By Joëlle Pouliot /Marginalized Communities Project, May 2012
City University London

Last April was Cultural Awareness Month in Kahnawake, a small Mohawk reserve in the Canadian province of Quebec. The community’s newspaper had a plan to shake up its readers; The Eastern Door published a front-page story that 90 per cent of the community couldn’t understand. It was all in Kanien’kéha, the Mohawk language.

It is estimated that only 3,000 people in the world speak Kanien’kéha fluently. The Mohawk language was decimated when the Canadian government and Catholic missionaries imposed residential schools for Aboriginal children in the 19th and 20th centuries. First Nations children were taken away from their families and beaten if they spoke any language other than English. Even when residential schools shut down between the 1950s and 1990s due to exposure of the abusive conditions and government recognition of the inherent wrongness of it all, Mohawk parents were confronted with the racism of surrounding communities, and continued to push their children to learn English.

Today that leaves approximately 100 fluent speakers in the Canadian First Nations reserves of Kahnawake and Kanesatake in the province of Quebec.
Kahnawake (pronounced gah-na-wa-geh) is located on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, a few kilometers south of the island of Montreal.

About 60 kilometres away, the Kanesatake (gah-neh-sa-ta-keh) reserve settles on the shore of the Lake of Two Mountains and the Ottawa River in Southwestern Quebec, northwest of Montreal.

Both reserves are reputed in Canada for their political activism and involvement in the 1990 Oka Crisis, a 78-day standoff between the Mohawk Nations and the provincial and federal governments. The City of Oka, neighbouring Kanesatake, planned to develop a private golf course and luxury housing on land traditionally used by the Mohawk and home to a Mohawk cemetery. Kanesatake members blocked entry to construction workers and provincial police officers, to fight for their land rights and demand respect for their culture. Soon after, they were confronted by military personnel sent by the Canadian federal government to put an end to the disruption.

The Mohawks of the Kahnawake reserve joined the protest and barricaded access to the Mercier Bridge in Montreal for over one month—blocking access to thousands of drivers into the island of Montreal. The confrontation left many Quebecers unsympathetic to the Mohawk Nations; perhaps ironic considering the ongoing quest of the Québécois to protect their French culture and language within an English Canada.

Twenty-two years later, with their language and image in need of attention, Mohawk speakers are actively turning a path of decline into an avenue of hope through burgeoning language programs and positive cultural representation in the media.

Adult education
When The Eastern Door published its front page in Mohawk, it aimed to promote the Kanien’kehaka Onkwawén:na Raotitiohkwa  Language and Cultural Centre in Kahnawake. It has an Adult Immersion Program that reconnects community members to their native language and culture. Most of those who could read the article were elders, who have preserved their language for decades in the privacy of their homes.

But the person who translated The Eastern Door’s front page into Mohawk is far from old; Akwiratékha Martin is a 29 year-old member of the community. He works as a teacher and translator for the Language and Cultural Centre. Like most youth on the reserve, he could hardly speak the language in his teen years, despite having attended Mohawk-immersion school as a child. He is now so fluent in Mohawk that he only speaks English when he has no other choice.

Martin can go by many days without speaking English in the community, as more and more people are finding an interest in the Mohawk language and are using it in their communications on Facebook, in emails and over the phone.

He enrolled in the very first Mohawk language course offered for adults in 2002 at the Language and Cultural Centre in Kahnawake, a program in partnership with Montreal’s McGill University. The program produced 125 graduates who were prepared to enter the Mohawk workforce as teachers to help revive Kanien’kéha dialogue.

The Language and Cultural Center also sponsored the development of a Rosetta Stone Endangered Language software program with a Level 1 Mohawk course, released in 2006.

“We teach traditional culture through language and it brings a sense of identity and awareness about Mohawk culture,” says Martin. “It brings a lot of pride to the students and the graduates that come out of this program.”
The Kahnawake Youth Center Executive Director, David Diabo, couldn’t agree more.

“There’s always been a pride in promoting our language but now the whole community is into it”, he says of the reserve. It’s a change in spirit and identity.
“When I was younger everybody used their English names because of the residential school systems—we had a Mohawk name but we had to use English— now my grandchildren are using their Mohawk names.”

Mohawk names are given to every member of the community as a middle name, but it is now becoming common use to discard the English first name.

Lost in Translation
When Akwiratékha Martin was learning Mohawk, he discovered with surprise and disappointment that there was no expression used in Kahnawake to describe his own sexual orientation: gay.

“It’s strange, it’s a different world for my people when it comes to gay rights,” says Martin. “For other native communities in the United States and in the rest of Canada there’s the idea of being a ‘two-spirited person’ but for my people in Kahnawake it’s a concept we never had before, or maybe that we lost. Other people are more aware of it and they still have ceremonies and vocabulary to talk about it, but not here. It’s been a journey for me to figure out where something like that would fit in my culture.”

He comments that although there are many gay and lesbians in Kanahwake, he’s the only one who talks about it openly. The tight-knit community can be judgmental.

