Language revitalization in Tyendinaga More Than Learning a Second Language

As an English speaking parent, I have always felt the shame when an outsider asked me what language I spoke, other than English. So when Tsi Tyonnheht Onkwawenna Language and Cultural Centre started Kawenna on:we Primary Mohawk Immersion in September 2011, I immediately registered two of my daughters for the program. If you were to ask me why, I would try to articulate something about identity and self-esteem, but that just does not seem to adequately answer the question.

Mohawk language students Ejijewah and Goniksadoh checking out a map of Kahnawake
Mohawk language students Ejijewah and Goniksadoh checking out a map of Kahnawake

Going to school in Six Nations in the ‘70’s meant an afternoon of instruction a week. Ms. Issacs, a very sweet lady, spent the afternoon teaching us numbers, colors, social songs and longhouse dances. Sadly, I do not remember much. When Six Nations started their first immersion program in the late 90’s, I sent my eldest daughter to I.L. Thomas Cayuga Immersion. Back then I responded to “why?” with, because I cannot teach her.

Deciding to move to Tyendinaga, in 2007 was difficult, insomuch that Tyendinaga did not have an immersion program. When my stepson came home from school and said, “Did you know we came across the Bering Strait?” was when I decided to homeschool my children. So then my answer became, I want them to learn our ways. But the answer as to why still does not seem answered.

First Nations Technical Institute and the Tsi Tyonnheht Onkwawenna Language and Cultural Centre was beginning to make headway with viable funding. It could not have been more timely, as I was considering moving back to Six Nations for the children’s education. Soon the applications for Grades 1 to 4 Primary Immersion were circulated. The children began school and before long they could recite a short version of the Thanks Giving Address.

My eldest has long since completed her immersion programming and now attends Western University. The next eldest has completed two years of Mohawk Immersion at Kawenna on:we Primary Mohawk Immersion, my third eldest is going into grade four and my son has completed the Totahne Language Nest and is in grade 1. I may not have had an answer to why but I believe I have one now.

Learning in our language changes how we think especially if started at a very young age.

I cannot speak for everyone, but I know growing up with little to no exposure to Haudensaunee ceremonies, language, and values left me with an unexplainable emptiness. I never understood it, I just knew it was there until my eldest, as a child, came home crying because her cousin was, “throwing paper all over mother earth.” Because she was taught so much more through the language she had what I was missing. And that is the spiritual connection to the environment. To our Mother. She saw “how beautiful Mother Earth” is and that changed how she viewed her world.

Since then I have not looked back, now my children learn Mohawk and after a year in Kawenna on;we Primary Mohawk Immersion School my son chants, rather loudly, “I, u eh, u eh, I, u eh u a eh, u eh ha u eh, hum ba dee mo do, hum ba husha, we ya ne we yane”. It is a medley of stomp dance songs. Clearly a step up from, “I’m sexy and I know it.” Now if asked why I send my children to Kawenna on:we Primary Mohawk School in Tyendinaga my answer is simply, “Because it’s the right thing to do.”

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