Indigenous

Meet the man who is helping revitalize Mohawk language through memes

Popular movie quotes and memes are things Tehakanere John Henhawk has been translating into Kanyen'kéha as a way to promote the language.

Sometimes the smallest things can spark learners' interest, says Tehakanere John Henhawk

I'll be back. (John Henhawk)

This story is part of the CBC Indigenous project Original Voices that highlights a few of the many diverse Indigenous languages that exist across the country.


How do you say Arnold Schwarzenegger's most popular lines from Terminator "I'll be back" in the Mohawk language?

Téntke.

What about Gandalf's "You shall not pass" from the Lord of the Rings series?

Iah tha'tahsatóhetste'.

These, and other popular movie quotes and memes are things Tehakanere John Henhawk has been translating into Kanyen'kéha as a way to promote the language.

Six Nations Polytechnic recently awarded John Henhawk with the Indigenous Institutes Consortium Instructors Award for exemplary service by instructors through a high level of commitment to successful program delivery and student achievement. (John Henhawk)

"It's my little way of contributing to creating in our language," said Henhawk, a teacher from Six Nations, Ont.

"Everyone knows what memes are. We want the language to be seen, heard and to be used."

Henhawk, who teaches at Six Nations Polytechnic, said memes can be a fun way to help spark an interest to learn the language.

"You never know how that's going to affect somebody. Sometimes the smallest thing can inspire someone to at least look into the state of Kanyen'kéha and then maybe develop interest into helping make it stronger."

An endangered language

There are five dialects of Mohawk spoken in Canada and the United States. Despite the many language revitalization efforts in each Mohawk community, all dialects are listed on UNESCO's list of "definitely endangered" languages in Canada where children do not learn the language as a mother tongue at home.

You shall not pass. (John Henhawk)

Akwiratékha Martin, a teacher in Kahnawake, said one of the visible differences between the dialects is the orthography. Communities like Six Nations and Tyendinaga, Ont., use a "y" in their alphabet while others like Kahnawake and Kanesatake in Quebec use an "i" for the same pronunciation.

"At times we describe the same thing differently, but it's all mutually intelligible most of the time," said Martin.

Henhack intentionally uses both "Kanyen'kéha" and "Kanien'kéha" to highlight the different dialects when creating his memes.

"I just want to be inclusive," he said. 

Encouraging Mohawk on social media

The goal is for people to see the language used, and that it's used in spaces on social media.

"It's still here, and if people want they can be fluent. It is a possibility," said Henhack.

Excellent. (John Henhawk)

That was the case for himself. When he moved back to Six Nations after university, he only knew a few basic words in the language before starting a three-year adult immersion program at Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa, a community-based language organization.

"I knew how to say maybe eight random words," said Henhawk.

"I had no conversational ability at all. I could say shé:kon (hello), kwe (hi), or ó:nen (bye), kwéskwes (pig) or kitkit (chicken)."

After graduating the program, Henhawk started teaching and since 2016 has made dozens of translated memes.

When she speaks her Indigenous language (John Henhawk)

"When I was in the program I realized I should be a teacher because we need people to learn and speak the language, but it's important that we have teachers," he said.

"It's really nice to be a part of it and to have the ability to help teach and ensure Kanyen'kéha is passed on to the future generations."

About the Author

Jessica Deer

Journalist

Jessica Deer is Kanien’kehá:ka from Kahnawake. A former staff reporter for the Eastern Door, she works in CBC's Indigenous unit based in Montreal. Email her at jessica.deer@cbc.ca or follow her on Twitter @Kanhehsiio.