The Haudenosaunee people traditionally welcome newborn babies with words spoken in the language of their ancestors. At U of T, Tahohtharátye (Joe Brant) is helping to ensure that Indigenous languages remain spoken, read and written well beyond that auspicious day.
Born and raised in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, Tahohtharátye has dedicated much of his career to learning and teaching Kanien’kéha, also known as the Mohawk language. An educator, researcher and former school principal, his journey of language reclamation has brought him to the Faculty of Arts & Science, where he is an assistant professor cross-appointed to the Department of Linguistics and the Centre for Indigenous Studies.
Tahohtharátye says that 100 years ago, Mohawk was the majority language in Tyendinaga, which is located in southeastern Ontario. “In the census of 1921, every adult identified Mohawk as their first language,” he says. “But by the 1930s and 40s, there was a drastic change.”
Socioeconomic pressures were a major factor. Situated far from other, larger Mohawk communities, Tyendinaga was surrounded by speakers of English. Their language came to dominate working and social life as residents were obliged to seek work off-territory to support their families during the Great Depression and beyond.
Mohawk wasn’t really actively spoken in my early years and even in my adolescence. I learned my first words and phrases through the second language program at the elementary school on the territory. As time went on, I was lucky to meet some great leaders, activists and language warriors throughout my school years — not only from this community, but from other Mohawk communities as well.
The educational system was also responsible. Early in the 20th century, local leaders insisted with great effectiveness that schooling be conducted in Kanien’kéha. Eventually, however, the establishment of residential and Indian Day Schools forced the language into dormancy. “These were punitive and anglicized school systems, where if you spoke Mohawk there was punishment and shame,” says Tahohtharátye.
Today, Tahohtharátye estimates that there are fewer than 800 first-language speakers in Canada. “Mohawk wasn’t really actively spoken in my early years and even in my adolescence,” he says. “I learned my first words and phrases through the second language program at the elementary school on the territory. As time went on, I was lucky to meet some great leaders, activists and language warriors throughout my school years — not only from this community, but from other Mohawk communities as well.”
In Tyendinaga, efforts to revitalize Kanien’kéha have been deeply innovative, incorporating both community and classroom learning. Tahohtharátye — whose name means “He Comes Along in Conversation” — has been an enthusiastic participant at every level, having taught preschool, elementary, high school and adult learners. He is currently working through PhD research in the use of Mohawk language documentation in language learning.
For him, learning Mohawk has been truly immersive, with festivals, ceremonies and friendships acting as essential complements to classroom instruction. Tahohtharátye and his wife Tewahséhtha, also a second-language learner, were deeply influenced by his childhood teacher Dorothy Lazore, a scholar from Akwesasne Mohawk territory.
“We hosted her for dinner every week, and recorded all the ways she was talking to our firstborn during her first year,” he says. “We’d mimic that and learn, so we could speak to our daughter as she grew older.”
This study was essential, as the couple was committed to speaking Mohawk as the primary language in their home. Fourteen years later, their two daughters are the very first, first-language speakers of Kanien’kéha in Tyendinaga in over 60 years.
She says, ‘you’re not learning a word, you’re learning a world.’ Language reclamation is about expanding the diversity of our knowledge, because language is an expression of the accumulated experiences of people. Those who do revitalization work say that biodiversity and knowledge diversity are one and the same: it’s work that makes our world better.
“We’ve just continued to learn as a family. I made it a point in my life not to tell my girls how important it is to speak and learn our language — I just try to show them,” says Tahohtharátye.
As a researcher, he is now engaged in a major project to document, retain, activate and transmit audio and video recordings as well as texts created by earlier first-language speakers of Kanien’kéha. Entitled Ratiwennόkwas — which translates as “they are pulling words out of the water” — the project is part of a SSHRC-funded partnership between the Tsi Tyόnnheht Onkwawén:na Language and Cultural Centre in Tyendinaga, and a project called NEȾOLNEW led by professors at the University of Victoria.
At U of T, Tahohtharátye is leading students in the exploration of Indigenous thought by encouraging them to read texts originally written in a variety of Indigenous languages. These have included everything from historical work by the Tuscarora linguist J.M.B. Hewitt (1859-1937), to dictionaries and graphic novels, to renditions of creation stories by Seneca chief John Arthur Gibson (1850-1912). Tahohtharátye also encourages students to explore work that has personal resonance for them: “One of the things I wanted to ensure was that they had access to their own interests, in their own language.”
It is worth noting that five of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action assert the critical importance of revitalizing Indigenous languages. This is work that Tahohtharátye believes is open to all of us: “the revitalization of language shouldn’t be just the responsibility of one group, nation or territory,” he says. “As we move through the preservation of language transmission, it will take many allies and partnerships.”
He emphasizes that such preservation is essential in order to guard memories and wisdom that would otherwise be lost to time. One of his favourite quotes about Indigenous language learning comes from linguistics scholar Lorna Williams, a member of the Lil’wat First Nation in British Columbia.
“She says, ‘you’re not learning a word, you’re learning a world.’ Language reclamation is about expanding the diversity of our knowledge, because language is an expression of the accumulated experiences of people. Those who do revitalization work say that biodiversity and knowledge diversity are one and the same: it’s work that makes our world better.”