When Karihwakatste Deer first heard about the Language and Culture Mentorship Program, she immediately thought of her tóta, Konwaronhiá:wi Annie Deer.
“We had just come out of the pandemic, where there was so much isolation, and I said this will give us the chance to be together and get out and do things while using the language and archiving it,” Karihwakatste explained. “When we applied and we got accepted, we were so, so happy to have that time together. And now, that’s the most valuable thing I could ever have.”
On March 19, Konwaronhiá:wi passed away surrounded by her family. When participants celebrated their graduation on March 31, it was announced that the program would be dedicated to Konwaronhiá:wi.
The magnitude of Konwaronhiá:wi’s gift of language is not lost on Karihwakatste.
“I’m even more happy and grateful that we got to do it, because it ended up really being her final contribution to our community,” said Karihwakatste. “It’s an eye-opener for others that life is so precious, especially with our first-language speakers. We don’t know when they’re going to be called back on their journey, and we should be having these opportunities to learn from them and find ways to have their words carry on for future learners.”
Over the course of 16 weeks, mentors and mentees met for 300 hours, recording their communications so as to be able to archive the language. The program, which is run by Kahnawake Collective Impact (KCI), paired “masters” (first-language Kanien’kéha speakers) with “apprentices” (those with a strong desire to learn or expand their knowledge of Kanien’kéha).
“It was the perfect thing at the perfect time,” said Karihwakatste. “I had the opportunity to hear stories that I hadn’t heard before. I’m inspired.”
Eight elders participated in the program, with mentorship pairings arranged by Wakenhnhiióhstha Montour, KCI’s language and culture coordinator.
“We tried to get as many elders as we could, and hopefully the program grows, but the amount of elders out there that are available and willing is not so abundant,” said Montour, reiterating the importance of learning the language from elders while you can. “If someone was a little shy, I tried to pair them up with someone to break them out of their shell.”
Montour explained that part of the pairing was identifying which elders had similar learning objectives to mentees.
Feedback throughout the program concerning this kind of independent structure was overwhelmingly positive, and elders would frequently call Montour throughout to express excitement at the knowledge exchanges happening with their mentees.
“It was a two-way learning thing. One of our participants told me they were going for cruises around town,” she said. “That’s something that we like to do as Kahnawa’kehró:non to spend time with each other, just go for a ride around town. She told me the elder would be asking, ‘Oh, hold on, is that a new building?,’ or telling her facts and things in town that used to look different. It’s a cultural exchange too.”
Though many learners had extensive Kanien’kéha knowledge, some joined the program because they felt out of practice or because they wanted to learn more meaning and dialect from their mentors.
“I wanted more knowledge, better ways of understanding our language, new words, new ways of teaching,” said Melanie Stacey, who was also a mentee in the program. She is a Kanien’kéha specialist at Kateri School and has also completed immersion programs. She said that her partnership with her mentor Wahiakeron Gilbert was everything she had hoped and more.
“My highlight was actually learning the true meaning of the language. So many people think, okay, this word means this, but he really taught me how it’s broken down, how there’s a true meaning,” she explained. “There was so much that he taught me. I got to know him better, and he got to know me better. To be able to have that experience with one of our speakers was great. He was an awesome mentor to have.”
For Karihwakatste, the meaning of the program was truly felt after her grandmother’s passing.
“I was in shock at first. I was just trying to process, and my first thought was just, oh my god, where am I going to get my language from? She was my resource,” explained Karihwakatste. But she quickly shifted perspectives and decided to push forward. “I’m going to continue to do that, to learn, and to contribute to other language initiatives in the community.”
Karihwakatste implores other community members to apply for future iterations of the program, but also to engage in any form of language learning they can.
“Take advantage of the time we have left with our first-language speakers,” she said. “Write things down. Record things. Get in the programs they’re involved in. Do anything you can to advance you on your language-learning journey.”