‘It’s a race against time’ to preserve Indigenous languages on Six Nations

·4 min read

Rick Monture knows of fewer than 30 fluent Cayuga or Onondaga speakers still living. A new project led by the Woodland Cultural Centre and McMaster University intends to capture their voices and stories.

“It’s a race against time in terms of preserving as much knowledge as we can,” said Monture, an Indigenous studies professor who is Mohawk from Six Nations of the Grand River.

“We’ve lost some fluent Cayuga speakers to COVID, unfortunately,” he added. “The loss of language and cultural knowledge that our elders have can happen that quickly.”

With $25,000 in funding from the McMaster Indigenous Research Institute through the Indigenous Scholar-in-Community fellowship, Monture will work with Woodland’s language revitalization experts to record and document conversations with Cayuga and Onondaga speakers.

“Our intent is to interview speakers on a variety of topics and for them to give their best, most thoughtful answers in the language,” Monture said.

Those unscripted answers will reflect “the thinking, the philosophy, and how you would converse with a fluent speaker, as opposed to teaching at a rudimentary level,” he explained.

Monture says participants will be asked to share “their life story, their thoughts about residential schools — if they attended, and what their understanding was growing up — a real range of topics.”

The interviews, slated to start later this summer, will delve into Haudenosaunee ceremonies and cultural knowledge, including ancient stories that traditionalists look to when faced with modern calamities such as climate change and disease.

“I’ve heard them talk about it in English, telling us people who couldn’t speak the language, but I know they have those stories. That’s the kind of stuff we want to pick up on,” Monture said.

“But also to have them talk about the effects of a pandemic on our community and their own personal experiences.”

Monture hopes the speakers themselves will leave the study “with a sense of assurance that their knowledge will sustain our people for decades to come.”

He’s also hopeful the interviews will reveal their wit.

“Even more, we want their personalities to come through,” Monture said. “A lot of them are wickedly funny. We want them to express in their own words, with levity or whatever they want to introduce.”

The latest collaboration between McMaster and Woodland to preserve Indigenous languages corresponds with what Monture describes as revived interest among young people on the reserve in learning Cayuga, Mohawk and Onondaga.

Having recordings of native speakers will accompany language exercises focused on pronunciation and grammar that Monture said can be “stiff and sterile.”

“To have a real, deep fluency, that takes a lifetime,” he said. “I’m no fluent speaker at all myself. I’ve been a student of languages since grade school and I’m still trying to learn.”

There is a dedicated language immersion school on the reserve, and Woodland’s language revitalization department — located inside the former Mohawk Institute residential school — has for decades worked to preserve traditional languages and their Grand River dialects.

But opportunities to hear from and converse with fluent speakers are dwindling.

“From a linguistic perspective, they’re complicated and difficult languages to learn,” Monture said, explaining that Cayuga is only spoken on the reserve.

“So there’s not a whole lot of places you can go to and other resources you can access. It’s all been concentrated here.”

Monture recently learned there are 20 to 25 fluent Cayuga speakers left on Six Nations, and just five band members fluent in Onondaga.

Letting their stories fade away, he said, would mean the loss of a distinct worldview.

“If we lose these things, we’ve lost thousands of years of human connection to our immediate environment,” he said. “It’s our languages that arise from this land and are deeply connected to this land.”

To Monture, the recordings will serve to honour the remaining Cayuga and Onondaga speakers who maintained their languages in spite of what he called “the residential school shame,” shrinking Haudenosaunee territory and linguistic pressure from non-Indigenous neighbours.

“When I was a kid, I heard our languages all around my neighbourhood. Over time, those languages and those people have gone silent,” he said.

“We shouldn’t be lamenting what we’ve lost, but celebrating what we’ve kept, despite everything.”

*Editor's note: This story was published July 6.

J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator

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