Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Rahskwe’ióntha Randy Etienne logged onto his computer every day at 8 a.m. When everything opened up again, he would go bright and early to the Tsi Ronterihwanónhnha ne Kanien’kéha Language and Cultural Center for class.
For three years, he couldn’t have had much sleep. School lasted eight hours and work started at 4 p.m. The father of four held a full-time job at the Onen’tó:kon Healing Lodge, not finishing till midnight. He studied every spare moment he got.
Despite the challenges, Etienne was motivated. As the number of Kanien’kéha speakers continued to dwindle in Kanesatake, the 37-year-old was toiling to become one of the few speakers his age, somebody the community could count on as a guiding light for decades to come.
“It was a spiritual awakening, a responsibility,” he said. “It felt as if I had finally realized what my purpose was, and I could feel that there was a piece of me that was missing, an emptiness.”
The schedule took its toll, at times. Some days he wanted nothing more than to quit.
“We’re human beings filled with emotions and feeling,” he said. “For me, the greatest challenge was staying motivated and trying not to cry about how hard it was on me. I think it’s less actually learning the language and more overcoming all the intergenerational trauma and the feeling of shame.”
He stayed focused, knowing the gravity of his endeavour. During his time in school, he estimated Kanesatake lost 20 speakers of the language.
Now, a year after his studies concluded, he has finally graduated with his cohort of three Kanehsata’kehró:non who spent years committed to learning the language in the Ratiwennenhá:wi Kanien’kéha immersion program.
“It felt a little strange because over the course of a year, I felt less accomplished and realized the learning and the work of language revitalization is only just beginning,” he said.
Etienne has seen his own conception of his Kanien’kehá:ka identity evolve over the course of his language-learning journey.
“I thought it meant I had to act a different way, carry a demeanour, fly a certain flag,” he said. “Now I know that my identity is based on our teachings of love, respect, righteousness, and using the good mind.”
He recalls his feelings in being confronted by not knowing his own language, his own ceremonies.
“It was like standing at the bottom of a cliff looking up and having to climb to the top, not knowing how it was all going to transpire,” he said. “I was scared. In a way, it’s like these feelings always existed, but once I started learning, it was looking me straight in the eyes. There was no ignoring it.”
At first he worried about making mistakes, but his fear melted away as he became more comfortable in his own skin, he said, in all aspects of life. “I healed those wounds and put myself in a position to not just use the language, but understand the feelings I had felt along the way.”
He still works at the Onen’tó:kon Healing Lodge, which offers a trauma-based, culture-oriented addiction treatment program for Onkwehón:we. His job now is to teach others about culture.
“To witness how much he’s grown, learned, and invested into becoming a Kanien’kéha speaker is remarkable and quite the achievement,” said his wife, Melody Katsitsanóron Beaudin. “I’m beyond proud of him and everything he has accomplished thus far.”
For Beaudin, Etienne’s graduation on June 19 was deeply felt.
“Watching my husband graduate was emotional for me as my grandmother, a first-language speaker, had recently passed away. Reviving the language is important, and I’m very happy he made the decision to be part of it,” she said.
The three years Etienne spent in the immersion program was a commitment for the whole family, and they didn’t waste any time in keeping busy – Beaudin recently wrapped up her first year of the program.
“I truly wouldn’t be able to continue down this journey without my family by my side,” she said.
“I look forward to being able to speak, read, write, and continue to use the language in our home and daily lives.”
Etienne hopes more people his age will take on the immense but rewarding challenge of learning the language and all that comes with it.
“Ratiwennenhá:wi or any of the immersion programs, they’ll change your life. Your identity will grow, and I think most would agree that you attain legendary super-hero status,” he said.
“In all seriousness, if you’re thinking about starting your language-learning journey, don’t think twice, just do it, because it’s the greatest gift you could ever give yourself.”
This article was originally published in print on Friday, July 14, in issue 32.28 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.