News / Toronto

Learning and teaching Mohawk language to preserve its history

UofT prof learns to speak Kanien’kéha as an adult, then starts teaching it to future generations.

Ryan DeCaire started learning the Mohawk language as an adult and is now teaching it to the younger generation. He’s doing his part to make sure the language, spoken by only a few hundred people, can be revitalized.

Diana Tyszko/UofT/Contributed

Ryan DeCaire started learning the Mohawk language as an adult and is now teaching it to the younger generation. He’s doing his part to make sure the language, spoken by only a few hundred people, can be revitalized.

Ryan DeCaire was in his early 20s when he realized the language of his ancestors was at risk of disappearing. Now he’s making sure that doesn’t happen.

Born and raised in Wáhta, a Mohawk community about two hours north of Toronto, neither he nor his parents could speak Kanien’kéha apart from basic words such as hello and thank you.

In fact, the language that was fluently spoken by more than 50 per cent of the community back in the 1970s is now being used by less than two per cent of people, everyone having reverted to English under the strong arm of residential schools.

“It was declining at a disastrous rate,” said DeCaire, an assistant professor at University of Toronto’s Centre for Indigenous Studies. “Suddenly I was very scared and nervous. Because you’re not just losing the language but the collective knowledge of history and your way of thinking.”

He enrolled in an adult immersion school in a Six Nations and spent two years living with the elders, learning to write and speak what should have been his first language.

Teaching UofT’s Introduction to the Mohawk Language course is his way of contributing to a rebirth. His classes consist of about 20 students, plus he travels to Mohawk communities to teach.

DeCaire believes governments can do better in helping to preserve Indigenous culture and history through language. Only about $3 million is budgeted each year to support more than 80 indigenous languages, he said. Meanwhile, the federal government spends more than $300 million on English and French.

“Indigenous communities really lack financial support to advance their languages,” he said. “I’m actually surprised how well we do in these conditions.”

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