Students from the Akwesasne Freedom School stand in a line in the snow wearing traditional Mohawk dress.
Courtesy of Akwesasne Freedom School

Akwesasne Freedom School

Friends of the Akwesasne Freedom School
Hogansburg, NY

The Akwesasne Freedom School (AFS) emerged as a center of Mohawk cultural resurgence in 1979 and continues to play a critical role in revitalizing a rich and diverse language and culture within the community of Akwesasne. It is a model of self-determination and best practices in language and cultural revitalization. AFS provides Mohawk immersion education, beginning each day with the Thanksgiving address, which forms the foundation of their culturally-rooted curriculum. The Friends of the Akwesasne Freedom School, Inc. (FOAFS), whose leadership helps the AFS through program development, fundraising, and administrative guidance, is the nonprofit arm of the school. The goal of the FOAFS is “to ensure a prosperous future for the students of the Akwesasne Freedom School.”

“Ionkwawén:na tánon tsi niiokwarihò:ten ne kwah tkaia’takwe’ní:io ne Onkwehonwehnéha.”
(“Our language and cultural ways are most important for Native Peoples.”)
Konwanahktotha Elvera Sargent, Executive Director

Elvera Sargent

Four questions with Elvera Sargent, Executive Director

Where do ecology, culture, and spirituality connect in your work?

Ecology, culture, and spirituality connect in my work revitalizing the Mohawk language through our Ohen:ton Kariwahtekwen, which is used in many aspects of our work. It is the foundation of our curriculum and used at the opening and closing of each day. The Thanksgiving Address shows us to be grateful for everything we are given to sustain ourselves while we are here on Earth. It also provides many lessons. (Here is an English version of the opening.)

What brought you to this work/ how did you get started?

In ninth grade I attended a residential Catholic boarding school for one year and then spent approximately eighteen years living away from my family and community. However, despite all those years of not speaking the language on a daily basis, I did not lose it, even though I wasn’t speaking it. I believe that this work is one of the responsibilities that I have as a Mohawk woman.

In addition, from 1985 to 1988 I worked for the First Nations Financial Project (now known as First Nations Development Institute) and came to them with absolutely no experience in the nonprofit world or working in a non-Native community. However, I worked with some amazing people who taught me about the importance of knowing our language and culture. Working with the organization really opened my eyes and spirit to learn more and to be proud that I was an Indigenous language speaker.

What matters most to you right now?

What matters to me most at this time is to raise funds to build a new building for the Akwesasne Freedom School.

What is one word in your Native language you really love, and what does it mean?

Kariwhakwenionsera—means Respect.