Paul Smith’s students help build mobile cultural center to bring books to Akwesasne residents
By Kathleen Moore, Times Union
Photos by Deborah Naybor, Paul Smith’s College
A mobile library with Mohawk language materials is being built by Paul Smith’s College students.
They’re learning about sustainability – using recycled, reused and locally sourced materials – while helping the Mohawks of Akwesasne find access to rare books in the Mohawk language, which teachers dearly need.
The building has been built on a trailer so it can be pulled from place to place throughout the reservation, which stretches through northern New York and Canada. The Akwesasne land in New York is often referred to as the Saint Regis Tribal Reservation.
“I teach Mohawk language right now and there’s limited resources,” said teacher Akat Ransom. “We have to go to other reservations to get a little bit here, a little bit there. We decided to make a learning center. So I will go and get all the resources and bring them to one place so everyone can access it.”
After more than 20 years of teaching, she sees this as the “culmination” of her career.
“I always had a library when my kids grew up. The neighborhood kids would come to my house and get books,” she said.
Her parents were speakers, a title for those who could speak the Mohawk language. It’s important to her.
“It’s just my way of passing it on,” she said of her efforts to create the mobile library.
Internet access can be spotty on the Akwesasne land and not everyone has Internet at home. But Ransom also feels strongly that language learners should hold a physical book, not a screen.
In the center, she envisions elders working with children, teaching them to speak the language.
“There’s so many elders, they hold the key to it, and when they go, it’s gone,” she said. “They hold the language, the culture and everything. They’re our knowledge.”
Children can also enroll in immersive language schools, which are producing new speakers, she said. But they need books, too.
She will set up book clubs and other events while traveling from place to place.
“Some students can’t get there” if it’s built in just one place, she said.
Members of the tribe have worked for decades to keep the language alive, undoing centuries of damage from colonization.
“They tried to take it away from us – the residential schools and stuff,” she said, referring to mandatory boarding schools in which children were required to learn and speak only English. Those operated throughout the 1800s, with some continuing until 1969.
“Us teachers now are trying to bring it back, reverse history,” she said. “If we don’t, it’s going to die out and then no one’s going to have it. Like a dinosaur.”
For Paul Smith’s College, the project was an ideal capstone experience. Seniors are required to do something that incorporates what they learned in the previous four years. Students majoring in natural resources, sustainability and even psychology worked on the building this fall. They finished the exterior; another group will finish the exterior in the spring.
“All our doors and windows were bought used and had to be refinished,” said Deborah Naybor, professor of sustainability and natural resources, who oversaw the project.
“The lumber came from Paul Smith’s sawmill. There’s hardly any carbon lost in transportation, they probably came from five miles away,” she said.
That meant students had to do a lot more work.
“It’s not like buying 2-by-4s at Lowe’s,” she said. “They have to be trimmed and cut and sanded. There’s a lot more prep involved but we saved thousands of dollars.”
While most students are now writing their final paper on sustainability techniques used on the building, some are focusing on how the building will help preserve a language.
“Akat and I are both believers, especially with language, in having face to face tutoring,” she said. “To have a book and speak the language with other users is going to be important.”
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