Chief Ernest Benedict '40 organized a game of lacrosse as part of his campaign to promote native peoples' heritage and concerns

Where the Partridge Drums

A tutoring program conceived by a St. Lawrence professor and a Mohawk chief set in motion five decades of collaboration.

Neal Burdick ’72

"It all started with a box lacrosse game,” Donna Christian ’71 told a Schenectady Gazette reporter in 1969. Christian was at the time the first co-director, with Joyce DeRosa Kay ’72, of Operation Kanyengehaga, a tutoring program at the Akwesasne (St. Regis) Mohawk Reservation about 40 miles from campus. 

She went on to explain that Chief Ernest Benedict ’40 had organized the game as part of his campaign to promote interest in native peoples’ heritage and concerns. Munsil Government Professor Robert N. Wells Jr., who taught a course on Native history and issues, attended and asked Benedict what could be done to help the people on the reservation. Benedict, who would go on to found the North American Indian Traveling College with considerable behind-the-scenes help from St. Lawrence, and Minerva White M’86 both immediately responded, “tutors”. 

Thus was born Operation Kanyengehaga (from a Mohawk term for “people of the land of the flint”), and with it some 46 years, and counting, of
St. Lawrence involvement with Akwesasne (“where the partridge drums”).

“‘Operation K’ was the brainchild of Bob Wells,” Kay said recently. “He had a great relationship with Chief Benedict. There was a problem with kids on the reservation staying in school long enough to graduate, and these two friends believed that a personal relationship with a college student could change the perspective of the Akwesasne kids who had very little outside influence of the beneficial kind.” Wells, she explained, asked her and Christian to “sell the idea (and) drum up a group of tutors,” an effort that ultimately proved successful, with as many as a dozen SLU students at a time riding in University vans to Akwesasne to tutor “hundreds” of Mohawk children over the years, according to Wells, who is now retired. During a quarter century, he estimates, more than 1,500 St. Lawrence students tutored a dozen subjects at Akwesasne, contributing to a decline in the school dropout rate among Mohawk youth from 80 percent in 1968 to 10 percent in 1988. As well, more began going on to college, including
St. Lawrence, Wells notes.

“The program was rewarding for all those involved,” Kay says. “SLU tutors not only got to interact with very appreciative students, but also had an immersion course in Native American culture as it related to the aspirations of those kids. It was also very rewarding to know you were making a difference in a young person's future. Although it was called a tutoring program, and the kids were getting help with their studies, it was way more than that. They were getting a glimpse of the possibilities that a high school diploma might bring.”  

“Getting to know about life in the Akwesasne community, learning firsthand about cultural diversity, and seeing the struggles that were part of their daily life gave us an amazing opportunity to learn by doing,” Christian says. A Senior Fellow at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C., she adds, “The experiences fed into my interest in sociolinguistics, and I've been working on language/cultural diversity issues, especially in education, ever since.”

Operation kanyengehaga no longer exists by name. But over time, the University’s engagement with Akwesasne has taken wing. Beginning in 1970, St. Lawrence students helped raise funds for books and other supplies for a library/community center on the reservation. David Abeel ’72 was a prime mover in that effort. Built by the community, it was the first such facility on Native American land in the East, Wells says. 

Shortly thereafter, St. Lawrence and Mater Dei College, Ogdensburg, began offering college-level classes on the reservation. Numerous Mohawks graduated with bachelor’s or master’s degrees without having to leave the reservation, and were able to find jobs in schools, government and businesses. By 2000, when it ended, 45 St. Lawrence professors had taught in that adult program. 

Meanwhile, in 1971 St. Lawrence began providing academic programs, through the federally-funded program Upward Bound, to high school students both on the reservation and on campus. Upward Bound was discontinued at St. Lawrence in 2006, but Mohawk college students are still assisted financially by St. Lawrence through the Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP), which “provides economically and educationally disadvantaged residents the possibility of a college education,” according to the HEOP website.

At about the time of Upward Bound’s demise, an Akwesasne Semester was proposed, and several courses were taught by St. Lawrence faculty on the reservation. The semester program did not take hold, but the teaching has continued, ranging from the FYP course Native American Children and Youth to Native American Oral Traditions, The Natural World, and Environmental Perception and Indigenous Knowledge. 

