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Securing Indigenous languages for future generations

Chelsea Sunday is a recent graduate of the KORLCC Mohawk language program.

June 15, 2020

By Jose Zarate

“Language is one of the main instruments for transmitting culture from one generation to another and for communicating meaning and making sense of the collective experience.”

“Aboriginal languages suffered a severe blow during the era when every child was forced by school policy to speak English or French.”

Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996).

“We believe it is time for Canada to recognize that Canada’s linguistic heritage runs deeper than the English and French Languages. It is, in fact, the oral histories, the stories of creation that explain how First Peoples came to be on this land, millennia before the French or English, and the songs and dances that speak to our connection with the land that give this fabric the unique texture and vibrancy that make it unlike any other fabric in the world. These national treasures must be protected for future generations.”

The Task Force on Aboriginal Languages and Cultures (2005).

The Kahnawake Experience

On December 19, 2016 the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages based on a resolution from the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. As 2019 came to a close, the General Assembly declared an International Decade of Indigenous Languages to begin in 2022 “to draw attention to the critical loss of Indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize, and promote Indigenous language” and to “take urgent steps at the national and international levels.”

PWRDF launched its Canadian Indigenous Communities Program in 1997 after a series of visits and consultations, and identified the restoration of language and culture as priorities. These same priorities were also noted by the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples report and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), as well as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action report.

PWRDF partner Kanien’kehaka Onkwawén:na Raotitiohkwa Language and Cultural Centre (KORLCC) in the Mohawk Territory of Kahnawake, Quebec works to preserve and strengthen the Kanien’kéha language and increase community access to culturally relevant programs and cultural workshops that promote, reinforce and increase traditions.

In 1977, a group of committed Kahnawakero:non (Mohawk citizens) met to discuss their interest and need to preserve and maintain Kahnawake’s unique language and cultural heritage for generations to come and in 1978, KORLCC was established and is the recognized cultural and language institution of the Kanien’kehaka (Mohawk) people of Kahnawake. By the late 1990s, founding members realized that subsequent generations had grown up unable to speak the Mohawk language. The Kahnawake Language Law enacted by the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake on December 1999 called for the revival and restoration of Kanien’kéha as the primary language of communication, education, ceremony, government and business within Kahnawake. The law also states Kahnawake’s public institutions and businesses have a moral and ethical obligation to protect, promote, and encourage the use of the language.

Over the past 20 years, the community has seen many language initiatives. One of the most impactful has been the Kanien’kéha Ratiwennahní:rats Program, a two-year adult immersion program run by KORLCC. Dozens of people have graduated from KORLCC’s program since it started in 2002 and are now educators or have launched other language initiatives in the community.

As part of its 2019-2020 report to PWRDF, KORLCC included four stories of change from their graduates highlighting the contribution the language training has made in their lives, and the opportunities that lie ahead:

Jessica Lazare has her eyes on her community’s future and is taking steps to be a part of it. The Kanien’kéha Ratiwennahní:rats Adult Immersion graduate took the two-year immersion program because she “wanted to learn more about the language and the culture. I really didn’t like the fact that I wasn’t able to speak with my grandmother.” After the program she will attend Concordia University in First Peoples Studies and Canadian and Quebec policy studies, and she intends to use her education to better the community. “I’m taking these majors because I want to be able to understand the Indian Act, the Canadian government policies and the Quebec policies and then relay it back to my people,” she said. “So we can figure out how to go about these policies properly.”
Chelsea Sunday has no time to relax. She and Shea Skye are collaborating on a project where they visit Haudenosaunee communities and gather knowledge on the language and culture. Sunday was born and raised in Akwesasne and didn’t get the chance to immerse herself in the language while growing up. “Kahnawake has worked really hard to include the entire community in their work when it comes to language,” said Sunday. Her motivation to travel and go through with the adult immersion program was to immerse herself as much as possible into her culture and learn the language for her kids. “I feel like I followed what I was feeling and we just signed up. The experience was great.” Sunday’s experience motivated her to encourage and develop something of the same program in her home community. “The goal for me would be to learn off those programs and bring the same thing here, because it works and their success in creating speakers at such a fast pace – it works,” she said.
River McComber grew up in a household without a lot of traditional Influence. “I just took a liking to the language and culture.” At Kahnawake Survival School he continued his interest in traditional singing and took up language classes. He took his first steps into the longhouse as a teenager by himself and felt there was always something missing – the language. When he was not accepted the first time, he attended the transition program at Dawson College. Applying again, he attended the course and now has plans to teach the culture and language wherever he can. “I’m glad I did it but now it’s coming to a close and it’s bittersweet, we’ve all come really far,” said McComber. “You have to love what you do, and if you go through the program, you’re going to love what you do.”
Shea Skye was studying criminology and criminal justice at Carleton University, but she wanted to go back to her roots and her home after graduation. “I was unsure about what I wanted to do and I didn’t know where I wanted to work,” she says. She always had an interest in the culture and decided to try Ratiwennahní:rats. Skye was the first one in her family to pursue the language program and at times it remains a challenge. Skye and her friends plan to visit first-language speakers in Kahnawake, in Kanesatake and Akwesasne and write some stories, she said. Her next move is to find a job in criminology, and integrate what she has learned. “I’m going to have to make my own path,” she said.

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