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Thirty Mohawk children’s books published by Tsi Tyónnheht Onkwawén:na

Tyendinaga’s Language and Cultural Centre, Tsi Tyónnheht Onkwawén:na (TTO) has announced the publication of 30 children’s stories and colouring books written in the Kanyen’kéha (Mohawk) language. 

“We are very excited to introduce these books to our community, in keeping with our belief that our world is made better by Kanyen’kehà:ka culture, knowledge, and ways of knowing,” said Callie Hill, Executive Director of TTO.

The collection includes 20 republished titles by Western University professor and Tyendinaga author David Kanatawakhon, originally produced in the 80s, as well as 10 new colouring books.

“He’s a member of our community but he has lived in London and worked with Western University for many years,” Hill explained. “He was the author of the set of 20, which are held by the Woodland Cultural Centre,” in Brantford Ontario.

“This was a joint project between Woodland and TTO. We wanted to republish the books in the Tyendinaga dialect, in a dialect of Mohawk of our community. Woodland republished them in Cayuga,” she explained. 

“The originals are beautiful booklets but they’re black and white, line-drawn illustrations. So we just wanted to bring them more to life, to give more prestige to our language and people who are learning.”

The original colouring books were created through a joint effort of public writing workshops held in Tyendinaga, and commissioned art by Indigenous illustrators. 

“If you’re learning in English you have access to so many beautiful, coloured, wonderfully illustrated early readers that our children in Mohawk don’t have access to,” she said. 

TTO runs an immersion primary school in the Kanyen’kéha language at Tyendinaga for kindergarten to grade four, as well as a “language nest” for pre-school aged children.

“Our teachers are making their own resources, copying books and translating them,” Hill explained. The library they’ve created is designed for teachers, early readers, parents and anyone that is interested in learning the language.

The books include fun and educational concepts such as Taking Care of Mother Earth, Reyna Really Likes Snow, My Grandfather the Farmer, and Pizza is my Favourite.

“We wanted to make this a fun and interactive way for kids to learn and interact with the language of our ancestors and to get the Tyendinaga community involved. Tsi Tyónnheht Onkwawén:na means ‘keeping the words alive’ and that’s what we hope to do with these books,” she added.

The book publication is funded in part through grants from the First Nations Confederacy of Cultural Education Centres (FNCCEC), the Government of Canada, the Woodland Cultural Centre and other supporters.

6,000 copies, 200 per book, will be distributed to communities in Toronto, Brantford, Buffalo NY, Montreal, Tyendinaga, Akwesasne, Kahnawake, Kanehsatake, Wahta, Ohsweken, Kanatsiohareke, and Ganienkeh.

“We are distributing them to our sister communities throughout the Mohawk nation,” Hill said. “Mohawk people are situated in seven different communities within Ontario, Quebec and New York.  We just want to share them because we’re all in the same boat, we’re all striving for the same thing. We all have to work together if we want our language to thrive into the future,” she said. 

“Hearing it again as a first language is what we all want to do. So whenever we can take on a project and benefit the whole nation, and not just our community, we do.”

The growing influence of TTO 

Research by the Canadian Encyclopedia in 2018 found that Kanyen’kéha had just 932 first-language speakers. 

Hill said TTO started as a grassroots organization in the late 1990s. “A group of community members saw the critical state of our language at that time. We only had a handful of first language speakers, some not even speaking anymore because there wasn’t anyone to speak to.” 

“They formed a committee, that grew to this organization. We’re now registered as a non-profit and have been since 2003.” The organization and its mandate have continued to grow from there, she said.

“Because there was no adult speaking they thought — okay we need to teach the adults to speak. Then, we need to teach them to be teachers, and then we need to open an immersion school. And many things have happened along the way,” she said.

As well as the pre-school and primary school, TTO offers an adult language certificate in partnership with Queen’s University.

“It is a certificate program in Mohawk language and culture. This September started the second cohort of that. It’s a fairly new program, it just started in 2018.” Hill is herself a graduate of the program, though she has been involved in language learning for many years.  

“I started working for TTO in 2004. I was only the second ever paid employee that they had. They were doing all the work that they had on a volunteer basis up to that point,” she said. 

“We do community outreach, within and around surrounding areas. We visit schools if they ask for someone to come in and share cultural knowledge. We sometimes even, before COVID, would take our children from the immersion school to different neighbouring schools, and provide educational sessions with children of the same age.” 

TTO also collaborates in research at post-secondary institutions, examining how to revitalize Indigenous languages. “We’re involved in a six-year project right now with the University of Victoria in BC. I think we’re in year four of that six-year project.” They’ve also worked with Brock University, Trent University, and are exploring further partnerships with Carlton.

Witnessing the generational change

Growing up in Tyendinaga, Hill said she witnessed incredible progress in the effort to preserve the Kanyen’kéha language, and grow its community of speakers.  

Her parents did not speak the language at home, but she recalls that in about third grade, in the mid-sixties, traditional cultural activities began to catch her attention. 

“I’m about three generations removed from a first language speaker,” Hill said. “It’s just always been an interest, and I think it goes back to my family history.”

“I have some family members, on my Hill side, that were quite prominent in the community. I really feel like it’s genetic, and it’s just been in my blood. I have lived here most of my life. I left to go to school and go to work but this has always been home. After having children, and now having a grandson, it really brings it all home.”

Hill said her research indicates that Kanyen’kéha was spoken as a first language in Tyendinaga until the 1920s, but that language disruption started long before that. 

“Obviously we know about residential schools, the Indian Act,” she said, explaining the direct causes of language loss. “Some people even think about the invention of the radio, and how that was literally bringing English language into the household.”

“There are also the day schools, which is what we had here in Tyendinaga. We had some children that went to residential schools but day schools were placed within our community. 

“They had the same mandate as the residential schools, however the children went home to their families every night,” she explained.

Hill said she herself attended four of the five day schools in Tyendinaga. 

“One great thing that I like to point out is that our immersion program, kindergarten to grade four, we’re actually housed in a former day school.  I like to say that it’s so empowering for us; that we’re doing exactly the opposite of what that day school was intended for. Because we are teaching language, we are teaching culture. The children are learning who they are, learning their whole identity. It’s just really empowering for us to take over that space, and use it in a good way,” she said.

With ever-expanding resources, including this new library of books for young readers, Hill said she is looking forward to the continued revitalization of the language.

“Educating our young people and bringing up a new generation of Mohawk speakers is crucial so our language and culture can thrive.”

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Samantha Butler-Hassan, Local Journalism Initiative

Samantha Butler-Hassan is a staff writer and life-long Kingston resident. She is a news junkie and mom who loves reading and exploring the community. This article has been made possible with the support of the Local Journalism Initiative.

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