St. Regis Mohawk Tribe continues to embrace, preserve past
AKWESASNE — As technology continues to advance, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe has kept pace with the times. But, even as the tribe moves forward, its members haven’t let their culture slip away.
“The Kanien’kehaka, or Mohawks as we are known in English, have managed to preserve, maintain and foster a unique culture for thousands of years,” the tribe’s website notes. “Mohawk people of today have combined centuries-old ways of living into 20th century everyday life. The values of historical culture still remain present in daily life. A distinctive heritage, language, ceremonies and traditional beliefs are still revered and maintained. The code of everyday living, ‘The Great Law,’ has been kept alive by verbal teachings and continued practices for hundreds of years. People still honor the traditional system of Chieftainship, Clan Mothers and Faith Keepers.”
The system of clans, or family lineage, is kept intact and, according to the website, “The Mohawk people strongly believe in perpetuating their language, songs, dances and special ceremonies in the old way within traditional Longhouses. Failure to keep sacred this tradition would be in violation of the teachings passed on by the Creator.”
LOSS OF THE LANGUAGELanguage is one element Mohawks and other tribes are working to preserve. According to an article by Lillian Sparks Robinson, Native languages have been in decline; of the 245 indigenous languages in the United States, 65 are extinct and 75 near extinction. Ms. Robinson served for more than six years in the Obama administration as commissioner of the Native American Administration at the U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services.
“Recently, an elder remarked that the solution to the problems facing Native communities can be found within the culture, not from outside. Language preservation programs are, at their essence, about keeping hallowed cultural traditions alive, about the older generation passing on its wisdom to the younger generations, just as my mother did for me,” she wrote.
Christopher B. Wolff, assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at the state University at Albany, said the decline of the language is the result of several factors, such as the use of residential, or boarding schools.
Residential schools were established in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to educate and assimilate Native American children and youths. At these schools, children were typically immersed in European-American culture and, as part of that, were forbidden to speak their Native languages. Traditional names were also replaced with new European-American names.
“Even in the 1990s, they had residential schools in Canada. That was sort of an active effort to try to assimilate people,” Mr. Wolff said.
Today, he said, there are other impediments to keeping the language and other cultural elements strong, including a decline in the number of elders to pass tradition along and fewer younger members who are interested in other-worldly things.
“I think, like every culture, things change. Kids, like anywhere, are not interested,” Mr. Wolff said. “I think there’s some of that at play. People are just into the cool things in the world.”
Economic issues also take priority in many cases, he said.
“There’s only so much they can do themselves because there’s so many other issues that they’re having to deal with,” he said.
“Some of the poorest communities are reservations. My own personal view is, we need to remove some of the obstacles that are distracting and taking away from their cultural traditions, so they don’t have to deal with just trying to survive sometimes, or feed their kids or deal with the rising cases of drugs,” Mr. Wolff said. “I think that they’re doing as much as they can in some cases, but they’re just fighting with so many other kinds of distractions.”
He said language is about more than just words.
“It’s not just about the loss of words in a dictionary. It’s a whole way of conceptualizing the world. Languages contain things about how people have thought and their place in it. When it’s gone, we’re potentially losing some solutions to problems we might be facing,” he said.
BATTLING THE TRENDFor its part, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe’s Language and Cultural Resources Department uses a virtual language program to help preserve the Mohawk language, along with hands-on instruction by staff members who are knowledgeable in most aspects of Mohawk culture, heritage and life.
The department’s mission is to preserve and maintain the Kanien’keha language within the tribal workplace and greater community,
With the program, students can listen, read and speak, and compare exercises, in addition to traditional learning activities such as multiple-choice questions and written answers.
Programs like the Smithsonian Institution’s Recovering Voices also play a part in helping to preserve the language.
“The Recovering Voices program recognizes that language communities and scholars have a mutual interest in documenting, revitalizing and sustaining languages and the knowledge embedded in them. Through Recovering Voices, the Smithsonian Institution strives to collaborate with communities and other institutions to address issues of indigenous language and knowledge diversity and sustainability at the national and global level,” the organization says on its website.
Mr. Wolff said the Recovering Voices program “is basically trying to connect people to a historical record of sometimes-seen video and audio recordings of how languages were spoken in the past.”
SCHOOLS CHIP INThe Massena and Salmon River school districts have taken initiatives to help spread awareness of and preserve the Mohawk culture, including its language. About 10 percent of the Massena Central School District’s population, about 250 students, is Native American. At Salmon River, about 60 percent of the students are Native American.
