One Indigenous community’s struggle to find teachers of its own language

The community is short on Kanyen’kéha instructors — and that’s making it harder to pass the language down to the next generation
By Shelby Lisk - Published on Jan 30, 2020
Kayenté:ri Emerald LeFort-Cummings teaches full-time at Totahne Language Nest, in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. (Shelby Lisk)

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TYENDINAGA — “Language was at a really good place in our community in 2008,” says Konwanonhsiyohstha Callie Hill, the executive director of Tsi Tyonnheht Onkwawenna, a cultural centre in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, east of Belleville. That was the year the organization’s Totahne Language Nest, an Indigenous-language-immersion preschool, opened its doors.

However, a little more than a decade later, Tsi Tyonnheht Onkwawenna is struggling to find and retain instructors for its immersion programs, which also include Kawenna’ón:we, for those in kindergarten to Grade 4, and Shatiwennakará:tats, an adult Mohawk-language program.

Totahne translates as “at Grandma’s,” and that’s the kind of experience Tsi Tyonnheht Onkwawenna (“keeping our language alive”) seeks to provide by surrounding children with speakers of Kanyen’kéha, the Mohawk language (according to the 2016 census, there are only about 2,350 speakers across the country). “It was like being at Grandma’s house, like hanging out with Grandma, but they’re using language with everything,” says Kayenté:ri Emerald LeFort-Cummings, who joined the preschool as an apprentice in 2013 and now teaches there full-time. “They’re cooking, they’re setting the table, they’re reading stories, playing games — but all in the language.”

But, as Tyendinaga has no first-language Kanyen’kéha speakers and only a small number of second-language learners, there are many barriers to recruitment. “We have to treat teachers that come here as if they’re teaching in a remote community, because, in a sense, it is a remote,” says Hill. “It is remote to speakers.”

Two years after LeFort-Cummings joined the language nest, her first-language mentor retired, and she took on the lead teaching position. At the beginning of this school year, she found herself working alone in front of a class of five while Tsi Tyonnheht Onkwawenna tried to find another qualified Mohawk-language speaker or teacher. “I had nobody to work with me,” LeFort-Cummings says. “They were pulling people from the admin building to come and cover with me for the first few weeks, which was okay — we survived. I know that they’re continually posting [jobs] … It’s ongoing.”

As a result of the shortage, Hill says, the language nest is “going a different route this year” — it now bills itself as a bilingual program (rather than an immersive one) and pairs language speakers with people who have backgrounds in teaching or early-childhood education. (One early-childhood educator was recently hired to lend LeFort-Cummings a hand.)

The lack of Mohawk speakers can mean that young language learners feel a weight of responsibility to become teachers, Hill says: “We talk about burnout of our teachers. You have people that take a full-time immersion program, and, before they’re ready to be a teacher in front of a classroom, that’s where we’re putting them because that’s all we have.”

LeFort-Cummings says this is exactly what happened in her own family. She and three of her siblings went through immersion programs, and all but one of them now teach the language. Her younger brother recently completed a two-year program, and, before he had even graduated, she says, people were phoning and emailing her to try to get a hold of him and offer him a teaching position.

classroom drawings
Totahne Language Nest pairs language speakers with people who have backgrounds in teaching or early-childhood education. (Shelby Lisk)

Adding to the recruitment problem is that adults from Tyendinaga who are serious about learning Mohawk have to move to another community with a full-time immersion program — and many of them don’t come back. “Young people don’t really want to come here to teach when they can go to Kahnawake or Kanehsatà:ke to teach and also have first-language speakers that they can visit in the evenings,” says Hill.

And those interested in teaching are presented with an increasing range of options. In response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 94 calls to action, many educational institutions are looking at ways to integrate Indigenous knowledge, and that includes offering language courses.

“I am very happy that post-secondary institutes are getting genuine, authentic people in positions to help them with achieving their goals and trying to reach the recommendations in the TRC,” Hill says. “But it’s pulling away those very competent people from our community-based programs. We can’t compete with the wages and salaries that they are being offered at the universities.”

Thanyehténhas Nathan Brinklow, who teaches Mohawk at Queen’s University and in the Shatiwennakará:tats program in Tyendinaga, notes that, in university classrooms, the student make-up is significantly different. “The reality is that [out of] 45 students in my class [at Queen’s], maybe four or five will be Indigenous. Maybe three or four of those will be Mohawk,” he says. “The university-level courses aren’t about necessarily teaching our languages to our people. They’re about universities fulfilling their commitment to all languages, not just German and French and Spanish.” He says that such courses can, however, create non-Indigenous language advocates who will later move into different sectors, bringing with them the knowledge that Indigenous languages are still alive and important.

But the lack of qualified and available speakers puts pressure on communities — and on those committed to transmitting the language. “I feel so much responsibility to pass it on to my own kids and family and at the same time to the kids within our program,” says LeFort-Cummings. “If these kids come into this program and I’m the only language exposure they have in their lives, that’s a big deal. It’s really overwhelming.”

Hill agrees. “It’s important, but it’s heavy work for people to do in your own community,” she says. “I think we have to go back to where we were before and pick out some bright, energetic young people [in our community] that want to be teachers, that want to learn the language, and we can follow that same path again.”

This is one of a series of stories about Indigenous issues brought to you in partnership with Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication.

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