Ancient Tongue

Andre Cramblit andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Wed Jun 14 12:56:03 UTC 2006

Ancient tongue, modern software
Kahnawake AIMS to revive mohawk language; All its 900 public employees
must take lessons

The Gazette

Monday, June 12, 2006 

On the winding streets of Kahnawake these days, the traffic signs read

The addition of Mohawk is part of "a quiet revolution" that Grand Chief
Michael Delisle and other leaders of the South Shore reserve hope will
revive their native language and, by extension, the culture of their

As part of this effort, the band council led by Delisle will require
Kahnawake's 900 public employees to enrol in Mohawk language lessons
using interactive software purchased from a company in Harrisburg,Va.,
that was just received.

Hospital staff, peacekeepers, firefighters, librarians, sewer plant
operators and social workers are being told this week that they will
begin on-the-job Mohawk language studies starting Sept. 1.

The target is to make 30 per cent of Kahnawake's public employees fluent
speakers in five years, 60 per cent in 10 years and 80 per cent in 15

Delisle admitted that the move has been met with some resistance.

But he's adamant it is necessary, considering that only 1,000 of
Kahnawake's 8,000 residents can speak Mohawk.

"The value of what this could mean socially and politically is
monumental," he said, adding that "so much of who we are is in our

"We want to re-establish it as part of our heritage," he added.

Rosetta Stone software developed by Fairfield Technologies is used by
millions of people in 150 countries to learn 30 major languages, but
this is the first time it will be used to teach a native language.

Four other North American indigenous languages, including Inuktitut, are
expected to follow soon.

According to UNESCO, more than 50 per cent of the world's 6,000
languages are endangered, and on average one language disappears every
two weeks.

The estimated 300 aboriginal languages that existed when Jacques Cartier
sailed up the

St. Lawrence River are now down to 175, only 25 of which are still
spoken by children.

Funding for Kahnawake's Rosetta Stone project came from an unlikely

Three years ago, when then-Kahnawake grand chief Joe Norton sent letters
to more than 40 businesses in the online gaming industry asking for
money to help revive the Mohawk language, only one person responded.

John Moshal, president of Microgaming Inc., the world's largest online
gaming software developer, contributed $250,000 U.S. to the project.

Moshal, a Jew who lives in Durban, South Africa, saw parallels between
the Mohawk language dying in Kahnawake and Hebrew's historic revival.

With the money Moshal donated, the band council hired Fairfield
Technologies to develop the Rosetta Stone software.

Three weeks ago, the first 1,000 CD-roms arrived in the community,
featuring four local Mohawk speakers, dozens of familiar Kahnawake
faces and places - and the tools for change.

Donna Goodleaf, executive director of Kahnawake's cultural centre and a
Ph.D. in linguistics, said she already has started fielding calls from
other First Nations groups wanting to protect their languages.

The Kahnawake workplace language training is flesh on the bones of a law
the band council passed in 1999 that made Mohawk - also known as
Kanien'ke:ha - the territory's official language.

Goodleaf said she sees great things ahead for Kahnawake as the band
council aims to see the number of fluent Mohawk speakers increase from
today's 12.5 per cent to between 30 and 35 per cent over the next 15

"There are strong indicators and real passion among young people that
make me think this is going to work," she said.

Workplace language training is just one of several initiatives that got
under way in the community over the past eight years.

In 1998, Mohawk elders - afraid that with their deaths, their language
would also die - put forward a declaration calling for its

At that point, Mohawk Internet Technologies, then a new Kahnawake
company but now making millions licensing online gaming companies,
stepped up and gave $1.25 million - $250,000 a year for five years -

to the band council.

The money could have gone into badly needed improvements to
infrastructure - roads, sidewalks and building upgrades - but instead
went into language.

First, Goodleaf said, a nine-month intensive Mohawk-

language course for adult learners at the community's cultural centre
got started.

Then young-parent graduates of that course - now in its third year -
created "language nests," or playgroups, where Mohawk is the only
language spoken.

Spurred on, K103 Mohawk Radio and the Eastern Door, the community's
weekly paper, offer regular Mohawk language lessons.

In addition, two Mohawk-

language television shows are now being produced in Kahnawake, and one
of them - a Sesame Street knock-off directed at the community's most
malleable learners - has proved especially popular.

In the 1930s and '40s, Delisle said, Mohawk was what you heard
everywhere in the community along the Old Malone Highway.

Even some of the English-speaking and French-speaking farmers who
settled on the South Shore near Kahnawake learned the language

But starting in the 1950s, Mohawk began its modern decline - first
abetted by all-pervasive English media and pop culture, then by the
French language and political changes in Quebec, Delisle said.

Mohawk became a language that was spoken only among elders and in the
community's Long House.

Today, Delisle admits that forcing the community's public sector
employees to take Mohawk language lessons is not without controversy.

As Tom Morris, the band official orchestrating the workplace training,
said, there are complaints such as "I don't have time" and "How am I
going to do this?"

He explained some public employees - for example hospital workers -
might not be able to get an hour on the job to study Mohawk and they
could be asked to study at home.

"People are used to the way things are, and they don't like change," he

But unlike federal and provincial government employees, Delisle noted,
Kahnawake workers will be learning their own language, not some "other"

"As leaders in the community we have to set an example," Delisle said.

ccornacchia at

© The Gazette (Montreal) 2006

Copyright © 2006 CanWest Interactive, a division of CanWest MediaWorks
Publications, Inc.. All rights reserved.

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