Kahontanoron Deer was raised to love to speak Kanien’kéha.
“When I was growing up, I knew the language pretty well since I was attending an all-Mohawk school,” recounted the Kanehsata’kehró:non. “We would do math in Kanien’kéha, and we weren’t allowed to call other students by their English name.”
Today, Deer is inspired to become a fluent speaker so she can, in return, pass along the language she grew up adoring.
It’s as a result of this that she and her cousin have been organizing campaigns to raise the funds needed to finance the next cohort of Ratiwennenhá:wi - Kanehsatake’s Kanien’kéha Adult Immersion Program.
“We’re all about preserving, promoting and teaching our language to ensure it lives on. But, we don’t have permanent funding to do this huge task of giving back our language to the youth,” explained Kanerahtenhá:wi Hilda Nicholas, the director of Tsi Ronterihwanónhnha ne Kanien’kéha Language and Cultural Center, which offers the program.
To respond to the growing demand and scarce resources allocated to the language program, Deer doubled down on fundraising efforts this holiday season with a Christmas raffle.
Through a local initiative by Kanehsata’kehró:non women specifically aimed at reviving the language, Unceded Land launched a raffle with tickets at a price of $20 each, which will be sold until December 20.
“We decided on a cultural bundle to keep it traditional and to support local businesses, then we picked a snowblower just so that there’s more than one prize,” said Deer. “For the cultural bundle, we wanted to shop local as much as we can, but we also went to Kahnawake and found stores that showcase all the local artists’ beautiful beadwork and crafts.”
The two baskets filled with beaded hair accessories, Kanien’kéha books, a smudge kit, self-care products, lacrosse sticks and much more is one of the two raffle prizes valued at $1,000.
While the program instructors and prospective students are hopeful that people will chip in, the need for permanent funding still lingers.
“We never know whether the funding proposals we work so hard to put together will be accepted or how long we can get funding for,” expressed Nicholas. “We have to go through all these hoops, and still there’s no certainty.”
In previous years, Canadian Heritage’s Aboriginal Languages Initiative contributed up to $75,000 towards the cultural center’s program. Sums obtained through such proposal applications have nevertheless had to be complemented with donations made by local organizations, community members and businesses.
As the program enters its fifth year with a new class beginning in the fall, Nicholas stressed the importance of having the funds needed to carry out the full four-year program.
“As parents, you know that if you send your kids to school, it’ll be paid for. We would like to do the same thing because we want to offer stipends for our students since these young adults still need to make a living,” she explained.
The critical state of the program is further amplified by the dwindling number of first-language speakers in Kanehsatake, which exemplifies the precariousness of Indigenous languages such as Kanien’kéha.
For the program director, encouraging future generations to learn Kanien’kéha is another key aspect of language revitalization.
“We are at the edge of the end because I’m running out of teachers. We need the young people to step up so that they can, in turn, pass it on,” said Nicholas. “We have to continue working together to make our language flourish again and be heard everywhere.”
When it comes to Deer’s dedication, becoming a fluent speaker is further motivated by her wish to make Nicholas – her Tóta – proud.
“I also want to join the language program because I want to get back to my roots and provide that language at home for my own children,” said the young mother. “Language and culture are so important – it ties us to the land and creates our identity where we know who we are and we’re proud of where we come from.”
Laurence Brisson Dubreuil, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door