Report from Elisabeth Holm, Master in Social Anthropology, University of Tromsø
Financial support to the project:
“‘It feels like a healing process…’ – A Study of Traditionalism and processes of Articulation in a Kahnien’kehàka (Mohawk) Community.” (Draft title)
My MA fieldwork was financially supported by the Institute of Social Anthropology (ISA), The Institute for Comparative Research in Human Culture, and Centre for Sami Studies. I sincerely thank them for their assistance, which enabled me to do research for three months in two Mohawk communities in the United States.
I conducted my fieldwork in Akwesasne Mohawk Reservation and Kanatsiohareke Mohawk Community during the Summer of 2007. Fieldwork is a central part of Anthropology, and I wanted to do research in an area that caught my interest a long time ago. I had heard about the strong people that work to preserve their culture, traditions, and language, and I travelled to New York State to learn about the ways that these things are protected and revitalized.
Akwesasne is a Mohawk Reservation on the border between USA and Canada. People here seek self-determination, without the interference of the U.S. or Canadian goverments. As all Native Americans, the people of the Mohawk Nation have been exposed to assimilation policies, discrimination, and pressure to abandon their customs and language. In the 1800s, tens of thousands Native American children were sent to boarding schools, schools that were constructed to “civilize the Indian”. These experiences, among many other, have been great challenges to people’s sense of self and place in the world, but the Native voice remains strong in many communities. I have looked at how education, along with other means for preserving culture and tradition, plays a significant part in identity processes in this community.
During my stay in Akwesasne, I visited the Freedom School, a school for students between the ages of 4-15. The Freedom School is a language immersion school, where the students speak and receive instructions in the Mohawk language up until the transition grades, 7.,8. and 9, in which the lessons are in English. The lessons are based on the traditional teachings; the Mohawk cosmology, philosophy, and culture, taught in a holistic manner. The different subjects aren’t taught in separate classes, but integrated to create a whole, which reflects the traditional Native American world view. The students also go on excursions, plant their own gardens and learn about their traditions by performing it in practice. Clanmothers, Faithkeepers and Chiefs visit the school to teach the students about Tradition. I spent time in the classroom with one of the transitions grades, and I had the opportunity to speak to teachers and parents of students at the school about their hopes for the children’s education.
I also went along on two camping trips with the school in the mountains, which were both social and educational, both for the students and myself. I were allowed to accompany some of the students to a ‘Social’ in the Longhouse (where Ceremonies are executed). During my stay I was also invited to come to a traditional wedding in the Longhouse, which is all in Mohawk and performed the traditional way.
In 1993, a group of traditional Mohawks moved (back) to the Mohawk Valley from Akwesasne, and founded Kanatsiohareke Mohawk Community. I spent some time here, and learned about the history of the Mohawks and how people there define what it means to be ‘traditional’. Kanatsiohareke is also host to the Fasting ritual twice a year, and they arrange a festival with music, food and storytelling every summer. I worked as a volunteer for both of these arrangements.
All of the things I participated in, and all the people I talked to showed me different ways of preserving tradition and how it’s taught to the new generations. I witnessed many different ways of articulating a modern Mohawk identity, for people who wish to follow and preserve their language, culture and tradition. I lived with people who embrace tradition and want to work to preserve a strong culture and a place in the future for the Mohawk people, and I learned new things every day. In addition to my experiences during the fieldwork, I also collected data through visiting libraries and museums in the area, reading newspapers and reports. The selected field of inquiry demands alot of time, but I feel that I learned alot about life in Akwesasne and Kanatsiohareke during my stay there.
I hope that my thesis may be a contribution to research on the current situation of indigenous peoples in the world today. I would like to thank again for the support, without which my fieldwork would not have been possible.