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 kids."
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 Mohawk children."
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
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
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 world.
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
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 of Education.
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
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
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 Sergeant,
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."