced to about 1000 acres.

Our main residential territory, the Shinnecock is a peninsula.

We are surrounded on all sides by water.

We are experiencing sealevel rise, saltwater intrusion, erosion.

We get hit by hurricanes, Superstorm's, and the interesting thing is about our territory, 70% of our population lives, 100 50% under the federal poverty level.

When you go out to the edge of our territory and he looked out across the water, you are looking out at $175 million homes on this area island called Meadow Lane.

It's known as billionaires Lane and it is the homes of the wealthiest people on the planet.

Before COVID-19, they would only live there in the summer but all of that -- these are mansions.

They had 26 bathrooms.

They would dump waste directly into our water, the Shinnecock Bay, which is the Bay that our people have used as a food source to survive on since the last Ice Age almost.

We have almost 13,000 years of recorded history of finding our food source from the bay.

And as a result of overdevelopment, overpopulation after COVID we saw an exodus of people from Manhattan.

In the area Shinnecock Hills which is the watershed for our Bay increased in population by 40%, higher than anywhere else in the region.

Our waters just got declared a federal fisheries disaster zone because our shellfish, sea scallops perish at a rate of 99.9 percent.

These are our food sources.

Our people have survived off shellfish for thousands of years and now we are experiencing these mass Marina die offs because all of this literal waste from some of the richest people in the country is devastating our Bay and ecology.

So our attempt to align our traditional cultural practices and knowledge of kelp and seaweed as being this critically important natural resource for us, it is something that we are doing to save our territory and our homelands.

But it is not something that we are keeping to ourselves, we are sharing our knowledge.

With everybody.

Because we do want to lead the way and be a model for implementing climate strategies and it is not for a lack of resources.

It is for a lack of will.

We are providing it that will and how to enact the change that you need to see.

For me, I have a one-year-old son and I want him to be able to fish and clam on Shinnecock Bay like his ancestors have for generation after generation.

So it is very important to us to protect the land and the water and maintain our ways of life.

Bite again it using our traditional knowledge combined with modern science to find solutions to the climate struggles that we are facing due to the excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and reliance on fossil fuel industry.

what would you say are your long-term goals for this, your long-term hope?

And Tiffany, I will throw this to you because we've got a minute left.


We are feeling fortunate to be partnering with the kelp farmers.

When opportunities arise and we are invited to collaborate TMC works in collaboration with local community partners to support their visions, learn from their stewardship experiences and amplify leadership.

Not only does that align with our values, it shows that indigenous communities achieve greater conservation results and sustained biodiversity Dan government protected areas.

We are excited to continue to work with Shinnecock kelp farmers and other communities as they grow their seaweed farm.

Excited to help support them.

the groundbreaking four-part miniseries called native America , PBS presented a look at our nation's first inhabitants going back 15,000 years, exploring their roots and their culture but also their triumphs and the tragedy that ultimately led to the trail of tears.

It included their current endeavors, to hold onto and rediscover their glorious past.

Tonight we go even deeper into one community that was once forcibly separated from its identity by the systemic destruction of their native language by missionaries.

The Mohawk are one of the first nations to inhabit what we call New York and they are reclaiming their cultures with the power of their native tongue.

Jenna Flanagan has the story.

language, it is defined as a method of communication used by a community or country, sometimes written but almost always spoken.

The commonality bonds individuals within a group and informs its overall culture.

As of today there are roughly 6500 languages spoken worldwide with nearly 30% having fewer than 1000 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.

Without that, who are we?

that is El FARA Sergeant, an elder member of the Mohawk nation at the northern border of New York State.

They are working hard to not only maintain the language but to ensure it has a language with its language immersion school.

it is a complete different learning experience.

Over time, we had to evolve.

the Aqua Sunset freedom school was founded in 1979 after decades of Mohawk children being forcibly removed from their families and their native lands to attend boarding schools run by priests where English was mandatory and the Mohawk language was forbidden.

Effectively putting up a barrier between the people and their culture.

Freedom for teacher Levi Hearn explains the long-term cultural effect.

most of the families in this community are untraditional because of what happened with boarding schools and types of assimilation, the Jesuits in the 16 and 1700s.

she session members or family members struggling with the separation.

my sister went to a residential school.

My uncle.

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 does not know the culture at all.

She still knows the language, she gets stuck.

It has had a lasting impact, like maybe people my age have -- and maybe a little older, we did not have that nurturing, nurturing from our parents.

Because they did not know how to nurture us.

Or show us love.

We knew they loved us, but oh God.


Um, 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 so she learned how to speak Mohawk at home.

that is all I learned growing up but eventually even that part got lost.

is that same natural way that guides the freedom school.

we actually start at the age of one year old, where they can go into our language path.

Because a long time ago, this was their first language.

