Ambitious and Controversial School Attempts to Save the Mohawk Language and Culture

Tanya Lee

In 1988 a few parents in the Mohawk community of Kahnawà:ke, 15 miles southwest of Montreal, decided to try to preserve the language of their elders by teaching it to their toddlers. So they started a school. Dale Dione-Dell, one of the founders of the school, Karihwanó:ron Kanien’kéha Owenna Tsi Ionteriwaienstahkwa, says, “We were not satisfied with the way the schools were teaching the language. They were not meeting our needs,” and with fewer and fewer fluent speakers left in the community, the living language was in danger of being lost. “Being a people requires a language, a culture and a land base,” she says. “Culture, ceremony and spirituality are all learned through the language. Our children learn how to offer thanksgiving to all the natural world” at the end of each school day. “That is part of who they are.”

She says her mother, who taught Mohawk in the Syracuse, New York public schools, dreamed of revitalizing the language. The loss of the language began, Dione-Dell says, with the forced movement of Native American children of her mother’s generation into residential schools. “Non-Natives took our language away, saying we would be better off if we learned English,” she says. Those who spoke their own language were punished. “From that experience, one whole generation has not attempted to teach their children the language.”

Children start at the age of 2 and continue through sixth grade. At Karihwanó:ron Kanien’kéha Owenna Tsi Ionteriwaienstahkwa, they learn their Native language as their first language in a family setting, with two adults who speak to each other and the children in Mohawk, just as children learn language at home. “Here babies and children learn Mohawk as their first language,” says Dione-Dell. “But if kids don’t start learning Mohawk till 6 or 7, they are already speaking the English language. One of the ways we know our program is working is that when the little children take their naps, they speak in Mohawk—they are dreaming in Mohawk.”

The school runs from nine a.m. to 2:30 p.m., even for the 2- and 3-year-olds. “We only have partial funding for the 4-year-olds,” says Dione-Dell, “but we keep them all day [anyway].” The school also teaches adults in the classroom and out. Parents are encouraged to learn Mohawk so they can support their children’s learning. In the classroom, fluent speakers mentor younger teachers who can speak the language but have not achieved fluency.

The school runs on an annual budget of $335,000, from which it pays everything from teachers’ salaries to costs for repairing and maintaining the building, to furniture and supplies. “We have 15 on staff,” says Joely Van Dommelen, Dione-Dell’s daughter and current administrator of the school. The Canadian government provides about $140,000 in tuition for the students; the rest the

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school must raise. “We have been on-going for 24 years and for all that time we have been struggling financially,” Dione-Dell says. “We had zero money when we started; now we have minus money.”

Van Dommelen laughs when asked to explain how the school stays open despite running a deficit: “We buy lottery tickets every week, but we haven’t been lucky. I tell the staff, ‘If we do win, nobody can quit their jobs.’?”

Wahiakeron Gilbert is in his 60s and a fluent speaker of Mohawk. Having been a steelworker in New York City for 30 years, he came home to Kahnawà:ke after he had an accident. He got a full-time job at the school, where he worked with 6- and 7-year-olds. He has been teaching there “almost since the beginning,” he says. “I’m the last of the old guard.”

“When we first started,” he says, “we just talked all day long. Then we started writing down things because the kids had to remember.” These days, he teaches third- and fourth-graders, and he is acutely aware of the role languages plays in preserving and passing down culture. “We are teaching the children the ways of the longhouse—how it’s run, how to sit and behave. We have mock festivals so they already know what’s going on if they choose to live the longhouse way. As an elder, it is my duty to teach this. The longhouse is not a religion, it’s a way of life. I instill into my pupils that they are the keepers of the land and of the Great Law of Peace given to the Iroquois to be shared with the world. [We are required to] share it with the world and spread it to other nations to see if they would accept it. Children here learn a lot more than language. They learn to be good human beings and ambassadors of peace.”

Gilbert has written a 75,000-word dictionary of the Mohawk language. “It took three years,” he says. “I want to go back and do more, 250,000 words, and then hand it over to other Mohawk reserves and ask them to improve on it.” He has a 14-year-old grandson who speaks Mohawk, French, English and Spanish, and a baby boy, just a few weeks old. “The baby looks like my father,” he says and chuckles. “I say I’m now raising my dad.”

Learning to be a keeper of the land and an ambassador of peace is not always easy. Wentahawi Dione-Elijah attended

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Karihwanó:ron Kanien’kéha Owenna Tsi Ionteriwaienstahkwa and now teaches first and second grades there. Her daughter, 2, just started at the school. Dione-Dell noted that the school has never had a problem with enrollment: “We’ve always had a waiting list. It started in 1988. People knew about us and came. Pregnant women come to sign their children up.”

“Back then Mohawk was not in style,” Dione-Elijah recalls. “Among my friends, not many spoke Mohawk.” When she started school there were only seven or eight students. “At the time we felt isolated from the other schools and also isolated because of the ‘in the bush’ location [of the school], a little outside the town.”