“They are proud of themselves too but it can be tough for them”, he says of other gay members. “I had it lucky; I had good support and a good family. It’s a good reserve to grow up in because it’s close to the big city (Montreal) so it’s not as close-minded as it could be I guess.”

Martin would like to see his Mohawk town go one step further: “I’ve been thinking of what I could do next. I have dreams of creating a ‘two-spirited’ society for my people. That’s the most important thing I want to do for the community.”

And though he lives near Montreal—one of North America’s most gay-friendly cities—  there’s no doubt in his mind that staying on the reserve and changing it from within is the only option for him.

“This is my country, this is my home. Whenever you do something, you do it for your community.”

In their own words
Feeling underrepresented and misrepresented on a continual basis in mainstream news, First Nations groups across Canada are changing the rules of the game by doing their own reporting on their communities. They hope to portray a modern and realistic image of First Nations people that overshadows the stereotypes of the Lone Ranger’s faithful sidekick Tonto, the violent warrior tribes, the troubled alcoholics and the greedy tobacco tycoons.
Renowned Canadian documentary filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin, a member of the Abenaki Nation, has chronicled the lives and concerns of First Nations people and explored their influence in Canadian society for over four decades. She produced and directed a series of four films about the 1990 Oka Crisis. The First, Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, was released in 1993 and won 18 international awards.

“It’s part of history and it’s been documented,” she says of the Oka Crisis. “It’s been all over the world in teaching places, from high schools to conferences. It’s important for everyone around that community and even outside of Canada to know what happened so it doesn’t happen again.”

Obomsawin was one of the few First Nations members to participate in the process of documenting the Oka Crisis. She has worked actively since to encourage others to follow her footsteps. As Mohawk schools and community centers are following the growing trend of equipping youth with technology, telling stories to the outside world is becoming common practice.

“There’s a lot of equipment now at the reserve levels, so anything that happens automatically gets recorded by the people themselves”, she says of the noticeable change. It’s a very exciting time…everybody wants to make a video now”.

Higher education programs in Canada are also modernizing their First Nations programs, by teaching journalism students about how to break apart from the mainstream narrative of Aboriginal people.

“Underrepresentation and misrepresentation of Aboriginals in the mainstream media is something that can be fixed by educating reporters, by giving reporters some of the tools that they need to operate in First Nation communities” says Duncan McCue, a reporter for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).

Duncan McCue is also a visiting professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, teaching the newly created Reporting in Indigenous Communities course for journalism graduate students. He is Anishinaabe, a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation in the province of Ontario. He is also the creator and curator of an online education guide for working journalists, also called Reporting in Indigenous Communities ( The RIIC News Facebook page is active with First Nations members, who attract the attention of reporters to upcoming events in their communities.

“The RIIC guide is written essentially for working journalists who have their head down in the trenches getting the news everyday and who need to know more about aboriginal issues in a short period of time,” says McCue.

His students learned from the guide and were sent to different Indigenous communities in Canada to produce eight feature stories that highlight solutions to First Nations health problems.

Rediscovering one’s heritage through journalism
Britanny LeBorgne is a 28 year-old Mohawk who recently graduated from the Concordia University journalism program in Montreal. Although from Kahnawake, she went to schools mostly off the reserve in Montreal and Vancouver. She has been involved in theatre productions and various short films about First Nations people, focusing on roles that depict modern Mohawk women.

For the past two years she has also been involved in working at The Eastern Door and believes the experience has reconnected her to her culture.

“The first summer I was there was the 20th anniversary of the Oka Crisis. I lived through the crisis when I was 6 years old and I remember some things, but I guess I never fully understood what it was all about. I was far too young, never asked about it, and didn’t learn about it in school. So I learned about the history, our culture through my work as a journalist.”

Kahnawake was created as a Jesuit Mission town when settlers moved away from Kanesatake to practice Catholicism, so LeBorgne was raised by a Catholic Mohawk family.
“I just was raised not learning anything about my native culture. So I’ve kind of been turning away from Catholicism in the past few years. Working at the Eastern Door has made me realize that (Catholicism) is not what I want, that’s not who I am.”

Fighting the same wars  
As the editor and publisher of The Eastern Door community newspaper, Steve Bonspiel constantly contacts mainstream news outlets to push stories about Quebec’s Mohawk communities out to the main public.
“The reactions I got lately from mainstream media was ‘oh no sorry, we already had a Mohawk story this month,’ says Bonspiel.

Like many members of his community, he is disappointed and frustrated by the disinterest of Quebecer and Canadian media in Mohawk news.

“Nobody is realizing that our fights are the same,” he adds. “No one is trying to make the connection. It’s just every man and every language for themselves so to speak.”

Just outside of Kahnawake, French-Quebecers, aided by provincial legislation, stave off Anglicization by aggressively promoting the use of French, while English speakers in the neighbouring community of Châteauguay fight with their city council for more English-language services.

“It’s sad because there are a lot of parallels and ways that we could help each other… to fight together.”

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