Preserving an endangered language

Concordia journalist-in-residence researches Mohawk language with students

When Marc Miller, the Liberal MP for Ville-Marie—Le Sud-Ouest—Île-des-Soeurs, started speaking at the House of Commons on June 1, 2017, some of his colleagues looked stunned.

It was the first time a member of Parliament in either of Canada’s houses had pronounced words in Kanien’kéha, the Mohawk language. Miller, a Montreal native and old friend of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, told the CBC he wanted to “put his money where his mouth is,” so he reached out to teachers at Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa, a training program led by the Six Nations of the Grand River, and started learning.

“It is especially positive that Marc Miller spoke in the House of Commons to politicians: the ones who make laws and help to, hopefully a lot more in the future, save our language through critical funding efforts and bills to protect Kanien’kéha,” said Steve Bonspiel, the editor-in-chief of The Eastern Door, a community newspaper in Kahnawake, a Mohawk territory south of Montreal.

In January, Bonspiel, who is Concordia’s 2018 journalist-in-residence, and six Concordia students began examining the efforts of two Mohawk communities to revitalize and preserve one of Canada’s oldest and endangered languages. The multimedia project will include a feature article, a radio report and a video documentary.

In an interview with The Concordian, Bonspiel said there are many reasons why so few people are able to converse in Kanien’kéha, including colonialism and the loss of Indigenous language in residential schools, “where our children were beaten and raped if they spoke it.”

“The government continues to fund English and French in our schools but has made it difficult for us to teach and learn [Kanien’kéha], because we always have to beg for money to promote it,” Bonspiel added.

Natalia Fedosieieva, a student of Ukrainian origin in Bonspiel’s class, said she could draw a parallel between the Mohawks’ efforts to preserve their language and her attempt to preserve the Ukrainian language in her family “through speaking, writing and reading a lot.”

“Sharing the experience and listening to someone else speak about similar language problems gives me a feeling of real empathy for them,” she said.

Like the rest of her colleagues working on the project, Fedosieieva is not Indigenous, but Bonspiel said despite coming in with zero knowledge on the topic, the students “have grasped the material and were hungry for more.” The students have met and talked to, among other people, elder Harvey Gabriel, the author of two editions of a Mohawk dictionary, as well as two students studying the language in Kanesatake, a Mohawk territory near Oka.

Bonspiel said that while it depends on which school a Mohawk student attends, most kids only learn English and French when they grow up.

“Parents are torn. They want their kids to learn the language, but they also want them to have a higher education in university, so oftentimes it is seen as choosing between the two,” Bonspiel said. The project, he added, will try to address a “giant series of questions” surrounding the language.

“Are people okay with knowing half truths or believing a narrative that is steeped in colonial rhetoric, told through a colonial lens and delivered with a heavy slant against us?” he asked.

“How do we change that? Who will listen? Many questions and so many answers yet to come.”

Graphic by Alexa Hawksworth

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