The Importance of Preserving Traditional Knowledge, Culture, and Languages

By Kanatiiosh (B. Gray)


Photo of my Nephew Sawatis

Onwa wenhnisera:te ionkwakia taro:ron ne iorihwa:ke ne aitewaka enionnion tsiniiohtonha:kie tsina titewatere ne onkwehshon: a tanon tsini:iot tsi rokwatakwen ne ohonttsia:ke. Ne ne a:ienre k akwe:kon sken:nen tsitewanonhton:nion ne tsiniionkwe:take kenhnon:we iahitewaia taie:ri oni tsi ionkwata kari:te iah thaho:ten tekionkwakia tonkion ne kanonhwa ktenhtshera. Ne kati ehnon:we iorihwa:ke tsi entewatka we ne kanonhwaratonhtshera.

 (Rokwaho) Kahniakehaka Ohen:ton Karihwatehkwen


After numerous years of United States policies to forcibly assimilate the Indians into the mainstream of dominant society, the aftermath of these covert polices can be seen in the number of Onkwehonwe, native people, who have lost their traditional ways and languages. However, there still remains traditional people who practice the ceremonies of their nations, and people who can still speak their languages.

As caretakers of Mother Earth and the Seven Generations to come, it is our responsibility to protect, maintain, and actively practice our traditional ways and languages. If we fail to continue our unique ways of life, we will cease to exist as Onkwehonwe, and the natural and spiritual world will cease to recognize us, for we will have forsaken our original instructions that were given to us by the Creator. Therefore, we must all take affirmative steps to preserve and protect our traditional ways and languages.

In this essay, I will discuss the affirmative actions taken by the Haudenosaunee, People of the Longhouse: The Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca, the Tuscarora joined the Confederacy later in approx. 1714, at Kanatsiohareke and the Akwesasne Freedom School to teach, protect, and maintain Haudenosaunee traditional ways and languages.


Kanatsiohareke is pronounced, ga na jo ha lay: gay, and it literally translates to mean "The Clean Pot". Kanatsiohareke is located in the Mohawk Valley and consists of approximately 400 acres of fertile farmland, which is part of the traditional territory of the Kahniakehaka (The People of the Flint, which is what the Mohawk call themselves).

Sakokwenionkwas (Tom Porter, Bear Clan) and some other traditional, Longhouse, people decided to return to the beautiful and unpolluted Mohawk Valley in Fonda, New York. This decision to move was not an easy one, but Porter and some of the others felt that the inundation of pollution from industries surrounding the reservation made it difficult and unsafe to subsist by traditional methods of hunting, fishing, gardening, and gathering of wild plants and medicines. As a result, they returned to their ancestral lands creating the Kanatsiohareke community.

In 1997, the Iroquois Language Conference met at Kanatsiohareke to discuss the proposal of creating a "Carlisle Indian Boarding School in Reverse". For those that do not know, the United States Indian boarding schools were horrible places for the children.

Many Indian children were literally snatched away from their parents, their traditional ways and languages were replaced with English, and they were beaten for speaking their own languages. The boarding schools whether run by the military, or run by religious orders, were funded by the United States Government and were seen as the best way to assimilate the Indian into mainstream society. As a matter of fact, Pratt, founder of the Carlisle School said that "taking the Indian out of the child" was the quickest and easiest way to civilize Indian children. Thus, he insisted on forcing Indian children to be taken from their loving families and placed in boarding schools, all in the hope of destroying Indian traditional ways and languages.

The goal of Kanatsiohareke is to create an Haudenosaunee language and cultural immersion program that would work as a reversal of the devastating ill effects that the boarding schools, like Carlisle Boarding School, had on the Six Nations people. When Kanatsiohareke began to look into the impacts of these assimilative boarding schools, the results were astounding.

The following chart was compiled for Kanatsiohareke by George Looney, which appeared in, the Newsletter of Kanatsiohareke Winter 1998, and it is an approximation of the number of fluent speakers:
























These statistics made all at the conference realize that actions must immediately be taken to preserve the Haudenosaunee languages. Kanatsiohareke decided to have a whole month that would be dedicated to a "reversal of the Carlisle Boarding School" were Six Nations Indian children, whose parents wanted them to be sent, would go to an immersion program that would teach them their respective Haudenosaunee language.

The response was excellent and children did go and participate in the language immersion program. I heard that those who went enjoyed it very much and learned a lot. I know that in the future, that they are planning to include entire families in the immersion program because in many cases when the children returned home they could not actively continue their new language skills because their parents did not know the language. I have also heard that the particular reservation are thinking about pursuing having language programs at their nations, so families will be able to participate without having to leave their reservations.

Akwesasne Freedom School

Since 1985, the Akwesasne Freedom School, located within the Kahniakehaka (Mohawk) Nation territory, has been running a Kahniakehaka language immersion program. As a matter of fact, this is the first such program in the United States. The Akwesasne Freedom School is an independent elementary school, run by the Mohawk Nation, that teaches classes for grades pre-kindergarten through the 8th grade.

Akwesasne, (land of the drumming partridge), is located near the Saint Lawrence River in Upstate New York and Canada. The School was founded in 1979, by very concerned parents who realized that action needed to be taken to preserve and protect their traditional culture and language, for it was slowly being lost due to the United States policies of forced assimilation and relocation.

The Akwesasne Freedom school teaches the children about their traditional ways and language. They teach by using traditional Haudenosaunee ways by incorporating the Ohenton Kariwatehkwen (the Thanksgiving Address), which literally translated means the words before all else, and teaches respect and knowledge for the entire natural world. They also incorporate the Kaianeraserakowa (the Great Law of Peace) with contemporary academics. This combination of traditional teaching and non-Indian academic skills enable the students to retain their traditional teachings, while also learning how to deal with the non-Haudenosaunee world.

My nieces and nephews attend the Akwesasne Freedom School and they have learned the Mohawk language. Every time the little ones speak the language and participate in the Longhouse (Ceremony), it makes my heart soar to know that the traditional ways and the languages are being continued.


The survival of the Haudenosaunee, our traditional ways, our languages, and our unique way of viewing the world are dependent on preserving the languages and traditional ways. When one speaks in their traditional language, one has a unique way of viewing the world. This unique view along with our traditional ways of life are tied together, and what holds them to together is our spirituality, which in turn makes us Haudenosaunee.

Our languages are of great importance to the continuity of this planet, for they make us who we are, they heal, and they protect the people and the Natural World. Our languages enable us to speak with the Creator, and the Natural World. Our languages allow us to offer prayers, to sing, to do ceremonies, and to allow us to be Onkwehonwe, Indian People. Actively practicing our traditional ways and languages are important for the continuity, health, and welfare of our people, our nations, and the natural world, for we are all interdependent on one another for survival.

Without our languages and our traditional ways we cease to live in harmony with Mother Earth, the Natural world, and we fail to protect the future generations to come. That is why it is so important to learn your languages and to continue your traditional ways.



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Website created November 3, 2000: updated August 2001

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