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The Early Days

Traditionally Haudenosaunee children learned from listening, observing, and working side by side with community members.  A girl might learn quill work from her mother, grandmother, aunt or even an older sister. At first she might help to clean and sort the quills, but soon she would learn to sew them onto moccasins to make these things special.  A boy might learn to make and set nets for fishing or be guided in how to carve a snowsnake.  Either child might be instructed in the proper way to collect medicine plants for healing so that they would continue to grow in that place for the people. And, like many of us still do today, Haudenosaunee learned from experimenting and from mistakes made while learning to master difficult things.


Life and methods of learning changed in many ways for the Haudenosaunee with the arrival of the Colonists and the onset of the American Revolutionary War.  Often, Native wisdom and traditions were not viewed as valuable by the new arrivals.  War, disease, and loss of land weakened the communities.  Being able to grow, gather, or make everything that was needed became almost impossible.  Some of the knowledge continued to be handed down in the traditional way, but much was also lost.  Things had changed.  Many Haudenosaunee adopted Christianity, the religion of the Colonists, and began to send their children to church-run schools.


On the Seneca reservation of Cattaraugus, the Thomas Asylum for Orphaned and Destitute Indian Children was established to provide food and housing for Native children in need.  From 1905 to 1957, the Asylum was operated as a school.  Almost all of the students were Iroquois. The school grounds had barns and orchards, dormitories, a dairy farm, and even a hospital.  Some of its Haudenosaunee graduates, like Virginia Snow, went off to college and returned to become teachers at the school.

Church and Boarding Schools

From the early days of contact, there was very little understanding of other cultures.  Many Americans felt that Native ways were uncivilized and that Native children and adults should conform to American ways.  At first, church-run schools would often translate readings, songs, and Bible lessons into Iroquois languages for their Native students.  By 1880, the United States declared that all school classes must be taught in English. Boarding schools opened across the nation.  In the boarding schools, Native children were separated not only from their traditions, but also from their families.  The students' long hair was cut and they were made to wear Victorian style clothing like non-Native children their age.  Homesickness was common and students sometimes tried to run away.


The first boarding school that was not located on a reservation was in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  Almost 2000 Iroquois children (mostly Seneca, Oneida, and Mohawk) attended Carlisle Indian Industrial School during its 40 years of operation.  Students lived at the school and studied reading, writing, and mathematics.  Boys also learned skills such as carpentry and blacksmithing. Girls were taught sewing and cooking.  


School life at Carlisle was modeled after military life. Boys were assigned uniforms.  Girls had to wear long skirts and blouses with high collars.  European-style shoes were required and moccasins were not permitted.  Students marched to and from their classes, and to meals.  Although most did not know English, speaking his or her own Native language was not permitted and discipline was strictly enforced.  Back in the Haudenosaunee communities songs, stories, craft skills, and language continued to be used and passed down. But, the young people who were attending boarding schools had less opportunity to learn these things.


A New Perspective

In the late 1950s, Americans began to change the way they thought about culture and race.  Differences became something to be celebrated, rather than feared or criticized. 


Today, most of the Six Nations have schools in their own communities where Native language, culture, and the arts are encouraged.  The Kahnawake Survival School was founded in 1978 and the Akwesasne Freedom School in 1979.  Both schools teach the same subjects that non-Native students study, but also include Haudenosaunee teachings, language, and history.  Akwesasne Freedom School students begin and end their day by reciting the Thanksgiving Address. They learn respect for their traditions, for their connections to the earth, and for all living things. 


The Tuscarora and Onondaga nations have their own schools too.  Like Native students in tribal schools throughout America, Onondaga school students are encouraged to learn to exist in all cultures without giving up their own identity. Communities that don't have tribal schools send their children to nearby public schools.  Some public schools offer Haundenosaunee cultural and/or language classes.


Colleges and Universities

Today many Haudenosaunee, young and old, attend college just as many non-Natives do.  Universities like Dartmouth, Cornell, and Harvard have special Native American programs to attract talented Native students.  At these colleges members of the Six Nations live and study alongside non-Native students. 


Other colleges have been established just for Native students. The most well-known, Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas, was founded in 1884 as an elementary school.  Today Haskell has grown to be a college that enrolls over 1000 Native students each semester.  For more than eighty years Native students have chosen to attend Haskell not only for its academic standards, but for its legendary reputation in football and other athletics.    


The Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico is another well-known Native college.  The Institute was founded in 1962 so that Native students could excel in the arts while preserving their own cultural traditions.  Almost 4000 students have graduated from the Institute.  More than 150 of these are Haudenosaunee and many, like Marie Watt, Katsitsionni Fox, Frank Buffalo Hyde, Ryan Rice, and Peter Jones, have become internationally respected artists.


Contemporary Native people learn through traditional ways and also in formal school settings.  Children and adults learn through books, art, movies, music, museums, archaeology, environmental and computer programs, created by their own people and by non-Natives.  Today, Haudenosaunee teach and learn in their own languages as well as in other languages.  The passing on of new and traditional knowledge to the next generation continues to be of upmost importance to the Haudenosaunee.


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