OHSWEKEN – Fran Henry sat a little bit taller on the benches at her Six Nations longhouse celebration this year when for the first time, she understood what was being said on her own.
“As an Ogwehoweh, I need to speak my language,” said Henry, 55.
Henry, a second-year Ogwehoweh language diploma student at Six Nations Polytechnic (SNP) was a guest speaker at a media event on Monday where the province of Ontario announced that SNP will offer a Bachelor of Arts degree in two Ogwehoweh languages — Mohawk and Cayuga — making it the very first standalone degree program to be offered by a First Nations post secondary organization.
The announcement fulfills a recommendation from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that post-secondary institutions create degree programs in Indigenous languages and was presented by Reza Moridi, Ontario Minister of Training, Colleges and University.
“Our government has made a clear commitment to learn from the past, build on our success stories, and increase our efforts to help Indigenous learners get the education and training they need,” said Moridi. “Six Nations Polytechnic is committed to creating an Indigenous environment that is grounded in culture and community, language, research and academic quality.”
Henry said that she has carried a lot of shame and guilt throughout her years because she couldn’t speak her language. She shared a story that her grandmother shared with her which might explain why this degree program means so much to many Ogwehoweh.
70 years ago Henry’s grandmother, a little girl at the time, listened in on a story being told by a woman in her community. The storyteller said that their culture was already at the point in time when colonization was causing language loss. She talked about how the Tree of Peace was beginning to lean and that the lean symbolized their language and culture beginning to disappear. People were worried that if they lost their language they would eventually lose sight of themselves entirely, and if that Tree of Peace were ever to hit the ground — the Ogwehoweh would be finished.
Henry told one of her teachers that she thinks the Ogwehoweh have been experiencing that leaning tree, but with every person who goes through this new program, the tree is going to stand stronger and straighter.
“I told my teacher — that is us holding that tree up now,” Henry said proudly. “And our teachers are standing behind us going — push!”
Henry said that the SNP logo resembles the Tree of Peace and she feels that it is appropriate for SNP to be the vessel that brings this new degree program to Six Nations.
Several others gave congratulatory speeches — Ontario Aboriginal Affairs Minister David Zimmer, Six Nations elected Chief Ava Hill, Brant MPP Dave Levac and Rebecca Jamieson, president and CEO of Six Nations Polytechnic. Opening and closing messages, and a song were presented by Instructor Tom Deer.
“I want to thank Six Nations Polytechnic for the leadership and guidance they have provided. Today’s announcement provides a tangible illustration of Ontario’s journey along the path of reconciliation,” said Zimmer. “We will continue to rely on Indigenous partners as we chart a way forward that will produce tangible results.”
Twenty-seven students are enrolled in the language degree courses that began in January — there are 12 in Mohawk and 15 in Cayuga.