Mentorship program aims to restore first language

TYENDINAGA MOHAWK TERRITORY – A mentor apprentice program launched by Tsi Tyónnheht Onkwawén:na (TTO) is helping connect young learners with a first language role model to better facilitate language transmission in the community.

Callie Hill, TTO’s executive director, said during an interview at the centre that less than two percent of the population on the Mohawk reserve west of Kingston can speak fluently in their mother tongue.

“I think it's growing,” she said. “People are at different levels of proficiency. In the past, it has been less than 1%, it might be more than 1% now. The on-reserve population is around 2,200, so there's probably about 20 people (who speak fluently in their mother tongue).”

Funded by the Tyendinga Mohawk council, and in collaboration with the University of Toronto, the program will see five apprentices take on a 30-week program designed to move them a level higher in their Mohawk language proficiency, as measured by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) standard. Each week will feature 32 hours of planned activities and self-directed learning components.

“(The apprentices) have all taken a two-year immersive language program already so this is the next step for them to continue to keep their language at the level its at and also to build on it,” Hill said, who was joined by the program’s mentor, Laura Morris, who is from Mohawk Nation at Awkwasasne.  

“(Morris) is a first language speaker because she was born into a home where Mohawk was the only language that was spoken,” Hill said. 

Morris said she grew up learning English while speaking Mohawk at home, which had its challenges. 

“We were told that in order to survive, get a career or anything, we had to have an English education,” she said. “Nothing in Mohawk was even taught in the day schools, elementary schools, high school when I was growing up.” 

Morris lived and worked off-reserve for many years before ultimately returning to her roots, and her mother tongue. 

“I did lose my language a little bit … (but) my mom kept always reminding me that (Mohawk) was (my) first language. This is where you grew up. You’re home now, so start using (it).” 

The apprentices for the fledgling program were hand-picked, Hill said. 

“It was by invitation only,” she said, adding that invitees met a number of criteria. 

“They were all graduates of a two-year immersive intense program already at an intermediate-high to advanced-low level of proficiency on the ACTFL scale, available to be a part of this program (and had) shown an interest in keeping their language or increasing their language use,” Hill said. “Some of them actually work for our organizations or have been involved in in working and helping the community to grow our language as a living language. Those were really the things that we were looking at.”

The project is being led by an advisory circle consisting of advanced and superior level speakers and educators with PhDs and Masters degrees in education and Indigenous language revitalization. The members represent Kanyen’kehá:ka (Mohawk) communities of Wáhta, Kahnawà:ke, and Kenhtè:ke (Tyendinaga).

The decline in Indigenous Canadians speaking their mother tongue has been sharp, due to many factors, Hill said. 

“It’s different in every community,” Hill said of the reasons for the decline in those speaking mother tongue. “Here in our community, I think the things that we can identify that have added to our language decline is probably the Indian Act and the day school and residential school eras. I often think about the invention of radio. You're getting English pumped into all the homes as well.”

That trend, Hill said, is slowly starting to be reversed. 

“When I started doing language work, and I've been doing it for 18 years now, there was hardly any funding anywhere for anybody to help you do anything,” she said. “And if it was, it was a project based, which a lot of it still is, but over the last few years after the (Truth and Reconcilition Commission report) has come out, more money, more pots of money are available and I think the government is finally seeing, and those (who receive) the money, what has to be done realistically to save the languages? It's not going to be a six-week program or something. It's a lifelong thing that we all have to contribute to to make it work.”

Education alone is not enough to restore first language, Hill said. 

 “We have to get it out of the mindset of people that it's just supposed to be in an educational setting,” she said. “That's what this program is doing because it isn't a school program. If we want it to live and thrive as a living language, we need to hear it in the homes. We need to get the language out of just the education system and back into the homes. Intergenerational transmission: Parents, children, grandparents, that's how our languages will be saved.”

While Morris isn’t a licenced teacher, there is no one better suited to teach this program, Hill said, adding that Ontario is working on a program that will identify people working as teachers who should be certified by the Ontario College of Teachers. 

“I applied and they won't accept me,” Morris said. “They were looking for a Mohawk language and culture teacher and I can teach it, but I'm not a certified teacher and I couldn't get in because I didn't have a diploma.”

Hill praised Morris for work in helping keep the first language alive on the reserve, and beyond. 

“We've been very fortunate that she's been with us now for this her third year,” she said. “I said to her, I really feel like in order for you to make a living legacy here, which I know is what she wants to do, is to work with these young adults this year and bring them up to another level and wherever they are in our community, they will be speaking Mohawk at a higher level than they were before. And I think that's the legacy that she can leave if this is her last year with us. I think that is going to be the best place for her this year. We're just really, really grateful that she's here.”

To start the year, the mentor apprentice program is taking place at TTO Language and Cultural Centre, beneath the library on York Road.

“Ideally, it would be in a house,” Hill said. “It would be a more natural environment, where they could be going to the stove and making tea or just doing things that you do in a house, coming and going, eating meals and watching TV or doing whatever. That would be the ideal location for this program really, and I'm working on that.”

The program is nothing like school, Morris said, but does have one condition.

“(There’s only one) rule, No. 1 rule. No English when you cross those doors,” she said. 

Not surprisingly, both spoke passionately about language in general, but specifically about the Mohawk language.

“Mohawk is more than just a mode of communication,” Hill said. “It's how we think, how we think about the world, how we see the world, everything. Everything is in our language, and you learn that when you start learning to speak, your mindset changes as you learn the Mohawk language, how you process your thoughts, it's just incredible to watch people in that journey.”

”Mohawk is the word that was used to name us by the English people,” Morris added. “But we're not Mohawks, we’re Kanienʼkehá꞉ka.” 

TTO’s future goal is to deliver a full-time adult Kanyen’ké:ha immersion program in September 2023.

Jan Murphy is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Belleville Intelligencer. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.