Ambitious and Controversial School Attempts to Save the Mohawk Language and Culture – ICTMN.com
She says her mother, who taught Mohawk in the Syracuse, New York public schools, dreamed of revitalizing the language. The loss of the language began, Dione-Dell says, with the forced movement of Native American children of her mother’s generation into residential schools. “Non-Natives took our language away, saying we would be better off if we learned English,” she says. Those who spoke their own language were punished. “From that experience, one whole generation has not attempted to teach their children the language.”
Children start at the age of 2 and continue through sixth grade. At Karihwanó:ron Kanien’kéha Owenna Tsi Ionteriwaienstahkwa, they learn their Native language as their first language in a family setting, with two adults who speak to each other and the children in Mohawk, just as children learn language at home. “Here babies and children learn Mohawk as their first language,” says Dione-Dell. “But if kids don’t start learning Mohawk till 6 or 7, they are already speaking the English language. One of the ways we know our program is working is that when the little children take their naps, they speak in Mohawk—they are dreaming in Mohawk.”
The school runs from nine a.m. to 2:30 p.m., even for the 2- and 3-year-olds. “We only have partial funding for the 4-year-olds,” says Dione-Dell, “but we keep them all day [anyway].” The school also teaches adults in the classroom and out. Parents are encouraged to learn Mohawk so they can support their children’s learning. In the classroom, fluent speakers mentor younger teachers who can speak the language but have not achieved fluency.
The school runs on an annual budget of $335,000, from which it pays everything from teachers’ salaries to costs for repairing and maintaining the building, to furniture and supplies. “We have 15 on staff,” says Joely Van Dommelen, Dione-Dell’s daughter and current administrator of the school. The Canadian government provides about $140,000 in tuition for the students; the rest the school must raise. “We have been on-going for 24 years and for all that time we have been struggling financially,” Dione-Dell says. “We had zero money when we started; now we have minus money.”
Van Dommelen laughs when asked to explain how the school stays open despite running a deficit: “We buy lottery tickets every week, but we haven’t been lucky. I tell the staff, ‘If we do win, nobody can quit their jobs.’ ”
Wahiakeron Gilbert is in his 60s and a fluent speaker of Mohawk. Having been a steelworker in New York City for 30 years, he came home to Kahnawà:ke after he had an accident. He got a full-time job at the school, where he worked with 6- and 7-year-olds. He has been teaching there “almost since the beginning,” he says. “I’m the last of the old guard.”
“When we first started,” he says, “we just talked all day long. Then we started writing down things because the kids had to remember.” These days, he teaches third- and fourth-graders, and he is acutely aware of the role languages plays in preserving and passing down culture. “We are teaching the children the ways of the longhouse—how it’s run, how to sit and behave. We have mock festivals so they already know what’s going on if they choose to live the longhouse way. As an elder, it is my duty to teach this. The longhouse is not a religion, it’s a way of life. I instill into my pupils that they are the keepers of the land and of the Great Law of Peace given to the Iroquois to be shared with the world. [We are required to] share it with the world and spread it to other nations to see if they would accept it. Children here learn a lot more than language. They learn to be good human beings and ambassadors of peace.”
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