Western joins effort to preserve Oneida language

In the summer months, travel a half hour south of London and you’ll find David Kanatawakhon working to resurrect a dying language.

The Western language specialist, a member of the Mohawk Nation, is teaching an Oneida language immersion course on the community’s nearby territory, having picked up the Iroquoian language in order to preserve it.

As it stands, only 60 speakers of Oneida remain, most of them in the London area, said Susan Hill, director of First Nations Studies at Western, currently on sabbatical. This course – offered to Western students through First Nations Studies, Oneida members and other interested parties in the community – is a joint effort between the university and the Oneida community, with concentrated efforts toward language restoration, an issue of critical importance to Indigenous peoples.

“I’ve been in London for 30, and have been coming here (to Oneida) for 25. I’ve been involved with (its) language centre from time to time and then about three years ago, there was talk of doing an interest course for the summer,” Kanatawakhon said of the seeds that planted the course.

“We figured if 10-12 people showed up, it would be great. But we ended up with 37-38 people. They were here on their own; there was no credit, no support money – people just came. I have never taught that many people,” he added.

This summer was the third year the course was offered. Last summer, Western got involved after the community reached out to the university, embracing the course and offering it for credit to students. Fifty-five individuals of all ages attended, among them Western students, community members from London, the local Oneida territory, as well as visitors from the Oneida Wisconsin territory.

The primary goal of the course is language preservation, Hill said. She noted an endangered language could be likened to an endangered species and added, that within that framework, Oneida would fall in the ‘critical’ category.

Oneida, among the Iroquoian languages, has been in existence for more than 600 years, with tribes speaking it in Ontario, New York and Wisconsin. Oneida culture has a strong oral narrative tradition and the preservation of its language represents a preservation of a culture as well for the community.

“This (course) was a need that the community has articulated, and has asked us to work with them to articulate the need,” she said, adding Kanatawakhon’s approach to language instruction in the Mohawk course he teaches appealed to the community, prompting the request.

“It’s about, as an academic institution, being responsive and collaborative with a local Indigenous community to address a high priority that they’ve laid out. It’s not us coming in and saying, ‘You need this.’ It’s them coming to us, and saying, ‘This is what we need. Are you able to work with us to achieve this goal?’

“As a side benefit, a number of our current students have enrolled in the course; they have the opportunity to get extra credit toward their degree; they have an opportunity to do so in their community; they have an opportunity to meet a cultural education goal as well as an academic educational goal. To pair those together is a phenomenal opportunity. We’ve gained a number of students who’ve come to Western as a result of this course,” she added.

With Kanatawakhon at the helm of the classroom – and Oneida elder master speakers at the front to guide him – the class is visibly engaged, repeating phrases, asking questions, eager to learn.

“People have pride in who they are and have culture. They want to be able to live and breathe and be well and be educated at home. To me, that’s a reality,” he said. “The people here are very passionate about learning the language and that makes a big difference.”

The students’ eagerness is certainly palpable in the classroom.

For Ursula Doxtator, an Oneida member and graduate of First Nations Studies starting her B.Ed. at Western’s Faculty of Education this fall, this is promising. “In my dreams I would like to see all of us continuing,” she said. “It’s not going to be an overnight process. I’m hoping the younger ones will take it on and keep going with it. There are a lot of younger folks in the class. It’s good they are interested in it.”

Doxtator, 44, noted since first taking the class three summers ago, her language skill has improved. Prior to taking the class, she could understand maybe one third of the elders’ conversations. She couldn’t write the language at all and could speak only a little.

“After the classes now, when listening to elders I can understand at least half. I can write pretty much anything. My vocabulary is way up there and I’m more comfortable speaking,” she said.

While the course teaches the language structure first and lasts only a handful of weeks in the summer months, Doxtator says a desire to preserve the language will ensure the learning continues.

“It’s up the individual regardless of how far and how much the course teaches you – it’s what you put in. I think we’re safe for now as long as the interest stays up, and I think it will. When we see each other now, we use (Oneida). It’s our language – I don’t like seeing our people being shy to use it.”

Hill and Kanatawakhon added the course is set to continue next summer at the Oneida territory, with the possibility of offering the basic introductory course alongside one that would pick up where this year’s course left off.

“It’s the Oneida individuals who made the commitment to be here. They share a collective vision of a language-speaking community. What they have in common is that desire to reclaim the language for themselves as individuals, but, more importantly, for their community as a whole, so that in the next generation, they will have far more than 60 speakers to depend upon,” Hill said.

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The nearby Oneida of the Thames community has developed a website in an effort to bring its members together to preserve language and culture. The site features recorded videos from elder master speakers, interactive learning tools, games and other features that showcase Oneida’s language, history and culture. Additional resources are available to the community at its Oneida Language and Cultural Centre.

For more information, visit oneidalanguage.ca.