“The last few years, we’ve had a particular focus on enhancing our opportunities for students to learn about the Mohawk culture and to understand the value and diversity that it brings to our school community,” Massena Central School Superintendent Patrick H. Brady said. “When we went through our strategic planning process and developed a new mission vision and core beliefs that are the focus of our school, our mission included the valuing of diversity.”
Mr. Brady said the district values diversity in many ways.
“One of the first initiatives when I came back to Massena was to invite Chief Beverly Cook to present to all of our staff information about the Mohawk culture and history, and the importance of being able to pronounce a Native student’s name,” Mr. Brady said. “Everyone wants to have their name pronounced right, even if it’s difficult to pronounce. It’s a matter of respect and connection with those students.”
To that end, teachers learned enough of the Mohawk language to pronounce the students’ names correctly.
“That included providing the teachers rosters of the names and going through with individual teachers and teaching them how to say the name. I think that in itself goes a long way to showing respect and building relationships with our Native students,” Mr. Brady said.
At Salmon River Central School, Mohawk Club students volunteer to work with teachers over the summer to help orient them to the Mohawk language and the names they’ll encounter in their classrooms when school opens in the fall. Angela Robert, the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said that even though some of the names could be shortened to make them easier to pronounce, teachers are taught not to do that.
“We’ve been taught, you don’t shorten it. It’s a sign of disrespect. We want to make sure they pronounce it correctly,” she said.
Starting at prekindergarten, students are also exposed to the Mohawk language, she added.
Mr. Brady said Native parents would like to see some form of Mohawk language course back in the Massena schools, but it’s difficult.
“It’s a challenge finding Mohawk speakers. There aren’t as many fluent speakers out there who have that background to teach,” he said “It’s a beautiful language. I enjoy listening to the language, but it is a challenge to find people who would be able to teach it to our students and sustain it over time.”
PRESERVING ARTIFACTSAnother area of importance for the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe is the preservation of artifacts. When culturally significant artifacts are found, they may find their way to Arnold L. Printup, the tribe’s historic-preservation officer. He’s responsible for a large geographical area, about one-third of New York state stretching to the western side of Syracuse, nearly into Vermont and down to Poughkeepsie.
“I take care of all of the cultural resources that are of concern to the tribe,” he said.
In some cases, depending on the location, he’ll work with officials from other tribes.
“Some of our ancestral traditional areas overlap,” Mr. Printup said. “We work together where they overlap. We support each other. We constantly call each other five, six times a month to make sure we’re all in agreement.”
He also consults with federal and state agencies such as the U.S. Department of Transportation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency, the U.S. Department of Rural Development, Federal Emergency Management Agency and the governor’s agency on storm recovery.
“Part of my job is Native American grave protection,” Mr. Printup said.
He said a large number of projects he works on deal with the Department of Transportation as it modifies or changes roads.
“They follow a lot of the old traditional routes. They’re basically built on old footpaths,” Mr. Printup said.
That’s why early consultation is important.
“If we’re aware of cultural sites that could be affected, we could sit down at the table before any projects get going and say, ‘This is a concern. Can we avoid them?’” he said.
Mr. Printup said officials sometimes have to pick and choose which sites to protect. The smaller sites may have no significant impact, but those that are significant are multi-component sites that could consume a lot of time.
“The ones we really try to preserve are those with a lot of pertinent information covering a wide range of time,” he said.
Many archaeological sites are on Fort Drum, he said, and his office works closely with Fort Drum officials.
“We get calls every couple of months,” Mr. Printup said.
Preserving history is a joint effort among many parties, he said.
“We all work together to ensure the protection of all the cultural resources,” he said.
CULTURE ON DISPLAYWhen artifacts are found, it’s common to give them to the Akwesasne Cultural Center for display.
“We have limited storage space and capability to handle large amounts of artifacts. We turn them over to Sue Ellen Herne at the Akwesasne Museum so she can curate them and preserve them,” Mr. Printup said.
Ms. Herne, museum program coordinator at the Akwesasne Cultural Center, said it’s doing its part to preserve culture through exhibits. Those include a large collection of baskets.
“Those are one of our most cherished items. Most people have somebody in their family who made baskets. It’s something that’s important to us,” she said.
The cultural center also has exhibits of paintings, pottery, bead work and other items.
Ms. Herne said the center is looking at using today’s technology to explain the cultural significance of what visitors will see when they visit the cultural center. That would allow individuals to do self-guided tours when cultural center representatives weren’t available.
“It it very important. One thing that we realize when people come here for a guided tour is they get a lot more out of it than when they just walk around and look at items. We’re in the process of finding ways where we can use technology with videos and audio so that some of the stories can be told,” she said.