Not all parents can speak the language, so they are not hearing it until they enter school.

and the focus is on developing conversational skills over compulsory.

day should try to learn with another speaker, with an elder.

I am afraid with it being in the classroom all the time, that it will become a classroom language.

I don't want to see that happen.

just before 8 a.m. at the Aqua Sunset freedom school, the kids are getting dropped off for the day.

The school encompasses a campus of three buildings but it is not structured like an American public school.

The kids are not regulated by grade but rather their Mohawk language ability level, so a child at level two is not necessarily a second grader, but rather a kid whose conversational skills are still developing.

And that child can be any age.

my name is -- can you say it?

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

k a h, kah.

Sa na go heh.


And this is -- comes from the word gosana, which means a name and this goheh is a journey, she who retrieves names.

it is amazing that that is your name given what you teach.

That is one of the tenants of the Mohawk way or the culture.

Every individual has their own name, just one that is unique to themselves.

Mothers of the longhouse are in charge of picking names and there are no repeats, juniors or seniors.

As she continues expanding the phonetics, she shares how modern-day speakers make the ancient language work in the present day.

our language is descriptive, so the way we have adapted to these new words is just to describe what is going on.

So if you were a camera person, we would say he is a film or.

how would you describe what a journalist does?

If I were to describe myself in the Mohawk language, how would I call myself?

I am trying to think.

Maybe she tells stories.

oh I love that.

How do I spell that?

I can spell it for you on the board.

please do.

this is a pronoun for 'her' and this is the telling of and this is habitual.

So she is a teller, a storyteller.

I absolutely love that.

[laughter] Working with longhouse traditions the Aqua Sunset freedom school has its own standards and requirements for teachers.

They are not looking for traditional American certificates or degrees but a membership within the nation, fluency in the Mohawk 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 know 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 seven and eight-year-olds at level two.

What does that mean?


Is that how you say it?

Ona, and what does that mean?


So when I leave I'm going to say it to all of you guys.

As she is known by her English name, Terra is the office manager.

She handles admissions, budgeting, hiring and ensuring the school meets its overall mission.

Part of that is creating a familial atmosphere for the kids.

it is a small percentage of people that come here.

The families that want their kids here, and of them are traditional who follow the longhouse and longhouse tradition.

Our overall like values are more of a concentration.

Respect in taking care of the earth and being kind to one another.

42 families comprising of 71 kids currently attend the Aqua Sunset freedom school and to help immerse them into the culture of the longhouse traditions, each day starts with a community social.

Teachers and students gathered in one of the larger classrooms and begin with something which loosely translates as the business before all else.

Thanks is given to the creator for everything.

It is an important part of the longhouse tradition which focuses on being grateful for the gifts that the earth gives and how they aid people in life.

They participate in morning songs or stops, songs about hunting or gathering are performed in a ceremonial way.

These are open events that anyone can attend but sacred ceremonies are closed to non-nation members even though the freedom school has less than 100 kids enrolled.

The Mohawk community is 16,000 strong.

And the reservation overlaps the U.S. Canadian border.

Kids who live on the New York side have friends and family in the Ontario' back provinces.

Freedom school has students from both sides of the border but according to level four teacher, that is our border, not theirs.

when they are here they talk about being on the American or Canadian side because we do not feel as a part of the American or Canadian government.

We are sovereign nations.

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

the reality is English is everywhere.

They are going to learn it.

I tell parents all the time do not stress about it.

If your child is ready, teach them at home, do not worry, they will get it.

Once they leave here, where are they going to learn the language?

wants the freedom school kids start attending public high schools, community longhouse elder says it is a bit of a culture shock.

we hear back from those students, my God, I cannot believe the way they talk to their teachers or our students, their quiet but it is because they are respectful.

she says it is not uncommon for her to get calls from former students on break asking if they can come back and help out for the week.

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 no one being segregated from everyone else.

It's good for the young kids to see the older kids using the language.

The older kids doing things, that gives them role models.

to pay for all of this the school charges a unique tuition.

Either a $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 handmade quilts based on the number of children they have enrolled in some quilts are donated by professionals.

this is a quilt done by the peacemakers of New York.

They are always very unique and people come here just to bid on these.

They have been doing this for I want to say 20 something years now.

she says the mission of the school is to ensure the survival of the Mohawk culture and the language.

I want people to know that we are not extinct.

You know, people think that an Indian is a certain way or that we all are the same and we are not.

If there are so many different nations, different clothes, cultures, nations, songs, everything is different.

We have to work really hard to maintain those things.

There is so little of us compared to other populations but we are here, we're doing it, we will keep doing it, not going nowhere.

We have kids who are learning all of this stuff and they will carry it on.

And we are just doing our thing.

it big hug before I go, everybody.

For MetroFocus, I am Jenna Flanagan.

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