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Mohawk Valley welcomes back its people

FONDA, N.Y. - The same sun that rose over the mountain ridge to shine on the Mohawk Valley for thousands of years now touches the grapes hanging from the arbor, lights the chipped yellow paint of a century-old barn, and sends rays to rest on the corn stalks.

Morning continues in Kanatsiohareke (Ga na jo' ha lay gay) as it has always, but in the past decade it welcomed back the Mohawk people after an absence of more than 230 years. The old farmland is the fulfillment of a prophecy that was handed from generation to generation after George Washington ordered the destruction of the villages and gave the property to his soldiers.

"Someday we will return. Someday we will go back to the Mohawk Valley and rekindle the Great Law," the people said. In September 1993, with the purchase of 322 acres, a small group of Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) returned to establish Kanatsiohareke, a traditional Mohawk farming community that offers a place where Natives and non-Natives can meet, learn and talk.

The name means "place of the clean pot," coming from a nearby creek that has large kettle holes carved by the waters rushing down on the rocks in the spring. On the shores of the Mohawk River, Kanatsiohareke is the site of Bear Clan villages, six miles east of old Turtle Clan villages and just west of Wolf Clan villages.

The property was bought with $20,000 raised through craft and agricultural sales and a gift of $230,000 from an anonymous donor. Now 403 acres, Kanatsiohareke encompasses artesian wells, pastures, organic gardens, a stream, forest trails, riverfront dock, wetlands, housing for community members, two conference rooms, a bed and breakfast and a Native craft shop.

"Our hope is to provide a place to counteract what residential schools did in the past," said Kay Olan, administrator for the director, Sakokwenionkwas (Thomas R. Porter) of the Bear Clan.

Porter had heard the prophecy since he was a boy in Akwesasne, never knowing he'd be one of the people to return. Porter's grandfather was taken to Carlisle Industrial School of Indians in Pennsylvania at the age of four. When he returned home, his parents and many family members were deceased. He no longer knew the Mohawk language.

Carlisle was founded by Richard Pratt, an officer in the 100th Cavalry, when the U.S. War Department gave him permission to use the deserted military base.

About 10,700 Indians from more than 150 nations were recruited from 1879 to 1918. On Aug. 31, 2003, the state, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, and friends and relatives of students of the school placed a marker at the cemetery where 186 children at the school had once been buried.

While at Carlisle, Porter's grandfather was told "go clean the barn", "scrub the floors" and "pile the wood." Porter, who has six children, said, "Everything was an order, like an army sergeant. When he raised his kids, everything was an order. He never held his children, never bounced them on his leg."

Grandfather had 12 children and nearly 100 grandchildren, but none of them knew love, Porter said. It created a cycle of dysfunction that is seen repeated in Native America. It also produced an entire generation of non-speakers.

By last decade there were only 12 speakers of the language among Tuscarora, 50 among the Seneca, 60 among the Cayuga, 14 among the Onondaga, 160 among the Oneida and 5,000 among the Mohawk.

The community's dream is to immerse children in the language, give them back their ceremonies, teach them how to be mothers and fathers and how to be ambitious and morally good.

"This is what Carlisle took away from our children," Porter said.

Studies have shown that 50 percent of a people's culture and identity are contained within their language and if 10 percent or fewer of a nation speak fluently, the language is doomed. Porter estimated that in 25 years, the language would be extinct from the earth and all that would be left is biological Mohawk.

Porter is an Indian consultant and chaplain in the New York state Penitentiary system. A speaker, author, former director at the Akwesasne Freedom School and acting sub-chief for the Tehanakarine Chieftainship of the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne, he is also an organizer of the White Roots of Peace, a multi-media communications group revitalizing Native traditions, and recipient of many recognitions for his work in human rights. Porter speaks and writes fluent Mohawk. He didn't learn to speak English until he was six years old and attended the residential school of St. Regis Mohawk Indian School in 1944.

Today he sees restoration in Kanatsiohareke's programs. Not a day goes by that someone doesn't come, Native and non-Native from around the world, he said. Many pitch in with the projects. This past summer a new roof was placed on the bed and breakfast, resulting in three dump trucks full when the attic was cleaned, as well as articles that will be sold at a yard sale.

The oldest building on the property, the B&B, a 200-year-old structure on the state's list of historic landmarks, offers the Turtle Room, Wolf Room, Bear Room and Eagle Room as well as extra bedrooms.

In the west wing, the craft shop offers paintings, jewelry, moccasins, musical instruments, sculptures, blankets, pottery, baskets, beadwork, books, T-shirt, cards, mugs and clothing from indigenous artists around the world.

"It's a place that people can learn," said Olan.