Akwesasne Freedom School:  Protecting the Future Generations
by Kanatiiosh (Barbara Gray)

Recently, I was invited to the Akwesasne Freedom School to hear Tom Sakokwenionkwas Porter recount how the Freedom School was created.  Prior to the arrival of Sakokwenionkwas, I took a tour of the building.  The classrooms were very nice.  Each one had a different theme and looked inviting.  

As parents and teachers arrived, I hurried back to the front class room where the meeting was to take place.  We sat at round tables or along the walls on beautiful handmade pine benches.  The meeting was opened with the recitation of the Ohen:ton Karihwatehkwen (Words before all Else), which is also known as the Thanksgiving Address.  The Thanksgiving Address serves as a foundation for the school's curriculum, which is based on living one's life in a manner that shows respect and thankfulness to all of creation. 

Everyone was expected to recite, in Mohawk, a section of the Thanksgiving address.  Elvera Sargent explained that every day the students open the day, as we did that day, each taking a turn and reciting the address in Mohawk.  There were a few people who needed help during the address and the teachers helped them say the words.  

When my turn came, I was a little nervous.  I did not want to make a mistake.  However, because the room was filled with such love and respect, my fear melted away.  I was handed a piece of paper written in Mohawk that gave thanks to Grand Mother Moon.  I struggled with some of the words, but was able to complete the task.  

The importance of parents and extended family taking an active role in the education of the children is stressed at the school. Parents, who do not speak Mohawk, are encouraged to learn the language.  Speaking the language at home and attending the ceremonies with our little ones not only strengthens the experience of the children, it strengthens the school and our culture for the future generations yet born.  

Sakokwenionkwas spoke about how the freedom school began.  He said that in the early 1970s, parents began to become increasingly concerned that their children were losing their language and culture.  The parents were also concerned with incidences of racism and the quality of education their children were receiving. 

Sakokwenionkwas said that, concerned parents put their Good Minds together looking for a solution. He said that one of the people really working towards getting a school started was his, now deceased aunt, Ann Jock.  Sakokwenionkwas's eyes twinkled and a smile came over his face as he remembered the devotion his aunt had for protecting Haudenosaunee culture and the future generations.  

Ann Jock built, behind her house, a building.  This building became the Onkwehonweh Way School .  The school had a few students and operated as a school for a short time.  Sakokwenionkwas said, The Onkwehonweh School paved the way for the Akwesasne Freedom School .

Soon after, in 1979, the Mohawk Nation, concerned community members, and parents opened the Akwesasne Freedom School .  The school is a Mohawk language immersion school.  Language is a key component of culture.  Language creates how one views and interprets the world.  The school not only preserves the language, it also protects the traditions.  Students can begin at the Akwesasne Freedom School at the age of 5, pre K through 8th grade. 

The school holidays are in correlation with the Kanienākeha:ka Aohsera (Mohawk Ceremonial Year).  During the school year there are 15 traditional ceremonies: Midwinter, Dead Feast, Tobacco Burning, Maple Tree, Thunder Dance, Medicine Mask, Seed-Planting, Strawberry, Raspberry, Beans, Green Corn, Harvest, Thunder Dance, Dead Feast, End of Season.  The children may not go into the formal classroom during these days, but they are expected to go to the Longhouse and attend the ceremonies, which through participation is an active way to learn about one's culture. 

The Akwesasne Freedom School does not currently have a high school.  Perhaps in the future the Freedom School may have a High school, but for now students reaching the 9th grade attend the local public schools.  There is a yearly "moving up day," a graduation day for all students.  When students finish the 8th grade, each student is given an Aiionwatha flag.  This flag represents the Aiionwatha belt depicting the formation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy under the Great Law of Peace. 

The Akwesasne Freedom School is dependent on donations, community support and fundraising.  Parents are expected to contribute their time and to help raise funds.  Each year, around July, the Akwesasne Freedom School holds a quilt and silent auction.  The quilt and silent auction helps to raise money needed for running the school.  Artisans come to the two day event, food is served, and singers and dancers perform.  The event is a lot of fun. 

Quilts are made by the parents, societies like the Akwesasne Women Singers, and there are some off reservation groups and individuals who donate quilts.  This past year there was a big beautiful quilt with peace as the theme.  I was high bidder on a smaller full sized quilt made with red calico fabric.  I found out later that it was quilted by my cousin Elizabeth Perkins who is also one of the teachers at the school.  I now have the quilt draped over my sofa in my home. 

The silent auction was also fun.  People could bid on traditional style clothing, artwork, baskets, and numerous items made and/or donated by the community.  I cannot wait for the next quilt auction.   If you are in the area for next year's quilt and silent auction, stop by and participate in this worthy fundraising event.          

The Akwesasne Freedom School teachers are awesome.  The teachers must be knowledgeable of the Mohawk culture and fluent in the language.  The teachers and administration really respect and love each and every child.   They treat each student as if they were their own.  The love and respect is reflected in the way students behave in class and revere their teachers. 

The students, being steeped in their traditional teachings, are environmentally conscious with a deep respect for the community and all of creation.  The teachers, parents, and administration have developed curriculum, events, and programs that promote the students to positively interact with the community and the Natural World.  

While education does take place in the classroom, the students learn the basics like math, and social studies, etc.; the Akwesasne Freedom School students also have the entire outdoors as a classroom.  The woods, rivers, marshes, and the community garden provide a learning environment.  Recently, the students' efforts were acknowledged with awards.

The Akwesasne Freedom School traveled to Washington , D.C. to receive the President of the United States's Environmental Youth Award.   The award was given for the students' efforts to restore wetlands along Route 37, at the new school site.  During this project, the children learned about the importance of wetlands. 

The students also won first place in the Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment ((ATFE) Annual Roadside Cleanup.  The students, supervised by parents and teachers gathered the most trash.  Ultimately, we all win by the efforts of the students and other teams who picked up trash during the one day event. 

Recently, the students planted 3000 trees in an effort to create a forest.  The forest will be on Akwesasne Freedom School land.  The ATFE, members of the Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force, Pat Sullivan of the Natural Resource Conservation Service, and Elvera Sargent administrator of the school, helped in getting the necessary supplies and equipment, including the trees, needed for the project.

The students planted a variety of trees. They planted black ash, white ash, swamp oak, black walnut, red oak, maple, hickory, silver maple, white cedar, and white pine trees.  Lessons were developed to teach the students about the importance of trees within the ecosystem and culturally.  

A few weeks ago the students learned from Dean George how to pound a black ash log.  The students each took a turn at pounding the log.  They learn at the Akwesasne Freedom School by listening and by active participation.  With each pound of the blunt axe hammer, the annual growth rings separate.  The students learned how the splints are used in basket making and for the frames of Kastowehs (feathered hats).  The students then were instructed by Delia Cook one of the Turtle Clan Mothers of the Mohawk Nation how to use these splints to weave a basket. Baskets made by the students are personal sized.  They are used during longhouse ceremonies.

Last year students learned how to tap maple trees.  They tapped trees, and then they watched the process of how maple syrup is made.  Lessons surrounding the tree tapping included cultural lessons and medicinal uses. 

The Akwesasne Freedom School is of great importance to Akwesasne and the continuation of the Haudenosaunee culture.  The children are our future, and with the Akwesasne Freedom School , our future looks brighter each day!

Friends of the Akwesasne Freedom School
P.O. Box 290
Rooseveltown, New York 13683
Phone # (518) 358-2073 

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