The school was more “down-to-earth back then. We were always outside in the woods, exploring.” Dione-Dell says of that period, “The curriculum was the outdoors, where they developed their imagination, learned about nature.” That principle still holds for the youngest students, while there is more emphasis on academics for the older students.

The unusual curriculum made some in the community uneasy, says Dione-Elijah. “We were outcasts, or that’s how it felt then. At certain times I’d feel ashamed to speak Mohawk. In my mother’s era, people were told not to speak their language. Now we’re in the middle. Some learned; some didn’t. I was hearing from our community—the school you go to, you’re not smart.” She said the students were “always told that they could not achieve anything because they were learning Mohawk rather than French or English.”

At 13, she started at a private high school in Montreal, where she did not use her language at all. “After I graduated high school, McGill [University in Montreal] had just started a program that offered a certificate in teaching [Mohawk]. The reason I signed up was to brush up on my Mohawk after I’d learned English.”

“After getting my teaching certificate I got a job here and went to school part-time for social work,” says Dione-Elijah. “I also took a language-teaching course in Arizona. It was proof that having your [native] language

Students and teachers did a fund-raiser for a baby in need of a heart transplant.

first doesn’t make you dumb. It gives you confidence—you know who you are. Starting life off not knowing who you are is difficult. You have your whole life to learn other languages. It’s important to learn your own language, especially when it is a very hard to learn.”

The Mohawk language, she explains, has very detailed word meanings: “It’s very descriptive, very visual as you talk. The words describe the object in a very precise way. Having Mohawk as a first language gives you a different understanding of the world.”

Dione-Elijah has continued her education while she teaches. She says she hopes to get a degree in social work and eventually become a counselor at the school: “I want to come back here in a different role—all in the first language, which makes it very different. There is a lot of emotion in our words. We talk about feelings; it’s a very affective language.”

She describes one way the school creates an emotionally positive learning environment for the children: “We begin the day with a talking circle. We use a feather, a symbol of respect. Only the person holding the feather is allowed to speak. We ask the children, ‘How do you feel today?’

“If we don’t know what’s going on, they act it out, take it out on other children. It creates a chaotic school. If we know whatever the student feels today, we can understand the behavior. All of this discussion is conducted in the Mohawk language.”

While one of the greatest pressures on her as a young student was feeling like an outcast and being told she was not as smart as others, today’s students face different challenges. “In the last few years, we’re fighting a strong current,” she says. “Our kids are all being influenced from the outside—TV. Money is the hardest thing we are dealing with. We teach them who they are and what’s important. Then they see money, big houses, toys. We’re fighting so hard to teach them those things aren’t important. The most difficult thing to have them understand [is that what is important is] you and your pride, knowing the deepness of true things and the spirit of everything.”

Ironically, the school that is working so hard to teach students that knowing the spirit of things is far more important than money, is itself in desperate need of money. The last few years have been extremely difficult because of the downturn in the global economy, Dione-Dell explains: “Before we’ve relied on fund-raising—grants, foundations, events in the community. But everything has been cut. So we’ve launched a campaign to help us save our language. Any way people can help—with a small or large contribution, a monthly commitment.”

Having recently retired from the alternative restorative justice program she built, Dione-Dell is back to being a “full-time volunteer” and one of the challenges she has taken on is to try to ensure the survival of the school she helped create. “I never worked at the school,” she says. “I was one of the original parents.”

She explains that it has taken all of these past 24 years for the school to get off the ground: “We have students who were the first students and now their children are in the school learning and speaking Mohawk.” And the hope is that the children of those children will one day have a place at Karihwanó:ron Kanien’kéha Owenna Tsi Ionteriwaienstahkwa.

To make a contribution or to learn more about Karihwanó:ron Kanien’kéha Owenna Tsi Ionteriwaienstahkwa, contact Joely Van Dommelen, 450-638-0383; [email protected]; Karihwanó:ron Mohawk Immersion Program, P.O. Box 1439, Kahnawà:ke Kanien’keháka Territory, J0L 1B0. Contributions can be made in cash, by check, or deposited into the school’s checking account at the Desjardins Caisse Populaire Kahnawà:ke, account number: 008111, transit number: 30539-815.

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Tania McCrystall's picture
Tania McCrystall
Submitted by Tania McCrystall on
Hello I am a descendant from the Mohawk tribe now living in NZ. My great grandmother was called Sara Maybe. I want to know more information about the culture. Can anyone tell me what my name Tania looks like in the Mohawk language? I am thinking about getting a tattoo. My email address is [email protected]. Thanks in advance Tania

Shirley Jacobs's picture
Shirley Jacobs
Submitted by Shirley Jacobs on
I love that your school is teaching your native language to the children. It's so important to the culture. I am not Mohawk, but have many friends who are. I will try to spread the word about your school to others.