Immerses Mohawk Children In Traditional Language
Mohawk Territory, N.Y.
-- There's a small
school in the far north of New York where English is a foreign language.
The tongue taught here is Mohawk.
though the 64 students at the Akwesasne Freedom School learn math and
history and reading, their real purpose is their people's cultural
grandmothers and aunts got spanked if they talked Mohawk at school.
That's how we lost our language," said a 12-year-old pupil, whose
name is a thicket of letters -- Tehrenhniserakhas, pronounced De Lon Ni
Zeh Lakas -- that means "He Puts Two Days into One."
we have a better sense of our language than probably any other
a last chance to reverse the consequences of American policies that
sought to obliterate Indian identity, the school is immersing children
in traditional language and customs and counting on them to emerge the
faithkeepers of the new century.
most fluent speakers in their twilight years and few families
maintaining Mohawk traditions at home, the intensive teaching on this
reservation that spreads over the Canadian border begins before
kindergarten and concludes at eighth grade. Mohawk is the only language
allowed except for the final two years, during a crash catch-up in
English to prepare for public school.
saw what happened to one generation that lost their culture, lost their
history, lost their language," said Sheree Bonaparte,
Tehrenhniserakhas's mother, who 25 years ago was one of the first
teachers at the school -- the forerunner to immersion programs that have
been blossoming around the country. "We decided that we didn't want
to raise American children or Canadian children. We wanted to raise
of the limelight, these schools -- as many as 50 nationwide -- have
become vanguards of a dramatic change in Indian education building since
the 1970s, when U.S. officials and Indians began trying to redress a
history of forced assimilation dating to the 19th century. Where Indian
children were once shipped to federal boarding institutions to be purged
of their native ways, schools around the country are now steeped in
tribal history and heritage.
generation, we were punished for speaking Mohawk. Now we are getting
paid to teach it," Lillian Delormier, a third- and fourth-grade
teacher, said with amusement, as she watched her students race around
the playground, their language flying like sparks through the air.
"When I was brought up, all this was a no-no."
linguistic revival is at the core of broad efforts by Indian people to
uplift their communities, yet it is also an act of desperation, as
native languages are vanishing and taking with them irreplaceable
1900, amid the boarding school era, only about 400 Indian languages were
in use on the continent. Today, there are around 185, most precariously
close to extinction. Linguists and Indian educators predict that many
will vanish in less than 50 years.
tribal languages are the libraries of information for each tribe. They
contain the genesis, the cosmology, all the oral histories," said
Darrell Kipp, a leader in the immersion movement and founder of the
Piegan Institute, a center on his Blackfeet reservation in Montana
dedicated to preserving native languages. "They are a blueprint for
how to look at the world."
Mohawks may be in better shape than other New York tribes, with as many
as 2,000 to 3,000 speakers out of roughly 12,000 on the reservation. The
Senecas, however, estimate that fewer than 100 people are fluent, while
other members of the Iroquois Confederacy, such as the Oneidas and
Onondagas, have hardly anyone able to converse.
is a survival school. I want to survive as a Seneca for a little while
longer," said Dar Dowdy, who six years ago founded the Seneca's
Faithkeeper's School. "Our old people tell us that when you lose
your language, you're nothing, you're just a social security
immersion programs, most of which are privately or tribally funded, are
considered by many experts the surest way to stem the onslaught of
cultural illiteracy, imparting an Indian perspective on everything from
geography to botany. Because of this intense focus, students can be set
back in mainstream subjects, particularly English, when they enter
public schools. But after some quick catch-up they usually excel: four
of the five Indians inducted into the National Honor Society in the
local high school last year had attended the Freedom School.
may take us a couple of weeks to catch up to their work at the beginning
of the year," said Tsiehente, (pronounced Jeh Hon Deh) Herne, 13,
an eighth-grader. "But after that we zoom past them."
schools also lure parents back to the classroom to reclaim their complex
native tongue. The Mohawk language has similar cadences to English but
uses only 11 of the 26 letters of the English alphabet. Its vocabulary
is florid, atavistic and evolving in real time to incorporate the modern
of everything I learned at Cornell, nothing compares to this, maybe
neurology," said Iotenerahtatenion, (pronounced Yo De Neh La Da Den
Yo) Arquette, an environmental researcher and veterinarian, who is one
of about 20 mothers studying in the Freedom School's adult program.
language renewal push is also permeating public schools that serve most
native children, even as educators continue to contend with deficiencies
in mainstream Indian education. Federally funded schools and public
districts are now routinely incorporating native language and traditions
into their curricula. The U.S. Department of Education and the Bureau of
Indian Affairs are spending tens of millions of dollars on improving
student performance and training teachers.
the Canadian side of this reservation, one elementary school offers
immersion from pre-kindergarten to sixth grade. "Every single book,
every single resource material we have to make for ourselves," said
Margaret Cook-Peters, who develops Mohawk studies at the Akwesasne Board
York's Salmon River School District offers language and culture at both
its high school and elementary levels and has recently started an
advanced Mohawk class. The district is also running a summer program for
teachers around the state on Iroqouis history.
the district's St. Regis Mohawk primary school – entirely Indian, 452
students, pre-kindergarten to sixth grade – there is a distinctly
native aesthetic, from a mosaic at the entrance depicting the Mohawk
creation story to murals in the cafeteria of the clan system.
administrators and teachers acknowledge that the Mohawk classes held
every other day at best can open students' eyes.
this situation and this setting I can't take a non-native speaker and
make them a speaker," said Irving Papineau, the principal, a
graduate of the school. "My primary responsibility is to make sure
they meet their academic standards. We've got our hands full."
the Freedom School, there is no such calculation. Mohawk is first, from
the moment the students flop onto benches at 9 a.m. Quiet envelops the
hall, then the young Indians together welcome the day with the
"Words Before All Else," an homage to the natural world meant
to bring their minds into focus as one.
was a process to get rid of us, but it didn't work," Elvera Sargent,
the school manager, said as another day commenced and students scattered
to their classes. "This is where you learn where you came from and
who you are."
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