Children recited the traditional Ohenten Kariwatekwen, “words spoken before all others,” in Mohawk yesterday in a powerful reminder of the language and culture that has been lost and is now actively being recovered in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory and across Canada.
The Haudenosaunee nations — Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, and Tuscarora — traditionally open and close every important gathering with a version of these words of thanksgiving. On Monday, Jun. 5, 2023, that thanksgiving was for an announcement that the federal government will invest $9.6 million into the construction of the long-awaited and hard-fought-for Kenhtè:ke Language and Cultural Centre on Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory.
The Honourable Marc Miller, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations; Callie Hill, Executive Director of the current Tsi Tyónnheht Onkwawén:na Language and Cultural Centre; and Chief R. Donald Maracle, Elected Chief of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte announced the funding at a ceremonial groundbreaking at 39 Salmon River Road, the site of the facility which will be constructed over the next 18 months.
Hill has been waiting a long time for this new project, which will replace the school at the site of the old “Indian Day School” at 1658 York Road.
She explained that “Tsi Tyónnheht Onkwawén:na” loosely translates to “keeping our words alive.” Then she continued, “Through our early years and school immersion programs, children as young as age three and up to 10 are receiving instruction and care in their language, in their culture, and in an environment that cherishes and celebrates Onkwehonweneha, our ways of being in the world. We are grateful for the support of the federal government as we prepare to move our programming out of a former day school location and into a purpose-built facility that can grow these important programs.”
Hill pointed out the proximity of the new location to the forest, meadows, and Salmon River, which will make outstanding new features for the school’s outdoor learning opportunities.
The centre, said Hill, will provide educational and cultural programs for community members, non-Indigenous organizations, and individuals who are interested in learning about Kanyen’kehá:ka (Mohawk) cultural values and traditions to support reconciliation. It includes a teaching kitchen, an art studio, and a gathering space for up to 150 people for programs, events, and celebrations.
Hill also pointed out that the building is designed to achieve net-zero carbon performance, using technologies such as solar panels and a geothermal ground source heat pump. This state-of-the-art sustainable building will be respectful and in harmony with its natural surroundings.
People of all ages and abilities will benefit from increased opportunities to learn the language, history, and worldview of Kanyen’kehá:ka. In line with the Kanyen’kehá:ka worldview to eliminate barriers to participation in all elements of daily life, the centre will ensure that services and programs are accessible to all, in accordance with the highest accessibility standards and codes, said Hill. As a cultural feature of the community, the facility will also include enhanced accessibility by combining several programs currently administered in separate locations into one building.
The Honourable Marc Miller, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, was at the ceremony on behalf of the Honourable Dominic LeBlanc, Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, Infrastructure and Communities.
Miller congratulated the community members present, saying, “The Kenhtè:ke Language and Cultural Centre will not only provide the community with a new gathering space; it will also provide a safe space where individuals can celebrate and gain a deeper knowledge and understanding of their Kanyen’kehá:ka culture, values, and traditions. We will continue to work with Indigenous, provincial, territorial, and municipal partners to invest in local community infrastructure, promote climate action, and build more resilient and inclusive communities across Canada. Congratulations on this long-awaited moment.”
“This is a very happy and exciting day for our community, and we thank the federal government for joining in support of this much-needed new language and cultural centre,” said R. Donald Maracle, Chief of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte. “Our Kanyen’kéha (Mohawk language) has been oppressed in our history by colonial government policy. We work daily to foster a healthy, sustainable Kanyen’kehá:ka community built on and united by our language, culture, traditions, knowledge, and history. Facilities like this one will be essential as we work to realize this vision. Language restoration is part of the path of reconciliation.”
He told the children, “I’m very proud of you that you’re learning our language, because when we went to school as kids, we didn’t have the opportunity ever to speak our language… It was absolutely forbidden to speak the Mohawk language in our school or in the schoolyard. If we spoke any Mohawk, we were told we were not being polite [speaking] a language that other people couldn’t understand.”
Maracle pointed out that he was wearing the headdress of Chief Earl Hill, who died in 1999 and had been the Mohawk Chief for 20 years, from 1976 to 1996. Maracle said that Hill was “a strong promoter of the Mohawk language in response to the 1969 white paper policy to do away with reserves and anything native and to have the full assimilation of our people into the ‘Canadian mosaic,’ as it was called. When I was growing up as a child, many of our people were ashamed to be Indian and… to speak our language. I’m so happy… today that people are not ashamed to be Mohawk, nor are they ashamed of our language. It took many years to overcome that.”
The federal government is contributing $9.6 million to this project through the Green and Inclusive Community Buildings program (GICB), part of Canada’s Strengthened Climate Plan, providing $1.5 billion over five years toward green and accessible retrofits, repairs or upgrades of existing public community buildings, and the construction of new publicly-accessible community buildings that serve high-need, underserved communities across Canada. At least 10 per cent of GICB funding is allocated to projects serving First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities, including Indigenous populations in urban centres.
“All I can say is, come often,” Chief Maracle said to Minister Miller, and then to the assembly. “The Trudeau government [has] been very good to the Mohawk people. They care about safe drinking water, about long-term care, about settling claims, about education, about culture and language, opportunities to overcome oppression that our people suffered in the past. They don’t talk on both sides of their mouth; they actually provide some money to show that they’re sincere with implementing what they’re talking about. That’s a sign of good leadership.”
“I want to leave you with this thought,” said Hill. “It is said that education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire. And in such an inspiring space, with the support needed to fully succeed and embrace our heritage, I believe we will do more than keep our words alive. This will truly help our community to thrive.”
Iehnhotonkwas, a member of the Tyendinaga Longhouse Community and of Tsi Tyónnheht Onkwawén:na Board of Directors, spoke next, saying, “Our language is the essence of our identity as Kanien’kehaka people. The distinctive voice the Creator gifted our Nation with was forcefully taken from us many generations ago. Too long have we been unable to use our original voice… until today. Today we can celebrate together with Creation that we now have a place to re-learn and revitalize our language — and be rightfully recognized by Creation as Kanien’kehaka.”
She also told of how the language began to be saved in Tyendinaga: “About 30 years ago now, a group of parents [asked themselves], ‘How can we raise our children so they will know who they are?’… Over the years, the group of parents are still involved… it’s what we are rejoicing for today. We had a really crazy dream that if we worked together, we could build a school for our kids… with language and culture and ceremony being the foundation of who they were. It has taken a lot of tending, but the fire continues to build.”
With shovels expected to be in the ground by the end of the summer, Hill said she would be happy to invite everyone assembled back for a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new centre in 2024 or 2025.