Cousins use Kanien'kéha to share what they've learned about medicines and Mohawk culture

Ra’nikonhrí:io Lazare and Katsenhaién:ton Lazare want people in Kahnawake, Que., to learn more about Mohawk language and culture with their video series about medicines.

On break from Mohawk language immersion program, pair creates video series

Onkwanónhkwa means "our medicines" in the Mohawk language. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

Teionerahtastaráthe (broadleaf plantain). Tsawenhsa'kó:wa (great mullein). Tarà:kwi ononhkwèn:'on (staghorn sumac).

These are some of the Mohawk names of medicines that grow in abundance throughout Kahnawake, Que., that Ra'nikonhrí:io Lazare and Katsenhaién:ton Lazare want their community to learn more about.

"We show our community not to be afraid to use your language, and not to be afraid to show what you know about the land," said Ra'nikonhrí:io Lazare.

The two cousins are learning Kanien'kéha, the Mohawk language, and are enrolled in their second year of Ratiwennahní:rats, a two-year adult language immersion program by the Kanien'kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center.

Watch the Lazare cousins make their medicine videos in Kanien'keha

3 years ago
Duration 3:00
Ra’nikonhrí:io Lazare and Katsenhaién:ton Lazare want people in Kahnawake, Que., to learn more about Mohawk language and culture with their video series about medicines.

To keep active throughout their summer break, they launched the bilingual video series Onkwanónhkwa (Our Medicines) as a part of an internship at the weekly newspaper Iorì:wase. In each episode, they describe what the plant looks like, where it grows, its uses and medicinal properties.

"In Ratiwennahní:rats, you're going in every single day and you're surrounded by the language. We wanted to do this job in order to keep learning and simultaneously teach a few people what we know so far," said Katsenhaién:ton Lazare.

Incorporating Mohawk language into journalism

In addition to the videos, the two also spent the summer translating news stories into Kanien'kéha for the newspaper and created daily language lessons for social media.

"It's really inspiring to see how much they're able to share their knowledge," said publisher Greg Tekanerahtané:ken Horn.

The broadleaf plantain was the subject of one of the videos the two language learners made during the summer. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

Horn took the same language immersion program about 15 years ago. He said through the internship, he wanted to demonstrate to students how the language can be used in a field like journalism after they complete the program.

"It gives people the opportunity to see and hear Kanien'kéha used on a regular basis, in a different way rather than it just being a classroom language," said Horn.

Why learning the language is important

Katsenhaién:ton Lazare is a first-language speaker raised by two second-language speakers and he wanted to take the immersion program to learn more about the language's linguistics and grammar rules.

"I was lucky enough to have the language throughout my lifetime, but as I got older I tend to lack a little bit. I didn't want to lose so much of what I already knew as a kid," he said.

"I'm young, and still young and have so much to learn."

Being able to understand the language, he said, provides people with a deeper meaning into some words and foundational oral histories of the Mohawk Nation. 

Greg Horn is the publisher of Iorì:wase. (Georges Giannelis/CBC)

"When you hear the story about the Great Law of Peace, it's very different when you listen to it in English. It's not the same as when we use our words," he said.

"It's a very descriptive language. Teionerahtastaráthe is name given to the broadleaf plantain, one of the weeds that came to North America after European arrival. Its name in Kanien'kéha is comprised of a noun meaning leaf and an adjective meaning bright. 

Cousins Katsenhaiénton Lazare, 18, and Ranikonhriio Lazare, 20, are teaching their community about the medicines surrounding them in a bilingual video series. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

"When you look at it, it's very shiny, you can see it reflecting from the sun. I guess that's what our ancestors described it as," said Ra'nikonhrí:io.

In addition to producing Onkwanónhkwa, Ranikonhriio Lazare and Katsenhaiénton Lazare spent their summer translating stories for the newspaper, and developing crossword puzzles and language lessons. (Submitted by Greg Horn)

Prior to enrolling in Ratiwennahní:rats, Ra'nikonhrí:io Lazare spent about two years trying to learn the language on his own. 

"After all that time, sometimes it feels like you're getting nowhere. Today, it feels so much better that I'm finally able to actually talk about something," he said.

"Learning our language Kanien'kéha is important is because it is a very direct sense of who we are and where we came from."


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