TYENDINAGA – March 30th was the beginning of Annual Language Revitalization Week in Tyendinaga, and this year featured the premiere of Chloe Ellingson’s documentary Raising the Words on Monday night at the Mohawk Community Centre. Earlier that evening, Tyendinaga Mohawk Council was honoured for their years of support at the Language Hero Dinner.
The Two Row Times had an opportunity to sit down with filmmaker Ellingson to discuss her journey from apathy to understanding, as well as her struggle with the ethics surrounding non-Indigenous people telling Indigenous stories.
Ellingson enrolled in the photojournalism program through Loyalist College and was working on a class project exploring grandparents raising their grandchildren when she met Grandmother Tsyotsyate Margaret Claus and her granddaughter Karennisakhe Ellie Claus. A friendship ensued, and at age 75, Tsyotsyate courageously began learning Kanyen’keha through Shatiwennakara:tats Adult Immersion program. Karennisakhe began to learn the language, as well, in the brand new Kawenna’on:we Elementary Immersion program.
Raising the Words follows six people from a variety of backgrounds, all learning Kanyen’keha: Tsyotsyate and Karennisakhe Clause, Thohyanoken Storm Brant, Niwahkwarita:a, Nathan Thanyehtenhas Brinklow and Mike Kraszewski. The adults had all attended Shatiwennakara:tats Mohawk Adult Immersion and were excited to be a part of the project.
Ellingson initially had very little knowledge of the Indigenous communities that she had come into contact with throughout her lifetime. However, “the significance of what they (Tsyotsyate and Karennisakhe) were doing and how it relates to a broader context just crept up on me and it was informing how I view what Canada is, maybe some misconceptions about what it is, what’s left out of our history… Learning about language revitalization painted a more complex picture.”
Ellingson expressed the problems she grappled with being Norwegian, Scottish and Irish telling a Kanyen’keha story. She says, “It had to do with ethical concerns around telling a story very different from you own.”
She remembers a woman who, “challenged me to look at my own history and said, ‘If you don’t know where you come from, how can you justify wanting to understand where other people come from?’” What transpired for Ellingson after that conversation was not so much learning more about her specific blood identity but, “the history of my family as Canadians, and what about Canada [and] the myths of Canada… [that] I want to delve deeper into.”
Being the only non-Indigenous person, Mike Kraszewski seemed to be the odd man out in the documentary. However, Ellingson states, “Mike, to me, is an important part of the picture… especially [if I’m] being honest about where I’m coming from as a non-Indigenous filmmaker. How he articulates his belief opens up the conversation for people who aren’t intimately involved in revitalization to say, ‘Okay, this matters.’
Those who are interested can go to www.raisingthewords.com to see interviews with more champions for the language and read more about Ellingson’s project.
As for the rest of Language Revitalization Week, ‘Traditional Tuesday’ included a potluck dinner and a social at Kanonhsesne. On Wednesday, Callie Hill, Executive Director of Tsi Tyonnheht Onkwawenna, hosted an all Onkwehonwe music radio show from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Kwe radio, located in Tyendinaga. Finally, Thursday night wrapped up the week with the much anticipated and hilarious Kanyen’keha Variety Show with Kanyen’keha learners coming in from Buffalo, Kahnawake and Six Nations.