STUDENTS SPEAK OUTNative American students at Massena and Salmon River central schools have a chance to tell their stories through events like Native American Day. Mr. Brady said the Massena school district formed a Native School Climate Committee, which has branched out with a variety of initiatives. Among them is Native American Day, when students and others showcase their culture.
At the high school during the latest celebration, community member Eddie Gray led the opening address, or the Ohén:ton Kariwatékwen, in Mohawk and English while burning traditional tobacco.
“There was no smoking of tobacco. He spoke about how the thanksgiving address is about the creation of life, according to Mohawk tradition,” Mr. Brady said. “As he presented the thanksgiving address and this creation of life, he would sprinkle tobacco over a pail of hot coals. The students were very taken with Mr. Gray and what he had to offer us.”
Also at the high school that day, published author and Akwesasne community member Darren Bonaparte talked about the history and use of wampum belts by the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, people; artist Gina Jacobs taught students how to make corn husk dolls and shared the story of the “no-face” doll; Mohawk Club leaders served a traditional meal and the Native North American Travelling College led traditional Iroquois social dances and songs.
At Jefferson Elementary School, Bear Fox, a Native American Music Award nominee and winner who is a community member from Akwesasne, shared her music and culture with students. At Madison and Nightengale elementary schools, students from Massena High School’s Mohawk Club helped Akwesasne Ratirennenhawi present and share traditional dances and cultural facts. Steven King of Ratirennenhawi also shared his culture with students.
“Our Mohawk Club at the high school helped organize these events. They helped facilitate the dances as well. They could take pride in what they were doing in order to present their culture and build understanding,” Mr. Brady said. “I’m very proud of the Mohawk Club, not only for the strong work they did with Native American Day, but they were also interviewed on National Public Radio. This went national. They definitely put their best foot forward.”
Ms. Robert said Salmon River has also celebrated Native American Day for a number of years. The district has a staff that helps coordinate that celebration.
“CKON radio comes in and they carry it. Parents are very involved,” she said. “The non-native students very respectful of it and the kind of work that goes on.”
Elders also come in to enjoy the activities, she said.
As in Massena’s celebration, various aspects of the Mohawk culture are highlighted at Salmon River.
“We have what we call a fashion show to highlight traditional Native American clothing. The kids love it,” Ms. Robert said.
Salmon River Central School also offers a Native culture class and a Native film class which work together to create films based on culture and history, such as rites of passage. In addition, a social event highlights Native dances and songs.
“They do music and explain each of the dances. The parents love to be able to come in and see that going on,” Ms. Robert said.
Mr. Brady said the Massena Central School Climate Committee would like to add another initiative — developing a Native American curriculum that can be geared for all students. Mr. Wolff said an approved curriculum could be important to non-Native students.
“I think there’s a lot of misinformation about what people consider Native Americans. Much of the way non-Natives are taught is about the past and not in the present. I think it’s important to connect kids in their own culture to the past,” he said.
But, Mr. Brady said, finding a curriculum is easier said than done.
“The challenge that we run into is that across the state there is not a formalized Native curriculum nor Mohawk curriculum. This is going to take some work to do,” Mr. Brady said. “Much of the Mohawk culture is an old tradition handed down over time. It’s not a curriculum that you can go to as we would with the New York state curriculum and start to use in the classroom. We’re determined that we’re going to do what we can to spiral more Native stories and culture into the curriculum.”
While there is no official state curriculum, Ms. Robert said Salmon River has created its own Native American unit that’s tied into social studies standards of the district. It’s taught for a week or two each year.
“We also bring in presenters,” Ms. Robert said, noting there have been field trips through places including the longhouse and the Akwesasne Cultural Center.
Also at Salmon River, students in the Native Culture class are asked to identify a role model who made a big difference in their lives.
“It’s usually an elder. They come in and celebrate and they honor that person with a celebration in the class,” she said.
Other individuals are also invited in to showcase crafts, such as basket making for all of the grade levels, and there are plans for a Mohawk language session. In addition, there’s study of a “Book of the Month” that’s based on character traits.
“Often times, it’s based on actual culture. There are always one or two books that are based on the Native American culture,” Ms. Robert said.
The authors of those books are asked to come in and present to the students, she said.
In Massena, Mr. Brady said the final piece of the district’s initiative is to respect the culture of the tribe and school district through a change in the school mascot. It had formerly been an Indian chief logo that was replaced by the letter M. A subcommittee that studied the issue has recommended maintaining the school’s Red Raider name, but coming up with a replacement for the M and the Indian chief logo, which went out of use in 2004 but still popped up occasionally.
“We’re hoping through this process that we respect the tradition and history of school district by maintaining the name, but that we can have a mascot that our next generation of students can be proud to wear to represent our school,” he said.