Kanyenkeha (Mohawk Language )

Down a long stretch of country highway, up and around a couple of bends, scattered across a community is a group of people rebuilding a language almost lost in time.


A success story in words...


By Trish Allison

“In the 1930s…” started Nathan Brinklow

“…is when it shifted and my great grandparents didn’t let their children  speak Mohawk, so my grandmother, her parents could and she never did,” he said, speaking about the near extinction of the Mohawk language.

Brinklow is a second year student in the Adult Mohawk Immersion program offered by the Tyendinaga community –a program established to save a language.

He believes the program and its mandate, to rebuild and revitalize the Mohawk language, holds great importance to the community and the people who hope re-establish its significance.

“We can’t claim to be a distinct people if we can’t speak our language,” he said.

“It strengthens the Mohawk identity in the community and having people around that can speak again, ‘cause it’s been like 50 years or more since you could hear Mohawk being spoken on the street.”

Residents of the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory have been working for more than 10 years, learning, teaching and trying to rebuild the language. Their first step was establishing the Language Circle in the late 90s.

“If we hadn’t done anything, like if the committee hadn’t taken a stronger interest the language would have been gone because in 1995 the last fluent speaker in Tyendinaga passed away,” said Dorothy Lazore, a Mohawk language teacher at Quinte Mohawk and original member of the circle.

The immersion program was the brainchild of the circle and it was in 2004 when they introduced the adult class.

“It’s important because it’s who we are, we need to establish our identity and I think it makes us stronger, gives us a stronger spirit,” said Lazore.

Along with the adult class, the immersion program offers the Nest program, which caters to children ages two to four (first introduced in 2005) and the Primary Immersion program that teaches children, ages five to 10 (currently in it’s first year).

“The language was at a critical point 10 years ago, hence the reason for the Language Circle being established by community members,” said Callie Hill, coordinator for the Mohawk Immersion program.

“We’ve really grown as an organization, in terms of speakers in the community with the programming that we’ve offered, there are probably at least 50 people of varying levels of fluency and functionality,” said Hill.

Hill believes an important part in the revitalization is educating younger people and children in the language.

“That’s when they’re just starting to form their words, form their thoughts and what not, and really that’s the only way we’re going to build Mohawk up to be their first language,” she said.

“That’s why it’s important to get the young babies and the kids into it.”

Hill said the program goal hasn’t exactly been followed to plan, but is still on the right track.

“The long range-plan, like it was a five-year plan they did in 2004, it’s taken a little bit longer to get the final outcome, but we’re now at that place, so I don’t think that’s too bad of a time frame, just a little longer, but we’re still moving ahead,” she said.

Over the last 20 years it’s estimated the community has regained at least 100 speakers, only a small portion of the roughly 2,100 residents.

“The level of language ability in the community is constantly rising, the number of things we’re able to do as a community, that we can use the language, has increased exponentially I’d say over the last seven or eight years,” said Brinklow.

“It’s encouraging for some of the older people who grew up listening to it, to hear it again, and so it benefits the community by having people around who can still speak, even if its only a few, as long as there are a few, its still alive.”