Students learn the meaning of Veterans Day

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AKWESASNE, N.Y. – More than 300 Mohawks from Akwesasne are veterans of the U.S. and Canadian armed forces, and students on the New York reservation are proud to share this information. Sixth-graders at the St. Regis Mohawk School held a special assembly on Nov. 9 to honor their community’s veterans.

Veterans from across Akwesasne were invited to the event to be paid a special tribute by the students. In the weeks leading up to the assembly, three classes of sixth-graders – roughly 50 students – were assigned a special project that taught them more about the meaning of Veterans Day than any textbook could. The students were instructed to find a veteran and interview him or her, recording their discoveries in an essay.

The school’s Veterans Day ceremony has become a tradition. Five years ago, teachers Lynn McCarthy and Barry Montour put their heads together to find a way to teach students what it was they were honoring veterans for each year.

“The students had no clue of why they had the day off,” McCarthy said. “We said, ‘We have to do something.”

What was born was a heartfelt assembly focusing on the veterans themselves.

The students and school staff spent the weeks leading up to Veterans Day inviting all the veterans in the community. Invitations were sent to the local armed services organizations and announcements were posted in local newspapers inviting any and all veterans to the assembly.

When they arrive at the school, they are treated with the utmost respect by the students and staff, who seat them at the front of the auditorium before the presentation begins.

The celebration’s theme changes year to year; this year, select students from the three sixth-grade classrooms read the essay they prepared from their interview and also showed a PowerPoint presentation. Fifteen students spoke in all.

When the students were sent off to begin their interviews nearly two months before Veterans Day, they were instructed to learn all that they could: not only about the individual’s experiences in battle, but about their childhood and also what their life was like when they returned home. The students selected to speak during the assembly shared a potpourri of information, with stories about veterans from all of the United States’ and Canada’s wars.

One student even read her essay about the school principal.

One by one, the students stood at the podium and looked down at the veterans who sat before them. Then, mustering up the courage to speak in front of a large crowd, they read from their papers and shared stories that were insightful and humorous, somber and respectful, thoughtful and meaningful.

“I don’t think there’s anything more appropriate than to honor and remember our veterans,” said Principal Irving Papineau. “It’s very important for our elders to share their thoughts with the younger generation.”

Papineau said that prior to the annual Veterans Day celebration, sixth-graders had misconceptions about war and conflict.

“They ask things like, ‘How many people did you kill?’” he said. “They get what they get from Hollywood.”

However, after their interviews, the experience of the assembly and meeting veterans, the children change. “The kids really learn a lot,” Papineau said. “It takes a lot of work on their part.”

During the preparation for the assembly, the students also realize that Mohawks – and American Indians in general – were not absent from the American armed forces throughout history, as movies often imply. The number of veterans is immense in Akwesasne, and their presence is strongly felt.

“The people of Akwesasne have always participated, dating back to the Civil War,” said Papineau. “Native people have always answered the national call.”

Every year, the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino provides the school with lunch and appetizers for their guests, and the event has become one to look forward to. Following the formal presentation, students mingle with the veterans and their families and continue the tradition of sharing information.

Peter Sunday, one of the veterans honored in a speech during the assembly, said he attends the event every year and enjoys it. Sunday is chaplain of Akwesasne’s American Legion post.

“I really love these kids,” he said. “It has been a great day.”