New Yorker: Hope for Native languages amid loss of speakers

The Kanatsiohareke Mohawk Community in New York. Photo from Facebook

Language nests, immersion schools and scholars are keeping Native languages alive. Judith Thurman has a lengthy article in The New Yorker about preservation efforts taking place across the world, including Kanatsiohareke, a community center in New York where Mohawk is taught:
About twenty-five thousand North Americans identify themselves as Mohawk, but only about fifteen per cent speak the language well enough to conduct their daily lives in it. Transcribing Mohawk is an arduous task. In the eighteen-seventies, Alexander Graham Bell, a recent immigrant to Canada, fell in love with its sound and created an orthography. (The Mohawk made him an honorary chief.) The grammar is at least as challenging as that of Latin. Noun roots are modified by a welter of adjectival prefixes; the addition of the letter “h,” for example, can alter a meaning dramatically. If you err in trying to describe a man as “tall,” you may have said that he has “long balls.” Verbs are muscular and poetic. “To bury” someone is “to wrap his body with the blanket of our Mother Earth.” A man who fathers a child “lends him his life.” In the ethos of Mohawk culture, as in its language, “I” cannot stand on its own—the first-person singular is always part of a relationship. So you don’t say, “I am sick.” “The sickness,” in Mohawk, “has come to me.”

In the advanced seminar at Kanatsiohareke, Mina Beauvais, whose Mohawk name is Tewateronhiakhwa, was teaching students the optative, an arcane mood, akin to the subjunctive, that exists in Kurdish, Albanian, Navajo, Sanskrit, and ancient Greek. The students also had to contend with compound words, some longer than those of German, which aren’t pronounced as they are written. You need a bard’s memory and a singer’s breath to speak Mohawk as Beauvais does: she makes it sound incantatory. I took and failed a test that she gave her class: to repeat tahotenonhwarori’taksen’skwe’tsherakahrhatenia’tonháîtie. (It is a single word that means “the fool comes tumbling down the hill.”)

Beauvais, who grew up near Montreal, is a native speaker in her late seventies. She is small and sturdy, with a wry patience bred of hardship. When she was seven, the state compelled her parents to send her to a school “for Indians,” at which students were beaten for speaking their native tongue. Tom Porter’s grandmother hid him, at the same age, so that the authorities couldn’t put him in a boarding school. The forcible assimilation of First Nation children in punitively austere, mostly church-run institutions was made compulsory by Canadian law in the eighteen-eighties and continued until the nineteen-seventies. “That system almost destroyed us,” Porter said. “When you deprive a kid of his language at the sponge time of life, the most precious learning years, a bond is broken.”

Attendance at the camp was lower than in the past; there were just four students in the advanced seminar, though all were parents who hoped to pass the language on to their young children. Gabrielle Doreen, a stately woman of thirty-seven, who wears her graying hair in a long braid, is the mother of four. While honing her grammar, she was teaching kindergarten at the Mohawk “nest” on the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, in Ontario. The nest—totahne—is an immersion program for preschoolers. Doreen had enrolled in the camp with her fiancé, Lou Williams, an Oneida. He was moving from his native Wisconsin to Ontario, he told me, “because in Mohawk tradition men join their women’s clan.”

Iehnhotonkwas—Bonnie Jane Maracle—started as a student at the camp when it began, in 1998, and became its coördinator in 2005. “We originally had much better attendance,” she said. “But eight Mohawk communities now have their own immersion classes, so people can study closer to home.”

Get the Story:
Judith Thurman: A Loss for Words (The New Yorker 3/30)

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