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Kanien’kéha activists adapt to pandemic



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This was an article written for Concordia University on language and the importance of fighting to retain Kanien’kéha.

Efforts to save Kanien’kéha have long been a big part of Kanien’kehá:ka communities, and the coronavirus has made that much more difficult due to meeting restrictions.

The Mohawk language has already suffered great losses due to colonization and, of course, the legacy of residential schools. Kanien’kéha is one of the most threatened languages, as the number of speakers is below 3,500.

Keeping the language alive comes with an onset of challenges, including lack of resources and funds, but, during this time of confinement, learners are even less-frequently exposed to the language.

Since COVID-19 hit, numerous language courses and cultural ceremonies, were cancelled.

Some organizations, including Native Montreal and the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center (KOR) in Kahnawake, do not yet have the registration dates for the next sessions in person.

Wenhni’tiio Will Gareau, who graduated from the language program in Kanesatake, thinks resuming classes for the next semester at the cultural centre will be challenging.

“Both teachers are over the age of 75,” he said. “So that puts them at further risk.”

How can Kanien’kéha be preserved during the pandemic when connection to it is drastically decreased?

Practicing adaptive responses

Despite obvious obstacles, community members are trying to reorganize their work to help people practice more Kanien’kéha during the pandemic. They are determined to rework old projects to fit new restrictions, while also brainstorming innovative ideas to successfully provide language resources during this difficult time.

Deborah Rennie, the special needs coordinator at the Rotiwennakehte Elementary School in Kanesatake, believes with modern technology, teachers and parents can encourage children to use a new Mohawk language application during quarantine, as well as during the summertime.

“It is convenient, because it is a device,” she said. “And at a given time you can sit and do it, it is fitting with the times.”

The application provides 500 words in 39 categories such as clan system, animals, food, feelings, and so on.

“In September when the classes will start, it will be used by the teachers,” Rennie continued. “Physically, in the classroom, it’s like homework, and if it’ll be back to online studies, it’ll be some combination of online learning.”

She thinks the app is a good solution, and “it definitely allows us to preserve the language.”

The resiliency and creativity continues with KOR artistic director Marion Delaronde, who was able to rearrange her language projects to deliver almost the same amount of radio and video programs in Kahnawake.

Children’s show Tóta Tánon Ohkwá:ri has been around for many years and interest is exploding across Kanien’kehá:ka communities thanks to online reach.

“Judging by our evaluation, everything comes back very positive,” she said. “They (families) are still as supportive as ever. I think that YouTube has become our number one way of engaging with the community.”

Delaronde and her colleagues are working remotely from their homes. To produce the programs, they bought enough microphones to record the main characters and pass all the files electronically to each other.

“Luckily, there is a lot of flexibility,” she continued. “I can one-by-one record all the puppets at my home, where I create a small green screen studio and the program will carry on with a little bit of adjustment.”

As Delaronde and her team print books in Kanien’kéha for children, they are also exploring the world of e-books now.

“We have all of the Mohawk texts and the artists are working on the illustrations,” she said. “But we became concerned about safely distributing print.

“E-book is something new at the cultural center and hopefully we can make it really appealing to people.”

Delaronde believes these modifications are good decisions, “because safety is the most important concern, it is all very good for us to practice our adaptive responses and keeping safety as a priority.”

A producer and founder at Reviving Kanehsatà:ke Radio (RKR) Sylvain “Syd” Gaspé said they usually announce everything on the radio in three languages, English, French and Kanien’kéha.

“That way people can hear the language and get a sense of what is being said,” he explained. “People feel it’s important to hear. There is a consciousness. If we hear it, there is an awareness.”

According to Gaspé, for the RKR to have the fluent speakers on the radio is essential, because “it is a very complex language, and it is better to have a speaker who can say things the right way.”

Gareau thinks there is an opportunity to make Mohawk language curriculum available online to help those who learn Kanien’kéha from home.

“A simple search of “Kanien’kéha” on Google will yield tons of amazing websites and videos, most of which I actually used myself to become a better speaker,” he said.

He believes the pandemic situation has forced people to find many “silver linings,” and to examine better teaching methods, “catching the interest of more people, and eventually making more speakers.”

The Eastern Door launched a weekly page to help community members to learn Kanien›kéha words at home through repetition.

Editor/publisher Steve Bonspiel believes it is one of the tools “to help reverse the decline of Mohawk speakers.”

This idea stemmed from a previous project the newspaper was doing. It was quite similar to the current project, but Bonspiel decided that in order to appeal to more people, they needed to increase the size.

“The page catches your eye,” Bonspiel said. “And the message on the page is clear: we are all in this together, especially as people are basically locked in their homes.”

People can cut out and stick the words around their homes and learn Kanien’kéha in a creative and tangible way.

“People have responded positively,” he said. “It is already successful. We just need help to keep going,” he added.

‘Transition might be a little bumpy’

Yet, technological solutions cannot help in the language revitalization fully at this time.

Gareau believes while technology serves its purpose, it cannot replace the dynamic that emerges when having conversations in person.

“Learning our language is understanding the grammatical structures, as well as memorization of our pronouns and how our words change and are constructed,” he said.

Gareau suggests if the only way that the teachers can effectively teach Kanien’kéha is in person, they should be given the chance to do so in the safest environment possible.

“It’s more detrimental to have our elderly teachers locked in their homes, their mental health, which in term affects their physical health – it’s detrimental to our language,” he said. “If in-person learning is possible and safe, that would be the best solution for all.”

In his opinion, shifting from one way of learning into another in such a short period is also an issue for the learners, because for those who used to study in a classroom setting, “the transition might be a little bumpy.”

Echoing Gareau, Rennie said although the Mohawk language app is a nice tool, it can never replace a teacher.

“With the language like this you always need a teacher who is a native speaker, because you’ll have a deeper understanding of the language,” she said.

Delaronde also said a big part of their projects is contacting fluent speakers; “everyone is important but without our translators, we cannot even begin.”

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