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New dictionary connects past and present

The late Gunther Michelson of Chateauguay in Buffalo around 1995, when he was about 75 years old. Michelson is posthumously credited as a co-author of a new, comprehensive Kanien’kéha dictionary coming out in March. Courtesy Karin Michelson

Around 10 years ago, a linguist with experience in Haudenosaunee languages, Karin Michelson, was invited by three Oneida women to assist them in going through the archives of one of the world’s best-known museums.

The Oneida women went to the Smithsonian Institution as part of a program known as Breath of Life, which enables Onkwehón:we to bring linguistic works back to their home communities. Michelson, who co-authored a dictionary for the severely endangered Oneida language, came along to help them sift through the archives.

She first forged connections with the Oneida when she was at the Centre for Research and Teaching of Native Languages at the University of Western Ontario. “I think I would not have stayed in school if I had not met some of the people I got to work with,” she said. She went on to teach at Harvard before finally settling into a role at the University of Buffalo.

But Michelson, a non-Indigenous woman who grew up in Chateauguay in the 1950s and 60s, encountered something else in the Smithsonian’s archives that caught her interest and surprised her – an unpublished manuscript called Notes to a Mohawk Dictionary.

It was meticulous, frequently referencing obscure historical information, but it wasn’t the content that caught her off guard. After all, she already had a copy: it had been written by her own late father, Gunther Michelson.

Gunther, who died in 2005, was a journalist for CBC’s international service who spent his spare time cataloguing the language of the community next door. Growing up, Karin often saw the Montours and Nortons her father visited in Kahnawake and counted as friends.

With the help of Kahnawa’kehró:non, Gunther published a brief manual on Kanien’kéha grammar in 1973 that included some words and was used in local schools. 

But he was unable to verify the content of his more ambitious dictionary project, so he decided not to make it available to the public. Yet here was his manuscript in the Smithsonian archives, a copy having found its way into the files of a young linguist whose materials had been donated en masse upon his death.

The discovery gave Karin a number of feelings, including guilt. Her father had gathered everything he could find on the Kanien’kéha language and Kanien’kehá:ka history, saving place names, concepts, and words for customs, objects, and foods on index cards. “Whatever was interesting, he put in his files,” said Karin. But it wasn’t benefitting anyone.

“I thought maybe now is the time to update this if I can find somebody who will work with me to make sure that everything is spelled correctly,” she said. So Karin, who is married to Kahnawa’kehró:non Russell Deer, approached her sister-in-law, Glenda Deer, for help.

Glenda and Karin have now been working together for seven years, much longer than either one expected.

“It was wonderful working with her because we’re both perfectionists,” said Karin.

“You think it’s easy to translate something like potato, but some other concepts, if you’re talking about something like emotions or more abstract things, translation is very difficult. How do you talk about somebody being annoyed?” observed Karin.

The more the two spoke, the more things came up that they realized were missing, such as words for different kinds of horse gear or for the actions of the animals, vocabulary with which Glenda is familiar from childhood.

“Her parents raised her in the language, so she’s a native speaker,” said Kenneth Deer, Glenda’s husband. He watched as she poured countless hours into the collaboration, often getting on long Zoom calls to discuss words and phrases.

Knowing how significant it would be to have a comprehensive dictionary available for Kanien’kéha speakers and learners, Kenneth, whose involvement in advocating for Onkwehón:we sovereignty and identity is extensive, encouraged Glenda to participate in the project when she was asked by Karin.

“You want Mohawk to be a living language, not a dead language like Latin,” said Kenneth, noting the latter is used in ceremonies but not in every day interaction.

“You can tell the importance of a language to the existence of a people because the Canadian government deliberately tried to destroy the Mohawk language and other Indigenous languages across Canada. And they did that to destroy the culture and to destroy and assimilate our people,” Kenneth said. “Fortunately, it failed. But it did a lot of damage.”

He also noted that although Kanien’kéha has an oral tradition, a dictionary is a useful tool in the development of literature, such as novels, that can become a part of the culture as well.

“Dictionaries are important as a foundation for the continuation of the language, especially when you’re teaching non-speakers of Mohawk. Our dictionaries are very important,” he said.

Kahnawa’kehró:non Akwiratékha Martin, a translator and former language teacher who closely reviewed and edited the text, said learners have long been waiting for a resource like this one.

“My big journey into Kanien’kéha was only about 2002; I never really knew or heard of or imagined that all that information was available,” he said.

There is more than one way to approach a dictionary. This one uses roots to categorize words, a choice originally made by Gunther when organizing his notes. “You’ll never hear a root word spoken,” noted Martin. But Karin believes this method is a good fit for language learners who are hungry to understand the literal meanings of words.

Martin said he looks forward to seeing how people with different levels of Kanien’kéha comprehension digest the book, which runs hundreds of pages. “I just know it’s going to have a very positive effect on the community,” he said.

“The language is just made of parts, but the beauty of it is there is just so much play and art to it,” said Martin. He is known to emphasize – often to the distress of students – the importance of grasping grammatical concepts and the morphology of words. “Then you can just play with it, like the elders do.”

To Martin, one of the most striking aspects of the book is its use of historical documentation and the connections it makes between the past and present.

“It’s interesting to see that the relationship with the past is not broken,” he said. “This is something that always rubs me the wrong way. People always say to second-language speakers, ‘Well, you don’t speak the old language.’ That drives me up the wall.”

He said this line of thinking denigrates the knowledge of learners. Yet the recorded history of the words shows many are the same.

“We did not lose old Kanien’kéha. Common, real-life Kanien’kéha is old Kanien’kéha, if you get what I’m saying, and that’s the beautiful part of this language, that the old language is not gone,” he said.

On top of this, any language will change as time goes on.

“That’s what language is, it’s a continuous transmission,” said Karin. “That means there are some things that stay the same and there are some things that evolve and change through time.”

She said variation between speakers and the need for new vocabulary are some reasons this can be observed. “I think this dictionary does that better,” she said. “That’s what makes it comprehensive.”

A Dictionary of Kanien’kéha (Mohawk) with Connections to the Past will be published by the University of Toronto Press in March.

“It was just a joy to go through,” said Martin, “to see things that I didn’t see were connected, like certain words had the same etymology. It was sort of interesting to see the organization of it. And it was exciting to see that everything was in one spot.”

The resource is already arousing the interest of community members who work with the language, according to Martin. 

Sharing Our Stories translator Sahawisóko Arquette, for instance, has been known to phone him up to seek his counsel for a particular word or phrase, asking him to “check the magic book.”

“Don’t worry,” Martin replies. “You’ll all have a copy one day.”


This article was originally published in print on January 19, in issue 33.03 of The Eastern Door.

Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

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Marcus is a journalist and 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.

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Marcus is a journalist and 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.