For the last two months, Brandyce Tewateronhiakhwa Barnes has spent a lot of time visiting an elder in her community to practise speaking her language.
"Every time we lose a speaker, we lose all their knowledge," said Barnes, who is from Kahnawake, south of Montreal.
"If we aren't taking advantage of it while they're there, we're going to lose everything."
Barnes, 40, graduated from the Kanien'kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center's two-year Ratiwennahní:rats adult immersion program three years ago to learn Kanien'kéha, or the Mohawk language.
As a way to actively be around the language, she decided to work in Kahnawake's immersion schools immediately but still felt a need to grow her proficiency. That's why she jumped at the chance to participate in a 10-week pilot mentorship program designed for advanced learners to be mentored by elders.
Pilot program to build fluency
The program was developed by the Kahnawake Collective Impact's Language and Culture Mentorship Action Team, which brings together community organizations to work collaboratively to promote language and culture.
"It's something that's missing in the community," said Ohontsakéhte Montour, co-chair of the action team.
"In the community right now, there aren't a lot of existing programs for advanced language speakers."
Montour said the goal is to expand the mentorship program to six months, and offer it immediately after a class of students graduate from Ratiwennahní:rats so that they don't regress in their language capacity.
The first cohort has three pairs of participants. Each of their sessions are recorded, which will be added to the cultural centre's archive. Barnes's mentor is 82-year-old Onwá:ri Grace Goodleaf.
Passing on knowledge
A survivor of the Indian day school system in Kahnawake, Goodleaf attended Kateri School when children were punished for speaking Kanien'kéha.
She spent 37 years teaching in a Kanien'kéha immersion school until retiring at the age of 80. She said it was important to participate as a mentor with the program because there's still a need to pass on language knowledge.
"My time here may be short," she said.
"I would like to pass on what I learned through my life to someone else and just not let it die."
For Barnes, the program helps balance the pressure to learn as much as possible without feeling like a burden on elders who provide their time and knowledge. Both the elders and mentees are compensated for their time.
"They deserve it," said Barnes.
"They deserve so much for hanging on to something that was ripped away from us."