by Suzanne Labry
Akwesasne Freedom School Quilt Auction
The Mohawk Nation Territory of Akwesasne is situated along the St. Lawrence River at the intersection of the United States and Canada, between the state of New York and the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. The word Akwesasne means “Land Where the Partridge Drums” in the Mohawk Indian language, and the area has been the traditional homeland
of Mohawks and the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy for centuries. Since 1980, it has also been the site of another tradition: the annual Akwesasne Freedom School Quilt Auction.
Quilts hang on a line in preparation for the Akwesasne Freedom School Auction, held every August. Because the school does not receive any government funding, parents have to pay tuition for their children to attend. The annual tuition is a full-sized quilt.
In 1979, a group of Mohawk parents got together and started the Freedom School out of concern that their children were no longer speaking the Mohawk language and they were forgetting their traditional culture, thereby losing their indigenous identity. Classes are taught entirely in Mohawk through speaking, singing, and eventually writing and reading.
In the years since it began, the full immersion school has grown to include pre-K to grade 10 students, with a special program called “the Language Nest” targeting babies and toddlers from ages one to four. The stated goal of the school is to “help the Mohawk Nation become strong again by focusing on the young people. Our survival is dependent on the understanding of the old ways and preserving the knowledge that is passed down from grandparents to children. We want to help nurture strong spiritually, physically, and emotionally healthy people who will eventually become the leaders in our community.” The Akwesasne Freedom School receives no federal, provincial, or state funding; parents have to pay tuition for their children to attend.
Part of the annual tuition is a full-sized quilt.
Parents must either make, pay someone else to make, or buy and donate a quilt at the beginning of the school year in August, at which time it becomes part of the auction that is held as the highlight of a weekend of celebratory events benefitting the school.
It was respected elder Tom Porter, a sub-chief of the Bear Clan and a former Director of the Freedom School who, in 1980, came up with the idea of having each family make a quilt to raise money for the school. “He met with a lot of naysayers at first and I was one of them,” says Sheree “Peachy” Bonaparte, who now runs a quilt shop called the Ionkwanikonhriiosne Creative Sewing Centre (ICSC) and has become an accomplished quilt artist.
In preparation for the Freedom School Auction, an original quilt, Starry, Starry Nights donated by the New Paltz Piecemakers is hung on the line. The Piecemakers have been making and donating a quilt to the auction for 21 years. Photo courtesy of Kay Olan.“I had eight children at the time—I now have ten—and I didn’t know how to quilt, so I didn’t want to do it. We didn’t have enough money to buy a quilt, though, so I went ahead and made one and it turned out pretty good,” she says. (The logo for ICSC features a stylized drawing of that first quilt.) Other parents made quilts as well and Jimmy Little Turtle, another respected elder, donated some Plains Indian Star quilts. The auction was off and running and August of 2018 will mark the 38th year that it has been providing funding to keep the school operating.
The annual quilt auction has led many people to develop an interest in quilting and parents as well as students take classes at ICSC. Grandmothers and grandchildren sometimes work on quilts together, which further strengthens the generational bonds of tradition that the school strives to foster.
Students from the school regularly make a quilt to contribute and the auction also draws donations of quilts from other places. For example, a quilt group known as the New Paltz Piecemakers from New Paltz, New York has been making a quilt for the auction every year since 1997. Always a one-of-a-kind original, the Piecemakers’ quilt frequently commands a high price.
Since those early days when it first started, the quilt auction weekend in August has become an anticipated gathering of current and former Akwesasne inhabitants as well as members of clans from the surrounding area. It is open to anyone who would like to attend, and visitors have come from as far away as Switzerland.
The Saturday events include such things as a barbecue chicken dinner, a survival race (a competition of running, swimming, backpacking, and canoeing), a volleyball tournament, a silent auction of various items, vendors, and live entertainment. Visitors can tour the school and talk with parents and students. The Sunday Quilt Auction is the culminating event that everyone looks forward to. Following a meal of steak and traditional cornbread made of indigenous white corn, dozens of quilts are auctioned off and there is always a lot of friendly competition as people vie to place the winning bid for each one. Some of the quilts go for several thousand dollars apiece.
Light of the Game by Sheree Bonaparte.
Photo by Joe Francis.When asked what the quilt auction has come
to mean to her, Sheree pauses before answering in order to regain control of her emotions. “I get a little teary when I think about it,” she says. “I love the quilt auction. It’s an opportunity to see people you haven’t seen for awhile and you realize that some of the older people have passed on and you miss them. People are so dedicated and they work so hard to keep the school going. The quilt auction is such an important part of our community because it really brings us together.”
Quilts have a way of doing that.
NOTE: If you are interested in donating a quilt for the auction, contact Tara Skidder, Akwesasne Freedom School, (528) 358-2073. Additionally, the Friends of the Akwesasne Freedom School, Inc., a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit, obtains funding through foundations and private donors to keep the school running. Donations made to the program, either directly or through its Paypal Giving Fund link (paypal.me/foafs), are tax deductible.