Courtesy Ieianerahstha Rourke
Mary Ann Gray has been working to strengthen her fluency in Kanien’kéha since she was young. Her motivation stemmed from the desire to connect to the world around her – her family and community.
“Growing up, I would always hear (my grandparents) speak, but they didn’t teach my mom, and she didn’t teach us,” Gray recalled. “So I kind of always just felt like it was a barrier there for me to be able to connect with them more.”
The distance she felt as a child ignited in her the desire to learn the language to bridge the gap and deepen her relationships with loved ones. With the passing of her grandparents years ago, Gray has studied in order to extend her reach to them through the language. While the road is paved with highs and lows, Gray has kept on the path toward her goal: to continue the tradition of learning and teaching the language.
“I already knew that I wanted to teach ever since I was young,” she said. “To give students and stuff like that a safe place with learning, because I know when I was growing up, school was kind of like a safe haven for me.”
Hot on the heels of graduating from the Kanien’kéha Ratiwennahní:rats Adult Immersion Program this spring, Gray will spend her summer teaching at a language school in Ganienkeh. She entered the program in the fall of 2019 and persevered through the pandemic to finish her studies this week, graduating June 8.
“I’m just so proud of her that she has that in her to do that. I can’t say that enough about her,” said Waylon Cook, Gray’s older brother. “She’s really dedicated to her schooling and her time to learn the language, and it’s showing. I’m just so proud of her.
“She has a good sense of our connection to the Ohèn:ton Karihwatéhkwen, to our connection to the land,” Cook beamed. “At that school, they teach so much about who we are as Onkwehón:we.”
Gray also plans to take part in the Akenhnhà:ke (summer) internship put forward by Ionkwahronkha’onhátie’ (We are becoming fluent), a language support initiative run by two former graduates of the Kanien’kéha Ratiwennahní:rats program.
Akenhnhà:ke supports second-language speakers to hone and further develop their fluency after graduating from the immersion program by organizing activities where the season’s cohort can get together and practice.
“It’s really important to make friendships with other people who are learning so that you have people to talk to,” said Karonhiióstha Shea Sky, co-founder and co-director of the initiative.
This sentiment is true to Gray’s experience, as she found the support she needed from family and friends to help her through the harder moments and encourage her to keep studying.
“Sometimes it was easy where I was just like, you know, this is a breeze, but most of the time it was a lot of hard work, and it was very heavy throughout the three years I was studying,” Gray said. “My brother was my biggest supporter throughout the whole thing. So I didn’t really want to let him down.”
Family support has been essential for Gray to push through the heaviness and find joy in learning the language.
“At my house, we have a garden. So if we’re working out in the garden, me and my brother, we usually speak Kanien’kéha,” she explained. “Whenever we first plant, we’ll also give the seeds like words of encouragement.
“Yeah, you can do this! You got this! You can grow big!” she cheered.
Her connection to the language has created a link to her grandparents, who have passed. It’s what has kept her going through ambiguity, pressure and stress, long hours and lots of work.
“Just knowing that it was something that they had, and even now, being able to speak Kanien’kéha,” said Gray. “If I ever meet them again, whether it be after I pass on, or like in a dream or anything like that, I’ll be able to speak to them in Kanien’kéha.”
With so much behind her, Gray is ready to continue her studies. Her next adventure will start this fall when she begins a degree in second-language studies at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. After which, she hopes to return to the community to teach.
“I really want her to continue (learning) because they’re few and far between, people that we have that can understand our languages on that type of level,” Cook said. “When we look at our elders, and how fluent they are, she’s on her way to being that as an elder.”