As 1st language Kanien'kéha speakers dwindle, communities unite to revitalize the language

For nearly a decade, a language immersion program in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory documented sessions with first language speakers of Kanien’kéha to develop curriculum and help revitalize the language.

Catalogue of sessions with 1st language speakers made available online

First language speakers at a Ratiwennókwas session. (Tsi Tyónnheht Onkwawén:na)

Mina Beauvais believes she's still here to carry on Kanien'kéha (Mohawk language), a language that is critically endangered and spoken by roughly 932 people in North America as their first language. 

Beauvais, 85, and her two sisters are the last surviving of their 10 siblings. Kanien'kehá:ka (Mohawk) from Kanehsatà:ke, Beauvais is committed to language revitalization.

"It's who we are, first of all, and I find that the young ones in our community that are not speakers seem very lost, right? They're the ones that go off track," said Beauvais.

For nearly a decade, Tsi Tyónnheht Onkwawén:na, a language immersion program in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory about 200 kilometres east of Toronto, documented sessions with first language speakers of Kanien'kéha to help develop a curriculum to revitalize the language.

The project is called Ratiwennókwas, which translates to "they are pulling the words from the water." The catalogue of sessions was made available online earlier this month.

Each session has at least two first language speakers from six Kanien'kehá:ka communities (Tyendinaga, Six Nations, Kahnawà:ke, Kanehsatà:ke, Akwesasne and Wahta) and brings them together with language learners.

Callie Hill, executive director of Tsi Tyónnheht Onkwawén:na, said a grant was needed to initiate the project, which creates interaction between young people and seniors.

"Our whole lives are in our language and in our culture and who we are as Kanien'kehá:ka and the need for having to pass that on to our little ones, to our descendants, our future generations," said Hill.

The project became an annual event building on each subsequent meeting.

A language of 'idioms and metaphors'

Tahohtharátye Brant had intended to be a participant at sessions but was tasked with using his skills as a language learner to moderate them.

"It was an awesome opportunity but looking back and listening and re-listening to all these Ratiwennókwas [sessions] I understand where I was at with my proficiency at the time; it was very difficult."

Brant said the first language speakers "shared this excitement and desire to share their knowledge and make sure that knowledge got passed on in a good way." 

The sessions were structured so the first language speakers could interact with each other throughout the weekend.

Tahohtharátye Brant (right) and the Ratiwennókwas Project speakers. (Tsi Tyónnheht Onkwawén:na)

"It was like a being at home and talking with different people," Beauvais said.

"I think I was energized. We had so much fun."

The six sessions were structured with a theme, like idioms, metaphors and old words. To initiate dialogue between participants, different scenarios were set up.

In one scenario, Beauvais recalled pretending to be a vacuum cleaner salesperson selling a vacuum to another attendee. To do so she used old Kanien'kéha to create new words to describe modern appliances, like "drag it on the floor" for vacuum.

Brant said one of the most thought-provoking sessions was around idioms and metaphors. He said a first language speaker posited that "the whole language is idioms and metaphors."

Kanien'kéha is a descriptive language that uses many shorter words together to create other words.

Native speakers from six Kanien’kehá:ka territories contributed to the language project. ( Tsi Tyónnheht Onkwawén:na)

Brant used the Kanien'kéha word for dying as an example. There are several words in Kanien'kéha that are context specific: sahahiákha' (he's gone to pick berries again), iakonontahrà:'on (she got to the top of the hill), ia'thotshéntho'se' (the sun set on him), wa'karontié:nen'ne' (the tree or log fell down from a standing position).

And there are different words for different situations, Brant said, for example when speaking with children versus speaking with elders.


Candace Maracle is Wolf Clan from Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University. She is a laureate of The Hnatyshyn Foundation REVEAL Indigenous Art Award. Her latest film, a micro short, Lyed Corn with Ash (Wa’kenenhstóhare’) is completely in the Kanien’kéha language.