Thursday June 04, 2015

Residential schools robbed Edward Doolittle of the Mohawk language. Then he reclaimed it.

First Nations University professor Edward Doolittle learned to speak his family's Mohawk dialect as an adult because his grandmother had the language "beaten out of her" at residential school. (Photo: University of Regina/Reuters)

First Nations University professor Edward Doolittle learned to speak his family's Mohawk dialect as an adult because his grandmother had the language "beaten out of her" at residential school. (Photo: University of Regina/Reuters)

Listen 6:33

Edward Doolittle didn't learn his family's traditional language, Mohawk, until he was an adult. That's because his grandmother had it "beaten out of her" at residential school.

He says it's vital to keep the remaining aboriginal languages alive because "they tell us how to live in the world and how to live with each other."

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde spoke out about the threat to indigenous languages this week as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its landmark report. You can find more on our coverage here

AFN Bellegarde 20150601

Assembly of First Nations national Chief Perry Bellegarde holds a news conference in Ottawa on Monday, June 1, 2015. (Photo: CP/Sean Kilpatrick) (The Canadian Press)

At one time, dozens of aboriginal languages were spoken in Canada. Now there are only 58 left. Bellegarde warned that, if nothing is done, soon only three will remain.

"We're really at a crossroads right now," Doolittle tells As It Happens host Carol Off. "We have to do something and we have to do something immediately."

He estimates there about 100 speakers of Mohawk left in his Six Nations community.

"Those people are quite elderly. We're losing them at a rapid rate. And, unless we learn the language from them, we'll be left with a shell of a language."

He says that when he learned Mohawk it was a transformative experience.

"It was almost like growing a new set of eyes," he says. "I think to fully understand what it means to be a Mohawk person, one has to learn the language."

While Cree, Ojibway and Inuktitut have thousands of native speakers, some aboriginal languages have only dozens left.

Although the report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified many issues that need to be addressed urgently - education, health care, housing, child welfare - both Bellegarde and Doolittle believe language also needs to be a priority.

"When I learned Mohawk, an elder came to visit my class and said to us, 'The birds thank you. The trees thank you. The animals thank you for learning the language,'" Doolittle says. "At the time, it seemed an odd thing to say, but now I understand.

"In the Mohawk language, our language for describing human relationships is rich and subtle and nuanced - far more than you'd find in English - and that tells us the importance of our personal relationships with one another," he explains. 

"It helps us tell how to live with one another. It tells us the basics. And those are things that have been taken from us and the language will help to restore that."