Adult Mohawk language program celebrates 20 years of reclaiming indigenous languages

OHSWEKEN — On May 17th, Onkwawenna Kentsyohkwa celebrated it’s 20th adult immersion class graduation.

Owennatekha, Brian Maracle

Owennatekha, whose English name is Brian Maracle is the Mohawk, Turtle Clan language teacher at Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa. He and his wife founded the language program in the 1990s.

“We started a snowball rolling down the hill–and once that happens you might be able to bump and steer it a little bit but you can’t control it” says a proud Owennatekha.

“The Adult Immersion Program is two school years long. It is a full-time program,” said Owennatekha.

The program uses the Root Word Method for understanding the Mohawk language. This method requires learning about 800 root words. From there, a student has to know possible prefixes and suffixes — plus any variations, rules for word assembly and exceptions.

Students then learn another 700 particles, names and stand-alone descriptions. When learned in a sequence from grammatically simple-to-complex students can become proficient speakers relatively quickly.

Owennatekha says the root word method evolved with his frustration of the high rate of failure in other Mohawk language programs.

“The root word method helps us think in the language. It requires you to think in the language. It enables people to say things and understand things they’ve never heard before. The usual method of teaching the language is raw memory. We don’t teach whole words we teach the roots.”

“English doesn’t care about certain things that are important in Kanien’keha. English is vague and confusing when it comes to people. We and you are ambiguous in English. They are much more precise in our language. We, you, — they are much more specific. We are much less likely to confuse people about relationships,” said Owennatekha.

The success of the Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa program has led to other immersion programs in Kahnawà:ke, Akwesasne and Tyendinaga.

Owennatekha says there are 25 graduates of the program who are now Mohawk language teachers. “You can’t go to a public meeting at Six and not here one of these speakers get up and start talking in language,” said Owennatekha

“Language use is much more public and open than it was 20 years ago. There were a lot of first language speakers but they were older, they didn’t get out much, they just talked to one another. And it was a lot quieter. And this is part of an overall trend toward language revitalization throughout Indian Country,” said Owennatekha.

First year student, Katenies Barbara Tarbell, says she drove 8 hours back and forth from Akwesasne to attend the program.

“I have one word for the language that always comes to mind and that is ‘sophisticated’. This is not simple. This is very complex. It is why I am here because they don’t teach it this way in Akwesasne. We are fortunate that we have a lot of speakers. But for that gap for adults to learn you have to look at it a different way. You can’t learn it the same way that kids can growing up.”

“Values get transferred really specifically. The humour, the worldview, the pain. They were observing what they were seeing at that time”, says Katenies. “Like the word for Washington, DC – ‘Ranatakaryáshsne’ means ‘the men who eat the village’. Metaphorically, ‘the village destroyers’ – because our ancestors realized the destruction of their own villages was coming from that place.”

“Fridge in English just means Fridge. When we make up words it is about what does it do for us. What is its function in society? If it’s a verb it is doing something for us. ‘Kakhwawihstotha’ means Fridge — but it really means ‘it is keeping our food cold’,” says Katenies.

Another student, Katsitsarase Hill from Six Nations has two young children who are also in Mohawk immersion at the Everlasting Tree School. She says being able to use Mohawk in her home with her children has been a moving experience.

“The first time that I spoke to them and both of them understood and my oldest answered me back it was like – it was something that I always wanted. That fulfilled my heart just that. That is why I want to learn the language – for my kids.”

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