This week I spoke with someone from the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, which is the community that is the subject of Raising the Words; a short documentary from Chloë Ellingson.
Callie Hill is the Executive Director of the Tsi Tyonnheht Onkwawenna Language and Cultural Centre, and she has a great deal of experience engaging with, and organizing the education of the Mohawk language. As a Mohawk herself, she also relates personally to the significance of losing the Mohawk language.
I spoke with her both about the language and how to save a language that needs our help.Michael Iannozzi : What led you to get involved in revitalizing the Mohawk language?
Callie Hill : I think that having children was one of the defining moments in my life that made me realize how important the Mohawk language and culture is. And now I have a grandson so it is even more important to me. I am not a speaker, but I do have a base of language knowledge which I have gained from years of taking language programs. I hope to be able to continue learning the language so that I can pass this along to my grandchildren. My parents did not speak, but I did hear my paternal grandfather speak the language, which I don’t recall knowing was indeed Mohawk. He died when I was nine and he was the only person in my family that I ever heard speaking the language.
In 2004, I began to work for Tsi Tyonnheht Onkwawenna (TTO) as the Coordinator. At the time that I joined I was the only full-time employee. My role for the past ten years has been to create, develop and oversee Mohawk language programs in the community, which I have been doing as a non-speaker. By this I mean that I have been the Administrator of the programs, and never a teacher of the language. We now have a staff complement of six teachers, one teacher assistant, a part-time curriculum specialist, an Administrative Assistant and myself, the Executive Director.
MI :What does a typical day consist of in your work?
CH : As the Executive Director of the TTO Language and Cultural Centre, my typical day is administrative work. I write proposals, prepare reporting, oversee the staff and work on new programming. Because my office is at the primary immersion school I also act in the position of “Principal”, so some of my time is helping the teachers in this capacity. So really I don’t have a typical day because you just never know what can happen. We all very much work as a team in every aspect of our organization. Everyone is willing to pitch in and help where they can: being a community, that is what we are all about. For instance, the primary school had a Valentine cookie fundraiser in February and collectively in one day we raised $800, by baking and selling a total of 800 cookies at $1 each – that was a great success!
MI : Where do your revitalization efforts take place?
CH : Kenhteke (Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory) is a Kanyenkehaka (Mohawk people) territory located in eastern Ontario between Belleville and Kingston. Our land is based along the shores of the Bay of Quinte, which is off of Lake Ontario. Historically, we relocated here in 1784 after being displaced from our homelands in Upper New York State in the Mohawk Valley. Our on-reserve population is around 2,200 people.
MI : How are you approaching the revival of the Mohawk language?
CH : Because we recognize the importance of inter-generational transmission of the language for it to thrive, we operate programs geared towards different age categories. We have three levels of educational programs: Totahne (At Gramma’s place) Language Nest, which opened in 2007, is a total immersion program for pre-schoolers; Kawenna’on:we (The First Words) Primary Immersion School, which opened in 2011, is for children from Senior Kindergarten to Gr 4; and the Shatiwennakaratats (They are standing the words back up) Adult Language Program, which started in 2004, is a full-time program for adults. The children’s programs are total immersion, and the adult program, while intense in nature, uses various methods to teach the language which includes not only speaking but reading and writing.
MI : Do you think your approach would work for others (or all) Mohawk communities?
CH : Almost all other Mohawk communities are using formal educational programs such as ours. However our biggest challenge is that we do not have any mother tongue speakers in our community and all of our programs are taught by teachers who have learned the language as an adult. We have one fluent grandmother that works at Totahne as we recognized the importance of having a fluent speaker in that program with the very young children, and we were fortunate at the time to find someone willing to relocate to Kenhteke. Totahne is very much just like spending a day with “gramma” or in our case “Tota”. We also bring in fluent speakers throughout the year in the adult program as it is important for our students to hear language in its most natural form. We network with the other Mohawk communities as we are all in the same situation of trying to ensure our language thrives in our communities.
MI : How did you decide to begin this language training and what resources did you draw upon?
CH : In 2002 TTO formulated a long-term strategic plan which laid the groundwork for the revitalization efforts in the community; the plan was to teach the adults to speak—teach them to be teachers of the language, so that we could begin an immersion school for children. We have since met these goals through various ways and means. So now we continue to build upon this framework. The organization continues to hold strategic planning sessions each year.
MI : Why do you think the language has reached the point where it needs a revival?
