Nancy Bonvillain has learned language and friendship among native peoples of the Six Nations in upstate New York
GREAT BARRINGTON >> Akwesasne is said to mean “land where the wild grouse drums.” Grouse drum as a courtship display, but in the fall, in the woods near here, a walker at Notchview may hear a grouse launch into flight with a rapid beating of wings.
In the early 1970s, Nancy Bonvillain lived and worked in Akwesasne (or Ahkwesahsne), a Mohawk Territory on the border of upstate New York and Canada.
Now a professor of anthropology and linguistics at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, Bonvillain has spent time over many years learning the language and making friends in a community of the Kanien’kehaka — the Mohawk people do not call themselves “Mohawk.”
The Mohawk are an Iroquois people, Bonvillain said, one of six nations of the Haudenosaunee — along with the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga, the Seneca and the Tuscarora.
Today, they hold land in upstate New York, near Syracuse and Buffalo, Montreal and Lake Ontario.
“They live in a tiny fraction of their original territory,” she said.
She came to Akwesasne to work on grammar of the Mohawk language, she said, and to compile a dictionary and a book of conversations for use in schools. As a linguist, she wanted to work in a place where the language still lives, and she lived with families who spoke it among themselves. When she lived there, she could follow a conversation, she said, though her friends there spoke English with her.
She returned in the summers and on short visits many times in the next 30 years, she said.
At Akwesasne, children now learn the Mohawk language in schools, and the community has emphasized speaking it among families, moving it beyond homework assignments.
The 2006 Canadian census reported 600 people speaking Mohawk. The language may still be listed as endangered, Bonvillain said, but she believes it has a future, because so many people are working for it. She recalled a Tuscarora student at Simon’s Rock four or five years ago, Montgomery Hill, who has gone on to study linguistics.
Many white Americans, she said, think of American Indians and their cultures as part of the past, as though they have merged into American society or vanished.
“We put this into history so we don’t have to think about it,” she said.
People expect American Indians to live as their ancestors lived hundreds of years ago — and how many American people live as their families lived in 1500? — or expect them to live as “mainstream” Americans live, she said.
She sees them as contemporary artists, scientists and lawyers, musicians and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelists. She sees their sustained efforts to nurture their own languages, schools for younger students, college scholarships, health programs.
In many ways, she said, American Indians today face substantial obstacles in health, longevity, infant mortality and education. Jobs are scarce, and promised government funding gets cut from the Indian Health services, education, school lunches and many other programs. Most casinos, she added, do not make large profits — she compared the likely population in Connecticut to a place like central Nebraska.
Though barriers like this are slow to budge, she has seen hopeful signs. In the last 10 or 20 years, she said, she has seen a surge in indigenous rights movements around the world.
“To come out of it saying, ‘We have our own voice, our own role,’” she sees as a sign of growing influence among these nations.
“The U.N. declaration on the rights of indigenous people is at least a sign of worldwide pressure from these groups,” she said.
Near this area, the Iroquois have brought court cases to reclaim land in the U.S. and Canada, to compensate for lost land and to protect and clean up their own land, she said. They may have to live with the effects of contaminated air, land and water they did not cause. Akwesasne is a Superfund site, Bonvillain said. (Readers in the Berkshires will understand the challenges of seeking to clean contaminated land and water. The county has similar areas along the Housatonic and Hoosic River.)
From helping to teach young Akwesasne students, Bonvillain has turned to teaching about American Indians in college courses.
Most recently, she has written new editions of text books on cultural anthropology and American Indian studies. She acknowledges that anthropology today is a field to enter with care and respect.
In the past, anthropologists have at worst made use of other people, she said. Today, an anthropologist might act more honestly, more equally, as a translator — in some ways like a journalist.
She feels strongly that anthropologists have an ethical obligation to the people they work with, she said, to advocate for them and to take confidentiality seriously. In any work like this she would want to be honest and up-front, to make sure anyone who speaks with her knows why she is asking questions and what she plans to do with the answers.
As a professor, she now teaches linguistics and cultural studies. Simon’s Rock has no Native Studies program, she said, because its curriculum is both concentrated and flexible; it offers courses, like “Native American Languages,” and a cultural studies course on “Native American Religions,” and the faculty will willingly coach students in any direction they choose.
As they leave for Thanksgiving vacation, she will tell her students to think about all that has happened to bring turkey to their tables.
And she encouraged people who have not yet shared a meal with them to think of the Hadenausee and the Mohicans, the Pequod, the Narragansett, the Nipmuck, the Penobscot, the Pemaquid, the Huron, the Abenaki and all the people with roots in the Northeast, as they are today.
“These communities in some cases are struggling, like any community,” she said, “but they have a lot of strength. Look at what they’ve survived.”
At a glance …
In the U.S. and Canada, more than 120,000 people are enrolled in the Iroquois nations, according to the 2010 census.
About that many people live in the Berkshires, and less than a third as many live in Bennington County.
Today, about 12,000 people live in the Akwesasne community, according to the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, which makes it about the size of North Adams and slightly smaller than Bennington.
This profile is a collaboration between Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont and Multicultural Bridge to encourage voices from all backgrounds in these pages.
To learn more: berkshireeagle.com/onthebridge