In the fight for sovereignty, the citizens of the Mohawk Nation recognized that self-determination was critical in education. The Akwesasne Freedom School (AFS) was created as a place for wholly Mohawk education. Grounding learning and teaching in Mohawk lifeways, the School has survived political, financial, and institutional challenges to become a respected and supported institution of the Mohawk community. Through the ongoing efforts of parents, families, and the larger Mohawk Nation community, AFS has played a critical role in the formation of Mohawk identity, citizenship, and nationhood for the past twenty-five years.
The Akwesasne Freedom School was born of the struggle for self-determined self-government and the commitment to Mohawk identity. In 1979, during a standoff with New York State concerning the rights of the nation, a number of Mohawk Nation parents - with the support, encouragement, and sanction of the traditional tribal government - decided that the education of their children was a critical factor the state should not control. Seeking to reclaim their right to determine the education of their children, the parents founded the Akwesasne Freedom School (AFS). The school founders "were concerned with the lack of cultural teaching and Mohawk language in mainstream schools ... The school was begun to rebuild the nation and to reverse the assimilation process."
The Akwesasne Freedom School is a Mohawk immersion school for grades pre-kindergarten through six and a transition school for grades seven and eight. However, unlike the typical immersion program - in which a non-English school uses a different language, but maintains the pattern, flow, and logic of teaching found in a mainstream school - the Akwesasne Freedom School immerses children in an entirely Mohawk way of thinking and learning. Mohawk philosophy and cosmology motivate the curriculum, teaching methods, and even the pattern of the school day and year.
Over its 25-year history, many struggles have kept the school open and operating in its consciously Mohawk way. First, the school is a community effort, involving the support of each of the Mohawk Nation's governments and their citizens. Traditional chiefs and clan mothers assist in cultural instruction and visit the school to present feathers and flags, to conduct tobacco burnings, and to teach about Longhouse ceremonies. Second, commitment to the school from the general community, including parents, also runs high. Parents are deeply involved, running the school by committee and taking on many of the responsibilities of keeping the school functioning. Additionally, AFS has innovative approaches to education, from teaching and learning to the actual management of the school. Not only is AFS centered on Mohawk identity, but its curriculum and instruction also reflect learning and teaching grounded in a Mohawk way of being. A fourth strategy for sustainability has been the school's independence and its unique structure. Because the dynamic political environment at Akwesasne often results in dramatic changes in leadership and programs, the school maintains its continuity by remaining independently run. Finally, the school plays an important role in grassroots nation building and ensuring the sovereignty of the Mohawk Nation. As one representative of the traditional council stated, "We need a school that focuses first on our language and culture, because in order for the Mohawk Nation to survive, we need our language."
Year after year, the school has generated a cadre of knowledgeable Mohawks who have proven capable of asserting greater Native control over non-tribal institutions, as well as building more self-determined Mohawk institutions, including the Haudenosaunee Environmental Taskforce. Graduates are accepting leadership roles within the community and taking responsibility for passing on the cultural foundations they themselves received. For tribal nations asserting control over education, AFS offers an innovative paradigm of what schools are and what schools could be. In accepting its charge to teach Mohawk language and culture, AFS created a space for families and community to come together in providing a "200%" education - 100% Mohawk and 100% mainstream - for all its youth.
· Education is fundamental to tribal sovereignty, particularly when it's grounded in tribal beliefs, customs, and lifeways. It gives students the tools to excel academically and personally, while creating new generations of committed tribal citizens and future leaders.
· Schools developed out of and deeply rooted in a tribal community become valued, self-sustaining institutions, able to overcome political, financial, and institutional challenges and provide a reservoir of experience, knowledge, and resources.
· Commitment by parents, community, and tribal government to run a school independently from tribal politics ensures continuity and common goals in educating all of a nation's youth.