Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa Graduates Bring the Mohawk Language to San Diego

By Lindsay Monture

Six Nations Mohawk language teachers Karahkwenhawi Zoe Hopkins and Rohahiyo Jordan Brant made the most of their visit to San Diego this past week, as they attended both California’s American Indian & Indigenous Film Festival (CAIIF) and the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language Conference (ACTFL) as delegates.

Artie Martin, Rohahiyo Jordan Brant and Melissa Elliott star as the three bears in Goldilocks Tahnon Ohkwá:ri. Photo cred: Big Soul Productions
Artie Martin, Rohahiyo Jordan Brant and Melissa Elliott star as the three bears in Goldilocks Tahnon Ohkwá:ri. Photo cred: Big Soul Productions

Both Karahkwenhawi and Rohahiyo are graduates of the Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa Mohawk language adult immersion program at Grand River Employment and Training, and continue to teach Kanyen’kéha (Mohawk). Karahkwenhawi teaches the online course while Rohahiyo is a TA in the first year program at Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa. Also in attendance was Sharann Martin, a current first-year student.

Aside from running the online language program, Karahkwenhawi is also an accomplished filmmaker, having her films make their big screen debuts all across the globe. Her latest masterpiece is a comedic Mohawk rendition of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, titled Goldilocks tahnon Ohkwá:ri.

The story was originally written as a play for the immersion class to perform in Kahnawake, but was adapted into a screenplay instead. The film was written and directed entirely in Kanyen’kéha by Owennatekha Brian Maracle, founder of Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa — and Karahkwenhawi’s father. It was shot in Six Nations, and produced by Big Soul Productions, with a cast and crew made up of former, present and future Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa students.

The film stars Ronkwetiyohstha Josiah Maracle as Goldilocks, Jordan Brant, Melissa Elliott, and Artie Martin as the Bears. The rough cut screened at the Onkwawenna graduation ceremony at the community hall back in May, but the final cut made its world premiere as part of the Friday Night Funnies program at the CAIIFF.

“I think it’s important for Onkwehón:we film festivals to support our original languages as much as possible and to make space for them. We don’t have very many films in any of our languages, and we made one that is a comedy, which is even more rare,” says Karahkwenhawi. “I think it’s really important work – to create these resources, and to give space for them to be seen by other Onkwehonwe people. We need to see ourselves, our lives, our senses of humour reflected on the screen.”

The trio represented Six Nations among many other Onkwehón:we filmmakers and stars at the film festival, such as the always hilarious 1491s, filmmakers Chris Eyre, Blackhorse Lowe, Sterlin Harjo, Steven Paul Judd, and stars Irene Bedard and Rod Rondeau to name a few. The Friday Night Funnies program that screened Goldilocks also honored the memory of Charlie Hill, a fellow rotinonhsyón:ni jokester.

“Rohahiyo and I are in San Diego actually for a conference on the teaching of world languages, put on by ACTFL. So, being able to attend this film festival was a really happy coincidence,” says Karahkwenhawi.

After the screening, they spent the rest of their time at the conference learning everything they could to apply it to how they teach and learn Kanyen’kéha.

“The conference is super amazing. There were 7000 attendees. Of all the people I met, I only met 3 other Onkwehón:we people who teach Arapaho and Shoshone. So we were definitely in the minority.”

From Film Festivals to her open online course, which includes students from all over the world, to have one of a few Indigenous languages present at conference like the ACTFL speaks to Karahkwenhawi’s continued work to expose the Mohawk language internationally. Much of what she creates shows the world that Kanyen’kéha still exists and is thriving in Six Nations. Not only that, but to share an Indigenous language driven by comedy breaks down cultural barriers and allows the language to be accessible to everybody.

The film will have its next public screening at the Smithsonian’s Mother Tongue Film Festival in February.

“I’m really excited about that”, say Karahkwenhawi, “I just think it’s really valuable to hear our languages on screen. And to do so in a way that makes people laugh is just awesome.”

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