Anthropology professor David Kanatawakhon-Maracle, a scholar who has made it his life’s work to teach the Mohawk language, received an honorary degree during Brock University’s Spring Convocation, last month.
Untold numbers of youth and adults who have learned the Mohawk language have Kanatawakhon-Maracle, a former Brock instructor, to thank.
Kanatawakhon is a Mohawk from the Tyendinaga First Nation near Belleville, Ont., and after high school and a job with the Department of Indian Affairs in Ottawa, he returned home to teach the Mohawk language to elementary school students. With no curriculum or study materials readily available, Kanatawakhon set about creating his own.
“Years ago, I realized that without our language we have no culture,” he said. “When our language is gone we don’t have anything. We basically just have a bunch of museum pieces.”
In 1983, Kanatawakhon went to Western, where he earned a BA focusing on linguistic specialization. He went on to teach Mohawk language in the Department of Anthropology, where once again he faced the prospect of creating his own teaching materials.
During his time at Western, as well as 12 years spent teaching Mohawk language and other courses for the Aboriginal Studies program at Brock, Kanatawakhon wrote numerous dictionaries, textbooks and other teaching materials in both the Mohawk and Oneida languages.
Kanatawakhon’s texts – which now include five dictionaries – have become the foundational tools for those learning indigenous languages. He has been credited with playing a significant role in saving the Mohawk language. It’s a remarkable feat that few individuals have ever achieved, but he’s humble in recognizing his own role.
“There are a lot of Mohawk people who are working hard to keep the language alive,” he said. “I’m not the only person out there. I’m just one spoke in a wheel. I may or may not be remembered for it, but I don’t care. The material is important. Getting the language out there is all that matters.”