After a decade of searching, Karihwanó:ron School has moved into its new location – a home on Zachary Road owned by Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) chief Iohahiio Delisle.
The arrangement is allowing the school, just days away from its 35th anniversary, to continue in its mission to ensure community children are rooted in Kanien’kéha and other fundamental aspects of Kanien’kehá:ka culture and traditions.
“We would have had to close our doors,” said Joely Van Dommelen, the school’s administrator, who explained that the old building was no longer safe and could have been condemned.
“We’ve been looking and looking, and then last year, we decided this is it. We can’t stay here any longer. We were moving out, whether we rented tents or something – we were making plans to rent trailers and rent land,” she said, when Delisle volunteered to make his property available.
The move, only decided upon in July, caused the start of the school year to be pushed back as staff hustled to get the space ready, with students only returning to classes this week. The program for children under four is in another building; they will eventually be brought to the new location, but not this year.
Karihwanó:ron and Delisle are currently exploring a five-year lease with an option to buy, with the relocation fast-tracked ahead of the agreement to enable Karihwanó:ron to move forward with the school year.
“We kind of put the cart before the horse,” said Van Dommelen. “Luckily, he agreed.” The school was able to get its insurance and ensure its funding – which is delivered through the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) – would be uninterrupted, she said.
Delisle credits his late grandfather, Andrew Delisle, Sr., with instilling in him the cultural values that led him to make the home available to Karihwanó:ron.
“His main direction for me was to take into consideration our most important asset: our collective identity,” said Delisle.
“It’s important we educate our children through a structured curriculum and build the infrastructure to promote this specifically, securing our historical treaties and interpretations through structured curriculum-based approaches.”
Delisle has children of his own who attend Karihwanó:ron.
“I’m very grateful that the families, Kahnawa’kehró:non in general, now have the ability to come to a family environment, an environment that housed my children, my family, but more importantly, Karonhiaráhstha,” he said, referring to his late daughter, who is honoured every year by Karonhiaráhstha’s Winter Wonderland, a major fundraiser.
“It makes me so comfortable inside knowing that my home will be filled with children’s laughter, cries, development, growth, all of it to bring families together into a very safe, collective environment that is surrounded by nature, surrounded by gardens, surrounded by medicine, surrounded by all aspects of Mother Nature,” he said.
Delisle shrugged off concerns that the deal could be seen as a conflict of interest given that MCK delivers funding to the school that is renting from him.
“As far as it being a perceived conflict of interest, I can understand people may see it (that way). But what I ask them to do is really look at the genuine intent behind it,” he said, noting that he has frequently been involved in initiatives benefitting the community.
The two parties have agreed that the payment will be conservative, he said, meaning relatively low, even if the numbers haven’t been worked out.
“At the end of the day, the intent speaks for itself, and the value will be seen in seven generations to come,” Delisle said.
He also noted that he is not on the education portfolio, which is led by MCK chief Harry Rice.
While it is yet to be confirmed whether the property will be the school’s long-term home, Van Dommelen said the setting reflects the school’s alternative approach to education in Kahnawake.
“We’re a home-environment program, so we never actually wanted a facility anyway,” she said. The large house includes a kitchen and an ornate, wood-ceilinged hub that will be used as a Longhouse. There is a barn on the property and even the Junior Iroquois Training Facility, which Delisle also owns, that the school will be able to schedule time to use for their athletic curriculum.
There is plenty of space for the school’s 44 students, but there are no plans to enlarge the capacity of the school, according to Van Dommelen, who said the student body is small by design to give children sufficient attention.
The Kanien’kéha immersion school has a legacy of students coming full circle. Not only do many graduates grow up to send their own children, but in many cases they return to teach – the school currently has six teachers who are former students, Van Dommelen estimated.
“Being a parent myself, and a worker all these years, it’s nice to say that we have something like this for Karihwanó:ron,” said administrative assistant Kwanekhe:ron Monick, who is going into her 24th year working for the school.
Three of her five children are graduates from the school, with two of them coming back as teachers.
Leaving the old space, which she knew so well, was bittersweet, she said, even sad, but she is uplifted by what the school’s new home provides.
“It’s something I’ve always dreamed of. It feels like we were meant to be here,” she said.
“Having more space and just hearing the children every day coming in and we know they’re all happy and everything – this is where we’re supposed to be.”
Marcus is managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.