Celia Nyamweru, retired professor of anthropology, taught the latter several times in recent fall semesters as a Community-Based Learning (CBL) course. Once a week, the St. Lawrence group met at the Akwesasne Boys & Girls Club to hear from tribal government leaders, environmental specialists and even an herbalist. This was followed by the CBL component, at the Boys & Girls Club, the St. Regis Mohawk School (elementary) or the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe Environment Division, where director Ken Jock ’79, an Akwesasne resident, was a mentor. “Some semesters we had students working at the Mohawk language immersion school (the Akwesasne Freedom School), helping the older kids get ready to shift to the mainstream English language system,” Nyamweru says. 

“I was amazed and humbled by the generosity of the guest speakers,” she adds. “It was interesting to me to see how little most of the SLU students—even those from the North Country—knew about the Mohawks and the Akwesasne community. The course challenged a lot of their stereotypes. They also found challenges at their CBL sites, but (commented on) the good relationships they built up with some of the children they met each week.”

Emma Phillips ’16, an Akwesasne resident, was one of Nyamweru’s students. “I wanted to learn about different cultures that share similar values,” she says. “It was really interesting to view the place where I grew up from an outsider’s perspective. 

“SLU does a good job at incorporating involvement with Akwesasne kids through CBL, but there could be more involvement between St. Lawrence students and high school students,” Phillips says. “Exposing high school students to all the opportunities at St. Lawrence would be very beneficial for both, and increase the chance of the Akwesasne students pursuing college.”

Increasing those contacts is one of the jobs of Brenda Papineau ’02, St. Lawrence’s director of community-based learning partnerships and herself an Akwesasne resident. She notes that every semester for 10 years now, numerous St. Lawrence students have devoted at least two hours a week for 10 weeks to active engagement on the reservation. “We are working to create mutually beneficial experiences and relationships,” she says. “Ultimately, it is my hope that stereotypes and misconceptions commonly associated with the Native American race are laid to rest through students’ experience at Akwesasne.”

If there is a descendant of Operation Kanyengehaga, it may be Branching Out With Books (BOWB). Molly Plunkett ’14 was there from its beginning, when in 2011 Papineau proposed “a literacy program that would encourage children on the reservation to find joy in learning and take control of their own education,” says Plunkett, who, with Papineau, successfully built the program as her CBL placement. 

“It was a great way to get to know the greater North Country community even better,” Plunkett says. “The reservation is deep in culture and heritage that is often overlooked. BOWB also gave me an opportunity to work closely with children, motivating and encouraging their academic endeavors, (which) eventually inspired me to go into teaching in high-need areas,” says Plunkett, a Teach for America corps member in Houston.

Plunkett says it’s hard to gauge BOWB’s success because it’s young and its goals are long-term. She does note that the children “were always thrilled to see the SLU students arrive, and were fully engaged.”  

Akwesasne educators have also been pleased, not just with BOWB but also with Laurentians’ involvement over the years. “St. Lawrence students’ time spent reading, helping with homework, creating art or just playing outside with the kids has created lasting bonds,” says Jessica Cree Jock, executive director of the Akwesasne Boys & Girls Club. Sharlee Thomas, principal of the St. Regis Mohawk School, notes the collaborative aspects of the relationship, adding, “The St. Lawrence students gain insight into how elementary students learn, and my elementary students have college role models.”

Minerva White M’86 has been involved with St. Lawrence-Akwesasne educational interactions since the beginning. While not shy about expressing her dismay at the demise of Upward Bound, which she helped found, White says that the numerous programs that have come and gone over the years “have helped the St. Regis Mohawks build our own educational leaders within our community.  As we progressed, we got better at doing education.

“Our relationship has been built on cooperation and mutual respect,” White says. What more can one ask of human interaction?

Some historical data in this article was adapted with permission from “Notes Toward a History of the Mohawks of Akwesasne, 1755-2000,” by Robert N. Wells Jr., in Quarterly, Vol. 60 no. 2 (2015), published by the St. Lawrence County Historical Association, Canton, N.Y.

As an expression of thanks for St. Lawrence's contributions of funds and labor toward the construction of a library at Akwesasne, Mohawk community members presented the University with a hand-crafted "Great Tree of Peace" in Septemeber 1971. It is recreated here by contemporary artist Melinda Josie of Toronto.
SLU tutors not only got to interact with appreciative students, but also had an immersion course in Native American culture as it related to the aspirations of those kids.
SLU tutors not only got to interact with appreciative students, but also had an immersion course in Native American culture as it related to the aspirations of those kids.