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Mohawk immersion school founder honoured by Wilfrid Laurier University

06/23/2015 12:18 EDT | Updated 06/23/2016 05:59 EDT
(The above is an instructional Mohawk language video used at Maracle's school.To activate English subtitles, click 'CC.')

Owennatékha Brian Maracle founded a Mohawk immersion language school 17 years ago with the goal of creating proficient speakers. Now, thanks to his efforts, there are children growing up on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve near Brantford, Ont. who speak Mohawk as their first language. 

Wilfrid Laurier University recently recognized Maracle's efforts in reviving the Mohawk (Kanyen'kehaka) language on Six Nations and beyond by granting him an honorary doctorate of letters.

The school, Onkwawénna Kentyóhkwa, or 'Our Language Society', is located in Oshweken, Ont. and provides a two-year immersion program for adults. 

"We're concentrating on younger people and people who live or work the community, the idea being that we want to create speakers who will then...intermarry, have children and start raising children speaking it as their first language, and that's happening now," said Maracle, who received his honorary doctorate from the university in a ceremony last week, in an interview.

Over 85 people have graduated from his program, and some are working in elementary schools teaching Mohawk. Maracle's teaching methods, moreover, have been adopted by other First Nations groups across North America, including the Oneida Nation of the Thames near London, Ont. and Cherokee people in North Carolina.

"We do have a few children less than five years old who are speaking it as their first language, and that's something that hasn't happened here in like three generations," said Maracle.  

"I haven't in my conversation with these kids, I haven't heard them use English," said Maracle. "That's really the key to language, we can't be teaching it forever. These kids have to grow up and start using it themselves."

'It's filling a need'

Maracle said he started the school because he felt that something was missing from his life.

"Part of our identity is being able to speak the language, and that was missing in my case and a lot of people's cases. It's filling a need," he said. "People come out of this not just knowing a language, but feeling a lot better about themselves because they know who they truly are, because the language embodies or carries with it the knowledge that English doesn't properly describe in terms of who we are, or all of our culture." 

Maracle says the current program is full-time, which means studying and speaking six hours a day, five days a week for two school years. When people finish the program, they are proficient and can go all day without using English. The school is funded by the local band council, and people who attend the school get a small training allowance. 

"People come into the classroom, we don't use any English and we start at a part of the language which allows people to have a lot conversational ability without a using very much grammar or vocabulary," said Maracle. "Then we start adding grammar and vocabulary and gradually build from there." 

Because the language is descriptive, words that don't traditionally exist in Mohawk language – like computer or Internet – Maracle says it's a matter of figuring out the best way to describe something.

"When we need a name for something we have to describe what it looks like, or what it does," he said. A rough translation of computer in Mohawk, for instance, is "words hung up in the air" or "words that are hung up in front of us."  This is a reference to a computer monitor, as opposed to a typewriter which would be "words on paper," said Maracle.

Next, he'd like to adapt his program so it's possible for people to complete it and be proficient in one school year instead of two. 

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