Revitalizing Kanien'kéha: Immersion program seeks to protect Mohawk language

A Mohawk language immersion program in Kanesatake, Que., is helping the community northwest of Montreal better connect with its culture.

'We're in the end game right now for our language,' says student of program in Kanesatake, Que.

Jeremy Tomlinson is one of 10 students currently enrolled in an immersion program in Kanesatake, Que., for Kanien'kéha, or the Mohawk language. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

Jeremy Teiawenniserate Tomlinson is only two months into a language immersion program in Kanesatake, Que., but he says the experience has already made a huge impact on his life.

"It's helping me connect a lot more to my identity," said Tomlinson. "Language and culture goes hand in hand, because through learning the language, you get connected to your ancestors and your roots through these words."

Tomlinson is one of four students who enrolled in the program — called Ratiwennenhá:wi — in September. 

He learns Kanien'kéha, the Mohawk language, four days a week through an immersive program at Tsi Ronterihwanónhnha ne Kanien'kéha Language and Cultural Center in the community located northwest of Montreal.

"A lot of efforts have been undertaken to eliminate these things, to separate us from our culture and our language," said Tomlinson.

Warisó:se Gabriel has been teaching the Mohawk language for most of her life. Right now, she spends her mornings teaching 10 immersion students in Kanesatake. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

"I think the best thing we can do for ourselves right now to heal, to rise up from where we are to something better, is through learning our language."

Kanesatake's dialect of Kanien'kéha

While language revitalization efforts have been made across Mohawk communities in Quebec, Ontario and New York state, the Mohawk language is considered endangered.

According the 2016 census, 2,350 people in Ontario and Quebec are knowledgeable in the language and its vitality is listed as "definitely endangered" by UNESCO's atlas of endangered languages, due to children no longer learning it as their mother tongue in the home.

Four new students joined the program in September. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

Each Mohawk community also has slight dialect differences, which are important to preserve, said Hilda Kanerahtenhá:wi Nicholas, director of Tsi Ronterihwanónhnha ne Kanien'kéha Language and Cultural Center.

"In Kanesatake, we have maintained the ancient language. The people that still speak it have kept the ancient language very well alive," she said.

Learn about colours in Kanien'kéha


1 year ago
Hilda Nicholas gives a lesson in the words for colours in the Mohawk language. 1:37

The adult immersion program is now in its fourth year. It started with seven students and has so far graduated one person who achieved the desired level of fluency. There's a high demand for the program, Nicholas said, but the program lacks resources and was only able to add the four new students this year.

"We have a lack of teachers, so it's very difficult to offer classes at each different level, whether it's beginners, intermediate or advanced," she said.

As a result, the new students learn together in the same classroom as the returning students. Twenty community members in Kanesatake are currently on a waiting list to take the program.

During the morning, the students focus on grammar, before practising their speaking skills in the afternoon.

Hilda Kanerahtenhá:wi Nicholas is the director of Tsi Ronterihwanónhnha ne Kanien'kéha Language and Cultural Center. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

"The people of this community want the language to be alive," said Nicholas. "People want the language back, they want it flourishing and being spoken again. But it's very difficult to take everyone in when our No. 1 struggle is funding."

The Kontinónhstats Mohawk Language Custodian Association works with the cultural centre to look for funding and donations for the preservation, revitalization and teaching of the Mohawk language, culture and history.

This year, the program got $75,000 from Canadian Heritage's Aboriginal Languages Initiative, but Nicholas said the funding doesn't meet their needs. The students hold fundraising raffles regularly to keep the program activities going.

'One of the toughest things I've ever done'

Kevin Nelson is one of the people who had been wanting to take the program since its launch, but he had just started a new job at as a youth worker at the Kanesatake Health Center. Not knowing the language always bothered him, so when the opportunity came up again, he decided to take a leave of absence. He started the program in September.

Nelson said the program has been challenging — "one of the toughest things I've ever done" — but at the end of the day, he feels like he's accomplishing something not only for himself, but also for the community.

Language immersion for adults at Kanesatake


1 year ago
A Mohawk language immersion program in Kanesatake, Que., is helping the community northwest of Montreal better connect with their culture. 3:09

"We have to learn the language — there's no if, ands or buts," said Nelson. "It just needs to be a priority. It's tied to who we are. If people have the courage to do that, then hopefully others will follow."

The dwindling number of first-language speakers in Kanesatake has been another motivation for students in the program. There's now about 60 first-language speakers, mostly elders, in the community of about 2,600.

"We're in the end game right now for our language," said Tomlinson. "Every year, we lose first-language speakers."

During the afternoons, the students focus on practising their conversational skills with teacher Mena Tewateronhiakhwa Beauvais. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

According to Nicholas, fewer than 10 of those first-language speakers are teachers and know how to pass on the language in a classroom setting.

Both teachers of the program, Warisó:se Gabriel and Mena Tewateronhiákhwa Beauvais, have been teaching most of their lives and are well past the average retirement age.

"I want to be able to not only learn the language, but be able to replace these hard-working ladies who have spent their whole life teaching the language," said Nelson.

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


Ka’nhehsí:io Deer is Kanien’kehá:ka journalist from Kahnawake, Que. She is currently a reporter with CBC Indigenous covering communities across Quebec.