Why Karihwanoron, a Mohawk immersion school, is so important: Roxann Whitebean
Why Karihwanoron, a Mohawk immersion school, is so important: Roxann Whitebean

By Roxann Whitebean 
Writer, Director, Producer, Karihwanoron: Precious Things 

My language is among many endangered Indigenous languages. I, like many others in my community, am not a fluent speaker of Kanien’keha.

This is largely due to the fact that my great-grandmother was a residential school survivor and the majority of my grandparents attended Indian day schools on the reserve, where the language was stripped from them.

"I have always felt as though a part of me was missing — it’s hard to articulate at times, because it’s so visceral."

Because my family was disconnected from the language, I have always felt as though a part of me was missing — it’s hard to articulate at times, because it’s so visceral.

I can’t fathom what my great-grandmother went through. She died at the age of 33 with breast cancer, and her life was anything but pleasant.

I’m sure that many Indigenous people can relate to me. Language revitalization is a big topic for many of us.

Collectively, Indigenous people have come to realize that cultural deprivation has taken a toll on our people. But we are now moving forward. We know that healing will not happen overnight, but we fight to continue on with the reclamation of what the settlers tried so hard to eradicate from us.

"Sometimes, resistance is as simple as deciding to leave your comfort zone in order to make sacrifices for the future generations to come."

I think that resistance comes in many forms. Sometimes, resistance is as simple as deciding to leave your comfort zone in order to make sacrifices for the future generations to come – and that’s exactly what Karihwanoron epitomizes: a plan for the future; a stepping-stone to reclaim our language.

Karihwanoron: A school where students learn Mohawk language and culture in a setting that’s structured to our traditional ways of learning

Karihwanoron is a Mohawk immersion program where students study the language and culture in a home-like environment in an effort to revitalize the language. It was founded by mothers from the community in 1988 and has been operating for nearly three decades.

"It’s allowing us to recover from colonization in real-time."

As Kanien’kehá:ka people, we are a distinct Nation that has the right to determine if reconciliation has occurred, or if adjustments are needed to the initial “reconciliation plan” based on our needs.

The school is a positive initiative that fits within our parameters of what reconciliation should be: it’s allowing us to recover from colonization in real-time, by learning our language and culture in a setting that’s structured to our traditional ways of learning.

“I realized that Canada’s dark past with my people was covert.”

Long before Stephen Harper apologized in 2008 for Canada’s role in the residential school legacy, Karihwanoron had already been running for 20 years, and it still did not receive adequate funding for its programming — because it didn’t conform to Canada’s education model. 

The first time I attended school outside of Kahnawà:ke (a Mohawk community outside Montreal) was in 1997. I was enrolled in high school in one of our neighbouring communities. I remember sharing first-hand accounts I had heard from residential school survivors with my class, and my English teacher outright rejecting the information. He claimed to know “everything about Canadian history and that is not true.”

"Most Canadians may not even realise that my people are clinging to the remnants of our language and culture due to colonization."

I felt confused. The shame I felt from my peers’ exasperated stares made me begin to question the information I shared, until another Kanien’kehá:ka student whispered to me that she too had heard about the abuse in residential schools.

It was then that I realized that Canada’s dark past with my people was covert, and that not every Canadian was aware of the atrocities inflicted on my people for generations and generations upon European contact. This knowledge is now something that I carry with me into every project with a political backbone that I work on. I now realize that most Canadians may not even realise that my people are clinging to the remnants of our language and culture due to colonization.

My personal connection to Karihwanoron

Directing the Karihwanoron documentary was an amazing experience for me. The projects I produce reflect issues that I’m empathetic towards and one of them is language revitalization; it pulls at my heartstrings.

My children are enrolled at Karihwanoron. Seeing them excel in the language and converse with their peers is so rewarding, because it’s something I’ve always aspired to do. In fact, I have been considering putting my career on hold for two years to enroll in an adult immersion program. As a filmmaker, I naturally wanted to document this compelling story. Having a relationship with the subjects made it that much more meaningful to me, especially because I was able to bring my work home and contribute to the school.


I hope that you will join in on our battle by simply watching this film and sharing its content with those you know. The more people know about my culture, the easier it will be for my people to attain true reconciliation.

The subjects are also charming, and the story shares how one family’s resilience inspired three generations of Kanien’kehá:ka speakers to undertake the reclamation of our language through Karihwanoron.