Book Review: Free to be Mohawk: Indigenous Education at the Akwesasne Freedom School by Louellyn White, Assistant Professor, School of Community and Public Affairs at Concordia University, Montreal, Canada. Published in 2015 by the University of Oklahoma Press with six chapters, extensive notes, and references. ISBN: 978-0-8061-4865-6

Dianne E. Bechtel, MFA, University of New Mexico

Louellyn White’s book, Free to be Mohawk: Indigenous Education at the Akwesasne Freedom School, describes the ongoing issue of educational self-determination for the Mohawk community. White’s book shows the possibility of educational reform, self-sufficiency, and future improvements that can be made through the restoration of language and culture. Education through language immersion necessarily requires a strong alternative to the traditional curriculum dictated by dominant culture. The dominant culture’s ideological style of pedagogy, as White describes, has led to existential crisis and educational debilitation for the Mohawks and other indigenous groups. In addition to this historical problem, the Mohawk experience of education, its administration, and reform has been much more complicated than it has been for other tribes, setting up a key factor in White’s research narrative.

The Mohawks’ Akwesasne territory straddles the United States and Canada, and they have had to deal with both governments in establishing their independence from educational paradigms that have not served their needs. This political impediment is described at length in order to show the blocks to educational self-determination that the Akwesasne Freedom School (AFS) has had to endure to survive. Politics set the stage for understanding the profound difficulties the Mohawks have encountered, and thus their remarkable story of persistence. White gets to the most interesting and important part of her book for all educators in Chapter 3, where she describes the indigenous model of holistic education, which must include the life and educational experiences of the whole person: the spiritual, emotional, intellectual and physical wisdom as an educational framework (82-83). The holistic approach implemented at AFS is defined as not only reaching “…the whole person…but the whole of reality…and interrelationship of all living things….” (78-79). White call this approach “becoming fully Mohawk,” and posits that this approach is the solution for healing the colonial sicknesses of historical trauma and oppression.

White’s familial and historical ties to Mohawk culture and language (19) give her the moral imperative to speak to the cultural and linguistic losses on a personal level, and she explains why this is so important to understanding the need for persistence in uprooting the dominant discourse in education for Mohawks. The Akwesasne Freedom School (AFS) story speaks loudly to all indigenous people who have inherited educational methods that do not meet their needs. It should also inspire them to learn from the persistence needed to start an indigenous educational system, to improve it, and to keep it alive. Thus, White begins her study describing Akwesasne rejection of the historical and socio-cultural curriculum of white supremacy and colonial rule in the lives of their children. It is a story of the long and difficult process of establishing trust in a new system that will not move in lockstep with the dominant culture. The Mohawks’ volunteer and community-based approach to the education of their children is unique and admirable, but it has not always inspired confidence or experienced the full trust of indigenous parents who do not want their children to “fall behind,” but to have the same abilities and opportunities when interacting with the dominant culture. This internal block to future implementation or survival of indigenous education reform is important to acknowledge to begin a dialogue. White’s book is important for understanding the prolonged commitment needed to make change.

While other Native Amrican educational models exist, such as the Navajo Nation’s successful Rough Rock Demonstration School, White’s story of the Akwesasne Freedom School is very instructive for those who may want to make a start. It is instructive because AFS, unlike the Rough Rock Demonstration School, has survived 35 years without governmental funding, and most importantly, without governmental interference. Within this context White examines the difficult but determined choice of Akwesasne parents to take full responsibility and control over the education of their children. AFS and its holistic approach to all leaning experiences within the purview of indigenous cosmology has been implemented without the aid of federal subsidies or any other special interests that could either dictate or interfere with a curriculum the Mohawk have deemed important to the full and free development of their children. White quotes a host of primary sources within her archival research to set-up this key point: “cultural continuity between home and school” (112) is needed to establish effective educational reform for indigenous people.

White’s many interviews demonstrate the facts around her ethnographic study of AFS, its founding, administration, trajectory, and student-successes, to justify the need, and she interprets that data most especially as an indigenous person who has had to work hard to recover her language and culture. Linda Tuhaiwa Smith puts it this way, “the need to tell our stories remains the powerful imperative of a powerful form of resistance” (35). White’s account of AFS is exactly that, a strong statement about the powerful resistance needed to create change and restore cultural health. Free to Be Mohawk is not only an important read on a pedagogical level (especially chapters 2, 4 and 6 for methods and examples), but on the level of demonstrating political resistance that has for its base self-reliance and restoration of cultural pride. White’s book is worth reading if not as a blueprint for endurance in any difficult endeavor that could takemany years to complete, but also as a call to action for other colonized people seeking self- sufficiency and restoration. Indigenous people must begin the process of educating their own children, and they must persevere if meaningful and effective recovery is to be made.


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