A Hamilton man's attempt to preserve the language of his ancestors has taken him farther than he ever thought possible — from humble YouTube beginnings to teaching a Grammy-winning, multi-platinum selling musician a new way to sing one of his own songs.

Karonhyawake Jeff Doreen, a local teacher who is Mohawk, has been striving for years to keep the Mohawk language Kanien'kéha alive.

He does so in part by recording covers of well-known pop songs by acts like the Beatles and translating them.

If the language were to die, then where are the thoughts of those people? They're gone — and to me, that's a huge tragedy.

- Karonhyawake Jeff Doreen

One of those tunes was posted online, and caught the attention of the stepmother of Dave Matthews Band bassist Stefan Lessard, who is also Mohawk. She suggested he try his hand at a Dave Matthews cover.

Doreen was a big fan of the band — but doing a translation was easier said than done. "Dave crams a lot of words into small spaces," Doreen laughed from his home on the Mountain.

That makes translating tricky. Words are much longer in Kanien'kéha than in English, and if the topics centre heavily on English metaphors, they can be tough to translate.

He settled on Where Are You Going, a hit from Dave Matthews Band's 2002 album Busted Stuff.

Someone from the band saw his YouTube cover, and he was brought backstage at the band's show in Saratoga Springs, New York last month where he met Matthews and taught him some of the lyrics to one of his own songs.

"It was pretty wild," he said.

The need to preserve Aboriginal culture

The spectacle of meeting music superstars aside — Doreen's song translations highlight a real need for preservation of Aboriginal culture and language.

Jeff Doreen Dave Matthews

Karonhyawake Jeff Doreen teaches at Prince of Wales Elementary school in Hamilton. He met Dave Matthews backstage at a show last month. (Karonhyawake Jeff Doreen)

According to the 2011 census, only 400 people in Ontario now refer to Mohawk as their mother tongue, with 190 people responding that it is their language spoken most often at home, and 470 people responding that it's a language spoken regularly at home.

Kanien'kéha isn't Doreen's first language. He remembers as a kid hearing his grandparents and great grandparents speaking it, and not really understanding what they were saying.

His grandmother did make efforts to teach him as a teenager — but like many teenagers, it wasn't a huge priority for him.

As he got older, he watched those relatives pass away, and their language start to die with them. As his grandmother's mortality started becoming more evident, he made a promise to himself to be able to speak with her in Mohawk.

"I really wanted to be able to talk to her in the language," he said. "If I don't pick up the baton she's trying to pass on to me, who will?"

Thanks to some adult education courses at Six Nations, Doreen was able to speak to his grandmother in Kanien'kéha before her death in 2008 — something he still holds dear.

A lack of resources

But it was while learning he realized there was a lack of resources to really get these words and phrases to sink into his mind.

Many instructors of second languages suggest watching movies and listening to music in the language you're trying to learn, hence the translation videos of pop songs, which Doreen hopes can be a resource for other people trying to do the same thing.

"Language is a world view of a people group, and your identity is found in that language," he said. "If the language were to die, then where are the thoughts of those people?

"They're gone — and to me, that's a huge tragedy."

adam.carter@cbc.ca