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Learning to communicate as a community

Melissa Stacey The Eastern Door

Kanontienénhtha Brass has always been focused on science. When she was a child, she loved everything technical, and after graduating CEGEP, she ended up studying cognitive neuroscience at McGill University. But it wasn’t until she found herself one day watching science fiction movie Arrival that she discovered her passion for language.

“It was a clip about linguistics, and I never thought about language that way. They broke down a simple sentence in English, and I didn’t realize language could be so technical. From a science perspective, I thought ‘Wow, this is really cool, I understand this,’” Brass said. “Because of that, I randomly decided to take a linguistics class at McGill, and I just fell in love with language in general.”

It wasn’t long before Brass was seated in another McGill class, this time an introduction to Kanien’kéha, which she took side-by-side with linguistics courses to further her technical understanding of the language. 

“It just set everything off for me, and then I started to get more engaged in the community with different language revitalization events,” Brass said.

Soon, Brass started working with Kahtehronni Stacey for her 10-year language project, Skátne Ionkwaweientehta’onhatie, which set her on a language-learning journey that eventually led her to the door of the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center (KOR). 

In 2021, she enrolled in the two-year Kanien’kéha Ratiwennahní:rats Adult Immersion Program, and she graduated this Wednesday. 

“The moment that application opened, I just went for it,” she said. “I was so, so, excited when I got the call that I had got in. But I was also really nervous, because a lot of my schooling had been outside of the community. Coming back in and getting in touch with the community was a little bit daunting.”

Brass said the feeling of being on the outside was difficult, like she was missing a key piece of the puzzle to help her understand her community around her, and one memory of her childhood resurfaced as she prepared for the program. She recalled speaking Kanien’kéha to her grandmother as a five-year-old but losing the language as she grew up.

“I remember I spoke to her as well as a five-year-old could, and then I came back the next summer and I remember my grandmother asking me if I was thirsty or something, but she asked me in Mohawk,” Brass said. “I very vividly remember thinking ‘What is she saying? I don’t know what she’s saying, why don’t I know?’ I was losing it. I lost it. That was a really big memory for me.”

Brass was driven by a desire to break down barriers that prevented her full understanding of her elders and other community members, and she showed up to every immersion class determined.

“When my teachers explain something to me in a technical sense, that’s when it clicks, then I get it,” she said. “It has been challenging for me, but I love it. I just love learning it.”

Brass is no stranger to language learning, having completed courses in French, German, Spanish, and Italian. But, because of those experiences, she knew that the biggest challenge wouldn’t be in the classroom – it would be dedicating the time to fully learning and maintaining the language outside of the classroom and after the course’s completion. 

“If you don’t use it, you lose it, and that’s what’s really daunting now that the program is over.” Brass said her closeness with fellow Ratiwennahní:rats participants means she’s confident she’ll continue to develop her fluency and deepen her understanding of the language.

“It’s an undertaking, but you’re not alone in this. Sometimes it can feel very lonely, because you’re going through all these emotions learning this language, you’re feeling vulnerable feelings,” Brass explained. “When it comes to learning it, we’re a community, and we’re here to support each other.”

Brass leaves the program feeling especially passionate about encouraging other youth like her in the community to take a similar path.

“It’s given me a lot of direction, and I just want others to be able to see that. I want others to see our language the way our elders see it already,” she said. “My grandmother told me when I was a kid that the language is what you see, and I never understood that entirely until about right now. I’m still developing an understanding of what she meant by that.”

Brass noted that she and her fellow graduates couldn’t have gotten to where they are today without the efforts of so many community members and elders that have dedicated their time and knowledge. In particular, Konwaronhiá:wi Annie Deer, who passed away in March, met weekly with Brass and was a key part of her language journey. 

“Our elders are who we need to talk to, to get to know what it was like in the old days, to pass down stories to one another,” she said. “It’s time to learn how to communicate as a community again… And what better way to do that than the language?”

Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door. She has also covered harm reduction and social justice issues for the Montreal Gazette, The Breach, Filter Magazine, and more.

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Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door. She has also covered harm reduction and social justice issues for the Montreal Gazette, The Breach, Filter Magazine, and more.