Kahnawake street signs encourage the use of traditional language

Road signs in the language, Kanien'kéha, are popping up all over Kahnawake. They’re there because of Karihwiióstha Callie Montour.
Sign creator, Karihwiióstha Callie Montour, in front of a sign that asks for dogs to be kept on leash. (Angela Sarakan)

This story was originally published May 13, 2018

Road signs in the language, Kanien'kéha, are popping up all over Kahnawake. They're there because of Karihwiióstha Callie Montour.

"The way it is right now, English is kind of the default language. You see it everywhere. Kanien'kéha isn't really being used," she said. "The thing with language is if you want them to survive and thrive, they have to be used."

Montour said someone can go through Kahnawake, a community 20 minutes south of Montreal, and not have to speak a word of the traditional language.

"You'll never be asked to. You'll never see the words, You'll never hear it. To me, that's a problem we have. We teach the language in the schools and now when the kids finish at 3:00, there's no Kanien'kéha anywhere,' she said.

Montour's idea was sparked by stop signs she had seen elsewhere in Cree.
Another sign created by Montour, warns drivers they're approaching a pedestrian crosswalk. (Angela Sarakan)

"We have our own stop signs in our language but I guess that sort of made me think, why stop there? Why not go with more signs? We have road signs all over the place. I think we could use the language all over,"

Montour created the designs at home and approached the community's public works department to have them made. Initially, 20 signs were erected in the community.

Montour learned Kanien'kéha, or Mohawk, in an adult immersion program. She said it's a descriptive language, where words are made up of smaller syllables.

"To teach the language you have to really teach what every syllable means, root words. It can be quite difficult to learn as a second language speaker. I've heard a lot of people say they find it's a lot more complicated than French or Spanish," she said.
A street sign in Kahnawake in the traditional language, Kanien'kéha, cautions drivers to slow down as children are at play. (Angela Sarakan)

Montour said it's nice to see more signs going up in Kahnawake.

"It really just started with a simple idea I had that I never thought I would do. And all of a sudden, they're all over the place and people are noticing. I don't know… it's exciting."