Quilting Relationships

by Liseli Haines
Mohawk Valley Meeting


It was almost a decade ago that I first went up to Akwesasne, the Mohawk Territory that spans the borders of New York State, Ontario and Quebec, to visit the Akwesasne Freedom School (AFS). AFS is a pre-K through 8th grade Mohawk Language immersion and culture school started in 1979 when it was sanctioned by the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs. After its first year in a private garage, it moved to its current location on a peninsula in the St. Lawrence River. The number of grades was slowly increased, as was the number of total language immersion classes. As of 7 years ago all grades and all subjects are taught entirely in the Mohawk language to its 72 students. It includes fourteen 4-5-year olds who come with little understanding of the Mohawk language, making the classroom quite chaotic at the beginning of the year. There is also a language nest for toddlers who come to be surrounded by the Mohawk language as their language skills develop. The building is almost as old as the school and AFS has started a $4.5 million capital campaign for a new building.


On my first trip, I went to the Akwesasne Freedom School annual dinner and quilt auction, the main fundraiser for the AFS. This trip was a prelude to the middle school work camp that was to take place the next August. The food was great: corn soup, traditional corn bread (a mixture of ground white corn boiled with kidney beans into a dumpling), and strawberry drink. They also served steak, a not so traditional hallmark of the annual dinner. The quilt auction that year was inside: piles of quilts lain out on tables. Glorious colors and every pattern imaginable. I noticed many star quilts, a favorite among the quilters. Each student’s family makes or commissions a quilt every year for the auction as part of their tuition. The idea has spread to outside groups. I noticed one quilt made by the “Piecemakers,” a themed quilt of great complexity and beauty. The auction lasted for hours and there was great excitement in the air. The bidding was fast and spirited, some quilts going for thousands of dollars. Many elicited applause as the bidding was closed and a new owner stepped up to take the quilt.


I was curious about the Piecemakers quilt, but it wasn’t until several years later I learned from Kay Olan (Mohawk) that it was started by a woman who had heard of the school and wanted to help raise money to support its goals. She started with a garage sale, but soon hit upon the idea of making a quilt for the quilt auction and pulled friends together to organize a group quilt. Each year a theme is chosen by the group in the early fall and a call is made for quilters. The quilt is completed in time for the August auction. Kay Olan has told us how important our participation in quilting and attendance at the quilt auction has been to the community.


I have been to the quilt auction and dinner several times now. They have added a teamed Survival Race on the day before the auction with running, canoeing, bicycling, and matchless fire building, though I have not gotten to see it yet. I now know many people who attend the auction and who work at the school. I have built relationships there and know that I am helping to support the school. In this way I am trying to counter the Quaker involvement in the attempted erasure of Haudenosaunee language and culture in the Quaker Indian Boarding Schools.


If you are interested in making a quilt square for the next quilt contact Liseli Haines.