At the kitchen table of the Tsi Ronterihwanónhnha ne Kanien’kéha Language and Culture Center, fluent speakers snacked on banana cake and sipped green tea as they reached into their memories looking for “moonlight”: wattsíserare.
And what words might you need if you were to describe this ethereal glow dancing on the water? Well, that depends. Waves are ionontakwarontóntie, but windy ones are called watwáttia’ks. It’s all happening during o’karáhsneha, of course – evening.
These are just some of the words a handful of elders discussed or rediscovered as they took part in the Kanien’kéha Á:ionronke project at the language and culture centre last Friday afternoon.
“It is through conversations that we discover some old words that we don’t often use. Therefore, some words are brought back to life, and it is exciting to do this,” said Hilda Nicholas, director of the language and culture centre, who leads the discussions.
“Each week, it’s very special,” said Nicholas. “Some of us walk away learning a word that we haven’t heard before.”
The speakers even use their knowledge to coin words for objects that didn’t exist or weren’t common when the language was universal.
One of those inventions – the lapel microphone – helps ensure this knowledge is preserved for generations to come, a key priority as the few remaining first-language speakers dig in their heels to ensure the endangered language of Kanien’kéha one day becomes the community’s first language again.
“We go to them and they help us with all that, so they’re very important,” said Nicholas of the elder speakers. “We’ve lost too many people during COVID. It’s kind of scary that so many have passed on. So we’re trying very, very hard to keep our language alive.”
The sessions are the first in years, owing to a prolonged COVID-19 hiatus, but the involvement of Reviving Kanehsatà:ke Radio (RKR) 101.7 FM is brand new.
“We used these lapel microphones so they wouldn’t be intimidated by the mic in front of them, and hopefully they would just forget about it and be free to talk about whatever they want to,” said Karahkóhare Syd Gaspé, the station’s project manager.
The setup not only makes the elders more comfortable than other recording devices, but the clarity of the sound compared to a single microphone in the middle of the table – the previous strategy – is critical for a historical archive that is a true treasure for future learners.
“Just a vowel or an inflection can change a sense of a word and the whole meaning of it,” said Gaspé.
For now, the sessions and even the 15-minute summaries that follow are not being broadcast on the air. But Gaspé is confident that gathering the material is critical to the radio station’s mission to promote Kanien’kéha. He said it’s possible that radio segments, podcasts, and other media based on the recordings could one day proliferate the language for speakers and non-speakers alike, a key task.
“A lot of our struggles or traumas or healing can be done through the language if we know our language and get to learn it. It just sort of brings everything together as a culture and as human beings trying to figure things out in our lives,” said Gaspé.
“Certainly when you’ve been disconnected from your identity, it brings you closer to that. It makes you a little more connected. This is what I’ve been told, and this is what I’ve been hearing over and over. A lot of solutions are in the language.”
Anyone interested in attending is welcome to join the circles, which will continue to take place on Fridays from noon to 2 p.m. until the end of March.
“Fridays are very special because this place is full of language speakers and language learning,” said Nicholas, referring to concurrent classes at the centre.
“I would just like everybody to know how thankful we are to have these people, these wonderful elders, come and help us. I think it’s just so valued.”
Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative reporter
Marcus is managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.