When Kawisaiénhne Albany was a child, she loved to listen to her raksótha, a lifelong speaker of Kanien’kéha. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t understand his words.
“I just knew whatever my grandfather was saying, it sounded really special and sacred,” said Albany.
So when, at age 21, she decided to take a leap of faith and enrol in the Ratiwennenhá:wi Kanien’kéha immersion program at the Tsi Ronterihwanónhnha ne Kanien’kéha Language and Cultural Center, she had a goal in mind: to understand and speak with her grandfather, John Cree.
Now she can.
“It’s awesome. It’s a real good feeling,” she said.
Albany graduated from Ratiwennenhá:wi on June 19, just one of three students in her cohort. The group spent four hard-scrabble years together immersed in the language four days a week. One year, they even faced the added challenges that come with remote learning and shoddy Zoom connections, making the words even harder to parse.
“It’s kind of like a family at the culture centre,” said Albany. “Anybody who joins, we kind of become friends, and we all have each other’s back and help each other out.”
Albany bonded with her classmates over their mutual desire to do their part to strengthen the language by becoming speakers of Kanien’kéha, a tongue that has only a few thousand fluent speakers in the world, perhaps even fewer.
“I wish everybody would learn because we don’t have a lot of first-language speakers left,” said Albany. “Kanesatake has the oldest Mohawk language. We’re losing so many speakers who know the old words, the old language.”
She sees it as the responsibility of herself and other language program graduates to help and encourage others in the community to learn, maybe even formally – many of the current teachers are in their 70s and 80s and are getting ready for retirement.
“As our graduate class, we have to step up and help these new students who need help to understand, and anybody in the community too, and to encourage everybody,” said Albany. She acknowledges, however, that she still has a lot more to learn – she speaks to as many elders as she can to glean their wisdom and knowledge.
While learning the language has brought obvious benefits, Albany was surprised to find how it reoriented her mind. It was no surprise to her raksótha, however.
“We always say when we have Mohawks speaking, there’s laughter. There’s always laughter,” said Cree. “It’s a language that brings out the good in you.”
Kanien’kéha lends itself to storytelling in a way English does not, he added.
“I was trying to get her to understand that it’s good to learn the language, but also with the language comes the culture,” he said.
Cree has noticed more and more people have become interested in learning Kanien’kéha, something he feels is beneficial for the community.
“It makes me very proud that she’s strong in her language,” he said.
He provided moral support as Albany worked through the program, buoying her in moments where she was losing hope that she’d ever become proficient in speaking a language not exactly known for being easy to learn.
“Sometimes she felt she wasn’t going to get it, and we kept saying just keep going,” he said. “All of a sudden it’ll change. All of a sudden everything will make sense to you.”
The cultural component of Kanien’kéha is not lost on Albany. “Everything we say goes back to what’s on Earth and what the creation story is,” she said.
“Everything has been provided for us. Everything we have on Earth is what we need to survive in life. Our language goes back to all those different elements that we have on Earth.”
Albany feels the language has reshaped the way she relates to her own identity. “When you do learn it, you really learn a lot about yourself and who you are as Kanien’kehá:ka and Onkwehón:we,” she said.
“I think it’s the best thing I did to really find who I am. A lot of people who don’t know what to do with their lives, I think learning the language and the culture is one of the best ways to really find yourself and be happy.
“We all have lost identities. We don’t know who we are because of residential schools and stuff like that. Doing this really makes you proud of where you come from and how far our people have come, too.”
Albany is now 25 years old and has her whole life ahead of her, which means some aspects of her future are less than clear. There is at least one thing that she knows for sure, however.
“The school did a great job getting me to where I am now,” said Albany. “Now I have to go out and keep it alive.”
This article was originally published in print on Friday, July 6, in issue 32.27 of The Eastern Door.
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.