CH : People quit speaking the language in our community for various reasons but in my opinion they all point back to colonization. In particular I am speaking of the influence of the Church through the missionaries and the Indian Act. I believe these to be the over-arching reasons which led to parents choosing not to speak Mohawk to their children, and once the intergenerational transmission in the homes was interrupted, it lead to the demise of the language in our community. By my estimation we have not had a generation of mother-tongue speakers who used the Mohawk language in daily life since the late 1800’s.
MI : How does the community feel about your efforts, and how did they feel when you started?
CH : When TTO organized in the late 1990’s there were mixed emotions about revitalization efforts. There was a group of supporters who were very committed to the efforts, and there were also some older people who thought it better left alone, basically to die. I believe the community is supportive of our efforts today. We see support in many ways throughout the community: road signs in the language, people naming their children with only a Mohawk name, people in all our service organizations answering the phones with “She:kon!” (translated in that context as “hello!”), gravestones with Mohawk names engraved on them, the financial support of our local politicians. So I see this as support in many different capacities.
MI : What has been the biggest challenge in revitalizing the Mohawk language?
CH : Funding of programs is an ongoing challenge and we are grateful to our local government, the Tyendinaga Mohawk Council, who have been very supportive financially. Also in this modern world we live in, I don’t believe people realize how colonized they are – some don’t see any point in learning the language in this materialistic, economy driven world we live in.
MI : What do you think is the chance of success for the Mohawk language revitalization project?
CH : I have to say that I have total confidence in our efforts to revitalize our language. There is no other acceptable answer in my opinion. I think it is necessary for us to continue to educate the people in our community, and I see through providing education and awareness the efforts will continue to grow.
MI : What do you feel is a key factor for the revitalization’s success?
CH : I think a key factor is the commitment shown by everyone in the process. From those of us doing the administrative work to the people who are enrolled in our programs and the parents who put their trust in us to educate their children, we all have a vitally important role to play in our efforts.
MI : What is your favourite part of your work?
CH : This work is my life’s passion. I could not see me doing anything other than what I do. I get so much satisfaction when I hear anyone speaking the language, from the children to the adults. I am grateful for the opportunity to be working so closely to something that is so important not only to me, but to many people in my family and my community.
MI : How have the youth, adults, and elders reacted to your efforts?
CH : There is a group of people who I credit for the original push for language and cultural opportunities in the community back 10-15 years ago. These people are now in their 30’s and they are the ones who are raising their children with language and culture. For the past few years there seems to be another group of young people who are very interested in learning the language and culture. This is very exciting for us. I think it is critically important that young people gain this knowledge prior to having children in hopes that they will raise their children in our language and our ways. Our language is not safe until we have a complete generation of speakers, and ideally this will be children who continue the process by teaching and speaking to their children.
MI : What has been the most important thing you’ve learned through this project?
CH : I have learned that nothing good is easy! I think my mother used to say that! We have had our struggles along the way, but the satisfaction of hearing the language being spoken by children or hearing it at the store is so satisfying. We have come from a community of virtually no speakers to one where language can be heard in many contexts. We are now able to conduct our ceremonies at our longhouse totally in the Mohawk language. It can sometimes feel as if we are making no progress so in those times it is important to reflect on where we were ten years ago compared to where we are today. It is nothing short of amazing, and it is the combined efforts of every person in the community who has made the revitalization of language a priority in his/her life.
MI : What would you like to do next, or where you like to see the revitalization projects head next?
CH : I am currently working on my Masters in Indigenous Language Revitalization through the University of Victoria. My project has been a community wide survey on the health, status and vitality of the language, and I am hopeful that I will be able to use some of what I have learned through that process to create more opportunities for people in our community in terms of revitalizing and regenerating our language and culture.Callie hits on many points that are an essential part of the revitalization of any language. Perhaps most importantly that it isn’t easy! This project was started by a dedicated and small group who refused to allow their ancestral language to disappear. For them, it was worth their time and effort to save, and they worked very hard to reach that goal. As Callie says, if there is a committed group of people willing to work toward preserving and revitalizing the language then the language will be saved. Callie has no doubts that Mohawk will be saved, and with people like her working toward saving languages, I have no doubts either.
She also mentions that in the “materialistic, economy-driven” society that we far too often embrace there are those who might not value this kind of work. Some people see Mohawk, and any other language, as a means to an end—of gaining employment or economic gains. But to me this feels wrong. People don’t only learn (and shouldn’t only learn) a language because it is economically valuable. Language learners should be able to see the social and personal value of their language. The Mohawk language has significant cultural value for the people whose ancestors spoke it. This is a tremendous benefit that can’t easily be measured.
Thank you to Callie for her time for this interview. Her work is invaluable to the fabric of the story of us as Ontarians, Canadians, and ultimately as human beings.
Take care eh,