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How Ryan DeCaire is working to preserve Indigenous culture through language

Ryan DeCaire didn’t become fluent in Kanien’kéha, the language of his Mohawk ancestors, until he was in his 20s. Now, he teaches it to students from all backgrounds at the University of Toronto in the hopes of keeping the language alive.

'Revitalizing a language is a community effort,' says U of T Mohawk language teacher

DeCaire (far right) with his students from Ratiwennahní:rats, an adult language immersion program in Kahnwà:ke. (Submitted by Ryan DeCaire)
Keep Canada's Indigenous languages alive 54:00

Ryan DeCaire didn't become fluent in Kanien'kéha, the language of his Mohawk ancestors, until he was in his 20s.

Now, he teaches it to students from all backgrounds at the University of Toronto in the hopes of keeping the language alive.

Growing up in Wáhta Kanien'kehá:ka Territory just east of Georgian Bay, Ont., DeCaire only knew a few Kanien'kéha words. He was always curious why conversations in the Mohawk language in his community never went beyond "hello" or "goodbye."

Eventually, DeCaire reached a realization that unless something was done to preserve the language, it would disappear.

His research led him to Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa (Our Language Society), a community-based language immersion program that teaches Kanien'keha to adults on the Six Nations Grand River Territory near Brantford, Ont. He shared his journey of learning Kanien'kéha, and eventually teaching it to others, with the CBC's Duncan McCue.

Here is part of their conversation.

You decided to go to the adult Mohawk immersion school at Six Nations. Were you nervous? I mean, you didn't speak any of the language.

I was very nervous, especially because as Indigenous people, we all have this kind of baggage. We feel that we shouldn't have to go through this, and that it should be something that we already had. So the ability to leave your ego at the door and say, "It's OK that I don't speak my language" and to start, going in with a positive mind, is actually very challenging.

What was it like going through into an immersion setting for two years?

It was one of the most challenging things I've ever done. You know, I've done a BA, I've done an MA, and comparing that to my immersion time, immersion was much more challenging. We're in there for six and a half hours a day every day, for 1,000 hours, for the entire school year, culminating in 2,000 hours total. And it's a rule to only speak Mohawk.

So when you don't know anything, it's very, very challenging, and to admit to yourself that you don't know anything, so you feel stressed, you feel anxious. But eventually you realize the more you learn, it starts to become more comfortable, and then you kind of get over this mountain and you start to realize you're beginning to speak more fluidly. And at the same time, you're building a community of other younger speakers — and that's what I often tell people, is that's one of the things we really need that's most important: a community of people who are striving to the same thing.

DeCaire spent some time living with Warisó:se (Myrtle) Bush, an elder from Kahnawà:ke Mohawk Territory, to practice speaking the language. (Submitted by Ryan DeCaire)

Kanien'kéha is nothing like English. It's very verb-focused. What was the hardest part of learning the language?

It's a very, very hard language to learn. But if you have the right tools and techniques, it's not as hard as we thing — especially if you have the right support and the people around actually speak to.

Linguistically, our language is very complicated. It's had a very complicated morphology structure, meaning that we have a polysynthetic language —  meaning something you'd say in a sentence in English, we put all that information into one word [in Kanien'kéha], and that is very challenging for a person who speaks English as a first language.

Now you're teaching the first-ever Kanien'kéha language class at the University of Toronto. It turns out most of your students are non-indigenous. Did that surprise you?

Coming into Toronto, I knew there would be a lot more people from diverse backgrounds. And I was OK with that because there's two reasons, in my opinion, I teach language. I teach immersion to community to create speakers, because we need to create speakers so we can restore intergenerational transmission.

But we need to work on language revitalization at many levels, and another way we need to do is we need to create what I call "good neighbours," and that's really helping young non-Indigenous people to understand the importance of language in Indigenous people's culture, ways of thinking, and also realize that one's Canadian identity or their Canadian identity is built in a relationship with Indigenous people.

And if you really want to understand what it means to be from Canada, you have to understand the Indigenous perspective. And there's no better way, in my opinion, than to learn a language.

There are only about 1,000 Kanien'kéha speakers right now. How hopeful are you about the future of the language?

Sometimes I'm not that hopeful, to be honest with you. Sometimes, we forget the real important thing is that, if we're not creating new speakers, then we're not revitalizing the language at the end of the day, and that's what we really need to do. People forget that revitalizing a language is a community effort. It's not a specialist's responsibility. It's not a teacher's responsibility. It's every single person.

What keeps you going in learning the language, [and] teaching the language?

It's a challenge each and every day. I usually feel great, because when you start to learn your language, you really start to feel good. You're start to realize you're learning who you are, starting to connect more with your community, with your land base.

And you realize that how beautiful our way of thinking is, and how it was developed over thousands of years — and to realize if something were we lost, how sad that would be. So whenever I learn a new word or I see a new person really engage with learning the language, it makes me so happy. And we need a thousand more of those people.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.