Free to be Kanien'kehaka: A case study of educational self-determination at the Akwesasne Freedom School

A history of forced assimilation, colonial education, and cultural and linguistic oppression has resulted in the loss and endangerment of hundreds of Native languages, including the Mohawk language of the northeastern U.S. and Canada. It is estimated that only 5% of the population on the Akwesasne reservation are Mohawk speakers. In 1979 a significant effort to revitalize the Mohawk language began with the establishment of the Akwesasne Freedom School (AFS), a grassroots community-based cultural and language immersion program. No prior research or historical documentation of these efforts has been conducted regarding the AFS. This dissertation documents how the school was founded, how it has maintained itself without federal or state funding, and examines how the school has positively impacted its alumni, students, teachers, parents and staff. Through individual interviews, participant observations, and archival research this dissertation reveals the community's investments in and overall effects of this innovative language program on the Akwesasne community. I present the Akwesasne Freedom School as a model of Indigenous holistic education that incorporates traditional teachings, experiential methods, and language immersion. Alumni, parents, and teachers report that the school has helped them feel a strong sense of Mohawk identity. Many respondents reported that their involvement with the AFS helped them to return to the Longhouse, the traditional meeting and ceremonial place. Knowledge of the Mohawk language is only one aspect of Mohawk identity and several Mohawk values were identified in this study: respect, kinship, responsibility, cooperation, leadership, and stewardship. Ultimately, this study identifies what it means to be fully Mohawk. The Akwesasne Freedom School provides an opportunity for negotiating language and identity in a space designed to transcend historical colonization. The AFS serves as an exemplary model for educational self-determination and as a reminder to the Canadian and U.S. governments of tribal authority and sovereignty over the education of their children. Most importantly, students at the Akwesasne Freedom School are "Free to be Kanien'kehaka (Mohawk)."


Louellyn White


K. Tsianina Lomawaima





Arizona State Museum: 

P9791 W59f 2009


ATT 3354523
College of Social and Behavioral Sciences