Akwesasne's adult Kanien'kéha immersion program graduates its 1st cohort
'I feel like we all need to do our part to preserve the language in our community,’ says program manager
When Victoria Ransom embarked on a two-year journey to learn her language, her son and late grandmother were the driving forces.
"I wanted to learn the language so that I could teach my son," she said.
Ransom was among the first students of Á:se Tsi Tewá:ton (we will make it new again) in Akwesasne, on the Ontario, Quebec and New York state borders, to graduate from the community's only Kanien'kéha adult immersion program.
Despite many language revitalization efforts, all dialects of Kanien'kéha, or the Mohawk language, are on UNESCO's list of "definitely endangered" languages in Canada.
Ransom's grandmother was one of the last fluent Kanien'kéha speakers in her family. Ransom started the program when her son was six months old, and said it was important to her to be able to pass on as much of the language and worldview that comes along with it.
"It was kind of very disheartening to do the statistics on your own family and realise how close to extinction the language could be if you don't take action for yourself," she said.
"I think that's really important. That's what I want to teach my son, is to know our identity through language."
Á:se Tsi Tewá:ton is a project of the Akwesasne Cultural Restoration program, which is overseen by the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe's Environment Division since its establishment in 2013 from an $8.4 million natural resources damages assessment settlement to support traditional cultural practices.
It was originally a four-year master/apprenticeship on land-based cultural practices, but program manager Barbara Tarbell said after a re-evaluation in 2019, the decision was made to focus on a two-year language immersion program.
"I feel like we all need to do our part to preserve the language in our community," she said.
"We have been lucky that we do have a lot of first language speakers but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be proactive because that's not going to be the case forever."
It's currently the only full-time adult immersion program offered in Akwesasne. Before, community members travelled to Six Nations of the Grand River and Kahnawake for similar immersion programs, Tarbell included. She said it was important to provide an adult immersion opportunity locally, and one that focuses on Akwesasne's unique dialect.
Like Ransom, Brandon Lazore took the program because of his children. He is a member of the Onondaga Nation and grew up both in Onondaga and Syracuse in New York state but has been living in Akwesasne for the last five years with his wife and three children.
His son is now attending the Akwesasne Freedom School, an immersion school for children, and said that gave him a push to learn Kanien'kéha.
"It filled a void that I didn't know I was missing," he said.
"It's our duty to learn it. I think the biggest step you can do with decolonizing is learning your language."
Even though he's graduated from the program, Lazore said it feels like he's just scratched the surface on his language learning journey.
"This is a lifetime thing," he said.
Another cohort of students will start the program in September. For Ransom, she said she's happy to see it continuing.
"There's going to be a big revitalization and a big increase in second language speakers because of this program," she said.
"I'm excited. It's a good feeling."