A world within a word
“When I speak the language, I feel connected to my family, to my ancestry, to my sense of identity,” says Karonhyawake Jeff Doreen, a Mohawk language teacher who splits his time in Grand Erie between Pauline Johnson Collegiate & Vocational School and Brantford Collegiate Institute & Vocational School. “It connects the past to the present, with the thoughts and stories of our ancestors all a part of the structure of the words.”
Caption: Jeff breaks down the meaning of a Mohawk prefix phrase
It’s a compelling argument for preserving the Iroquoian language (Mohawk is Kanien'kéha to members of its linguistic community), spoken by around 3,500 people. It’s considered a threatened language. But as Canada approaches its 150th birthday, it’s a powerful reminder of the voices that make up the history and traditions of this part of the world.
Doreen began teaching in Grand Erie nearly ten years ago, with contracts along the way teaching Kindergarten immersion in Hamilton and adult language classes in Six Nations of the Grand River. Now back in Grand Erie, he imparts those stories and traditions embedded in the language to Grade 9 students.
“Teenagers have a really good energy, and it’s an age at which they’re learning to make good decisions,” says Doreen. “There’s a potential for them to inspire so many.”
Doreen, who’s also a musician, notes that a common way to learn a new language is to immerse yourself in it by watching TV shows and listening to music in that language. When he was learning the language, no such resources existed, and there were certainly no pop culture references to share with his students.
So Doreen decided to change that.
“I used to play in a Beatles cover band, so I started translating and performing Beatles songs in Mohawk,” he says. “I figured if we didn’t have these learning resources, I would create them.”
The result is an accessible way for the listener to begin noting patterns and structure in the familiar tunes. But it’s in speaking and understanding that the real insights are gained.
“Our language is constantly connecting us back to the earth, and reinforcing our relationship with it,” explains Doreen. “In that regard, it shows values, a world view. The language itself informs me.”
There’s been much talk among politicians of reconciliation, and Doreen thinks having the ability and the freedom to pursue learning one’s ancestral language would be a good step toward that. He took a year off from employment in order to dedicate the time necessary to learn Mohawk, and he’s still paying for that. To provide the opportunity to learn indigenous languages, heavy with the history and traditions that span centuries, would be a meaningful action.
Doreen’s son Jacob is taking up the task as well, and just graduated with a degree in education. Like his father, he notes that he’s a happier person when he converses in Mohawk.
Caption: Jeff's son Jacob has also learned the Mohawk language
“When you hear speakers together, the entire room brightens up – it’s playful and beautiful, and there’s constant creation within it, like an art form,” he says. “When I speak the language myself, I know I’m thinking the way my ancestors did; I feel connected to my grandmother, and I feel proud of myself and where I come from.”
National Aboriginal Day is on Wednesday, June 21, 2017.