Beautiful language was in danger of vanishing because young people weren’t speaking it.
Toronto Star, by March 3, 2017
When Ryan DeCaire was a kid, he couldn’t speak his own language.
Growing up in the Wahta Mohawk Territory near Bala, Ont., he’d often hear his elders speaking the mysterious tongue, but he never knew what they were saying.
“You’d hear it spoken sometimes, and you always wonder ‘oh, that’s my language but I can’t speak it,’ ” he says.
Now 29, DeCaire has not only learned to speak Kanien’kéha — the Mohawk language — but he’s leading a revival of it in the heart of downtown Toronto.
In July, DeCaire joined the University of Toronto’s Centre for Indigenous Studies and the linguistics department as an assistant professor. He’s teaching the first-ever Mohawk language classes at the university, and helping to revive a language that eight years ago he feared might die out forever.
“I looked around and I always saw these elders speaking the language and I thought there’s no one else doing something to bring back the language, no young people working on this,” DeCaire said.
“I thought man, if we don’t do something soon, we might see my language vanish within my lifetime.”
DeCaire says there are only around 1,000 people in North America who can still speak Kanien’kéha. That includes both first-language speakers — people who use it in their everyday lives — and proficient second-language learners like himself.
DeCaire has 13 students at U of T right now. Half are indigenous and half come from other diverse backgrounds including Korean and Kenyan.
While DeCaire’s course is the first time Kanien’kéha has been taught at U of T, other Iroquoian and Oneida languages have been offered in the past as part of the requirements in the university’s Indigenous Studies program.
DeCaire said it’s important that students studying indigenous issues have the skills to go into communities and communicate with the elders and other people they encounter, rather than rely on the assumption that everyone speaks English or French.
Learning the language himself was a struggle, DeCaire said, because so few people speak it. So he pushed himself to immerse in the culture, living for years with elders in other Mohawk communities who spoke it every day.
The other challenge is that Mohawk is nothing like English.
English is noun-based. A rock is a rock. In Mohawk, which is verb-focused, a rock isn’t just a rock. A rock is doing something — like holding back a campfire as part of a ring of other rocks. A chair is supporting the person sitting in it.
The structure is deeply rooted in the Mohawk world view, DeCaire explains. Nothing exists in a vacuum. Everything is connected, with a role and a purpose.
“In Mohawk, we have no word for ‘rights.’ We don’t demand rights; we remind each other of our responsibilities,” he said.
It’s partly why Westerners often have such a hard time fully understanding indigenous people’s connection to the land. For colonial Europeans, “we” are separate from “the land.” In DeCaire’s world view, they’re one in the same, a symbiotic relationship that the English language struggles to fully define.
“The language gives you a lens into the elder’s way of thinking,” he says. “You always see elders speaking it and they’re always laughing because it’s so descriptive.”
But, DeCaire says with a chuckle, that also makes it all the more difficult for his students to learn, particularly if they don’t immerse themselves in it.
“A speaker is someone who uses it in every day life,” DeCaire said, “but to do that you have to live a certain lifestyle.”
Speaking Mohawk every day in downtown Toronto isn’t really possible right now because there are simply not enough people to have conversations with.
“If you are trying to learn Spanish, there are tons of resources for that. There are classes, there are phone apps, everything,” DeCaire said.
To keep up the practice requires a lot of dedication and consistent effort. Even DeCaire, who is fluent, still describes himself as a “learner.”
“I’m still learning it. I will keep learning it until I’m dead,” he said.
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