Meet 4 people working to keep Cayuga language alive at Six Nations

The Cayuga language is considered critically endangered by UNESCO, but over the last 30 years people at Six Nations of the Grand River have been working to ensure that the language survives for future generations.

Fluent speakers are in decline but learners are working to reclaim the language

Both of Tracy Deer’s parents spoke Cayuga as their first language, but they spoke English at home with her and her brother. (Six Nations Polytechnic)

At Six Nations, a group of Cayuga language learners are trying to bridge a generation gap after their parents and grandparents stopped passing on their traditional language.

The Six Nations of the Grand River reserve, about 100 km southwest of Toronto, is home to people of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora nations, and each has their own language.

Both of Tracy Deer's parents spoke Cayuga as their first language. Her parents were both part of the Mohawk nation but grew up in the part of Six Nations where Cayuga was commonly spoken. 

When she and her brother were toddlers, Deer, now 58, said her mother stayed at home with them and only spoke Cayuga to them.

But one day her father came home from working as a steelworker and was trying to speak English to them and the children didn't understand what he was saying. 

"He told my mom, 'You have to teach them English because when they get to school, they're going to struggle. They're not going to do well in school and then they're not going to be able to be successful in their lives,'" said Deer.

"So she stopped talking [Cayuga] and then ironically enough, I grow up and I'm trying to be a language teacher." 

According to UNESCO's Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger, the Cayuga dialect spoken in Canada is critically endangered, which is one step before being extinct.

Deer is now part of a Cayuga language immersion project called Creating Speakers and Documenting Our Oral Legacy  that launched in January 2019 after Six Nations Polytechnic received funding from an Ontario Trillium Foundation Grow Grant of over $700,000 over three years. 

The goal of the program is to train eight Cayuga language speakers to become language teachers and create an archive of Cayuga learning resources.

The immersion program is also being called Agwasgo̲howanahtaˀ, which means "we are growing the branches" in Cayuga. 

'That generation was the one where it split'

Kawenni:io/Gaweni:yo Private School began offering immersion in Cayuga or Mohawk languages in 1986. 

Kehte Deer was part of the first cohort that took Cayuga immersion from kindergarten until Grade 8. He continued to pursue the language through high school and works with the Six Nations Language Commission and is a Cayuga grammar instructor at Six Nations Polytechnic. 

Listen to Kehte Deer introduce himself in Cayuga

While he was immersed in Cayuga at school, Deer did not grow up hearing the language spoken at home.

His maternal grandparents parents spoke Cayuga and his paternal grandparents spoke Mohawk, but neither of his parents spoke their languages. 

Kehte Deer and Greg Longboat in Cayuga class at Six Nations Polytechnic. (Ryan Johnson/Six Nations Polytechnic)

"Sort of everyone within that generation was the one where it split, so they ended up without it," said Deer. 

He said there could lots of reasons — television and the proximity of urban centres like Toronto and Hamilton, as well as the intergenerational effects of the residential school system and day schools.

Listen to Kehte Deer's favourite Cayuga word

He said part of the reason that he wanted to become a language instructor is because of the inherent rights of Indigenous Peoples. 

"The reason we have those rights is that we're Indigenous Peoples with our own cultures and languages and traditions," he said. 

"That's your identity." 

'Always keep learning'

Tania Henry grew up learning Cayuga in elementary school, but unlike Kehte Deer she did not attend the immersion elementary school. 

She teaches the first part of a lifelong learning course in the Cayuga Language Stream of Six Nations Polytechnic's Bachelor of Arts in Ogwehoweh Languages, and is also a student in the Agwasgo̲howanahtaˀ program. 

Listen to Tania Henry's favourite Cayuga word

Henry attended another Cayuga language program called Dwadewayestah Gayogohono that runs out of the Grand River Employment and Training Centre before being accepted into Agwasgo̲howanahtaˀ. 

"The goal is to always keep learning because there's so much to learn," she said. 

She said that traditional language plays a big role in identity. 

Ceremonies in Six Nations are done in three different languages depending on which longhouse you attend. 

"To have an understanding while you're at a ceremony is really important to people who attend," said Henry. 

She said this is sometimes a reason why people make efforts to learn Cayuga. 

'To be able to give thanks from the heart' 

After completing a bachelor's degree in kinesiology at Western University, Greg Longboat returned home to Six Nations and began focusing on learning the Cayuga language. He's in his first year of the Cayuga Language Stream of Six Nations Polytechnic's Bachelor of Arts in Ogwehoweh Languages. 

“I've always wanted to come and get into the language and I thought I should do it while I still have the opportunity to,” says Greg Longboat, 25. (Ryan Johnson/ Six Nations Polytechnic)

Longboat grew up on Six Nations and is part of the Mohawk Nation, although he had older family members who spoke Cayuga when he was growing up.

"I've always wanted to come and get into the language and I thought I should do it while I still have the opportunity to," said Longboat. 

He attends ceremonies on the reserve and Cayuga is spoken within the longhouse, sometimes for hours. He said it's important to know what's going on. 

"For me personally, that was a big motivation for me, but also to be able to give thanks from the heart and not just from learning short, kind of pre-rehearsed speeches," Longboat said.

CBC Indigenous is highlighting a few of the many diverse Indigenous languages that exist across the country. Read more from the Original Voices project.


Rhiannon Johnson is an Anishinaabe journalist from Hiawatha First Nation based in Toronto. She has been with the Indigenous unit since 2017 focusing on Indigenous life and experiences throughout Ontario. You can reach her at and on Twitter @rhijhnsn.