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LaFayette To Teach Onondaga Language
by Elizabeth Doran - Staff writer, Syracuse Post-Standard

Starting in September, LaFayette schools will for the first time teach the Onondaga’s native language – Ongwehonwekha – in ninth grade, a critical step in the Onondaga Nation’s effort to save its native language from extinction.

LaFayette High School will be one of a handful of high schools in the state to offer a Native American language class.

“This is a giant step forward for the kids who can continue learning the language, which helps keep it alive,” said Danielle Rourke, LaFayette High School’s Native American liaison who works with Onondaga Nation School eighth-graders transitioning to the high school. “You teach it to them when they’re young and keep working on it because the more you use it, the more it’s going to stay around.”

The language of the Onondagas was spoken by nearly all the nations’ residents until the 1930s. It began to die out, though, because some Onondagas were ridiculed if they spoke the language at school.

For some time, children weren’t taught the language. Now there is a concerted effort among Onondaga leaders to preserve the language among their youth.

Elaina Powless, 13, said she’s thrilled she can continue learning the language as a freshman. “We’re just starting to put together sentences,” she said. “Having one more year to learn is great because we’re losing our language as time goes on. Not enough people are taking the time to learn it.”

Until this fall, Ongwehonwekha was taught only through eighth grade at the Onondaga Nation School. The class is open to eligible Native students, meaning they’ve passed the Nation School’s eighth-grade language proficiency exam and have taken three years of language class at the Nation School or another Haudenosaunee (pronounced ho-den-oh-SHONE-ee), which means people of the longhouse; language school. The students have to take another language, as well, to earn a Regents diploma.

Eventually, the district plans to offer more advanced classes that would meet the foreign language requirements for a Regents diploma. First, a curriculum and examination meeting state education department guidelines would be developed.

It typically takes about three years to develop a comprehensive language exam, said Mary Holmes, associate for foreign language with the state education department. Holmes said the state recognizes there might be languages important to a particular community and allows curriculums and exams to be written locally if no state ones are offered. School districts offering the Seneca and Mohawk languages for Regents’ credit have developed their own exams.

The proficiency exams don’t have to be approved by the state, Holmes said, but must meet specific criteria. The state can ask to review the tests at any time.

Experts say Mohawk is the least at-risk native language in New York, but all of the Iroquois languages are endangered.

“Anything we do hopefully will help,” said Wendy Gonyea, an Onondaga Nation resident whose four children graduated from the Nation School and LaFayette High School. “It’s really vital that we preserve our language, and this sounds like it’s needed.”

The full-year one-credit Onondaga language/culture course is being written and taught by the three Nation School teachers who currently teach the class. The 30-minute class counts toward a student’s overall grade point average.

Five students have signed up for the ninth-grade class, said Nation School Principal Carol Erb. They will be bused directly to the Nation School each morning, then back to the high school.

Erb said the school has wanted to extend its native language instruction for some time. “Before this the kids’ formal education in language and culture pretty much ended after eighth grade,” she said.

The course also should smooth Nation School students’ transition into the high school, Erb said. “Continuing to learn their language and culture keeps the kids connected, and provides a link back to us,” she said.

Iroquois Languages In School
Eleven school districts in New York offer courses in Native American languages, according to the state education department. Among them are:

The Salmon River district in Franklin County and Massena district offer Mohawk language classes. Salmon River students can earn Regents credit for taking Mohawk classes. About 30 students take the Regents each year, according to Principal John Simons. Massena is working to get Regents credit.

Salamanca, Gowanda, Lake Shore and Silver Creek school districts in western New York offer Seneca language courses for Regents credit. The Akron district offers the Seneca language at the elementary school level.

Tuscarora Elementary in the Niagara-Wheatfield district, north of Niagara Falls teaches Tuscarora through sixth grade.

LaFayette is the only school district to offer Ongwehonwekha, pronounced Onway-honway-kah, the language and culture of the Onondagas.

Stockbridge Valley in Oneida County offers non-Regents Oneida language courses.

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Ohwejagehka: Ha`degaenage:
Ohwejagehka: Ha`degaenage: is a nonprofit organization based on Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario Canada that was established to help preserve and nurture the Iroquoian languages and songs.

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