An Atikamekw Language Lesson
March 30, 2011
"Onimiski is like thunder, electric current or lightning."
Lucien Ottawa, Nehirowisiw
Each language has its own vocabulary and unique way of arranging words to describe people or situations, to express ideas or emotions. The Atikamekw's is very colourful. It can name the Earth this "ember from a burst of sunlight", and the train, the "vehicle driven by fire". In one word, it can identify a man, his profession and his condition, but it requires many letters. It takes 32 to designate the "deceased bad little electrician", but everyone in the community knows who we’re talking about!
An interview with young Mohawks
We find now too that a lot of the younger ones, like the young children now, are coming out fluent. We have the Akwesasne Freedom School which is a full-immersion, Mohawk immersion school, that goes up to grade 8. And then one of our schools has an immersion program up to grade 6. So you hear now that there are a lot more younger kids that are fluent speakers. My family, my grandparents are fluent, and I think two or three of their sons are. But the ones that are fluent only learned it when they were working, working with a lot of the older guys who communicated in Mohawk, so they had to learn it or, you know, you could potentially die.
My father is in the same situation as Marie: he was fluent and as he speaks Mohawk to us, we understand a little bit, but he thought it was bad. I asked him, “How come you put me in the English program? Why not the Mohawk one?” His answer was, “Well, we wanted you to succeed and at that time Mohawk wasn’t seen as something that would help you, something that would hinder you.” So that’s why I think a lot of loss of our language came from, that mindset that being Indian isn’t good, it’s going to hurt you, anything to do with it, you know, you need to be European, you need to be white to succeed. That’s just how our parents were, they wanted better for us than what they had, so they did what they thought was right. And now you see it’s going back, a lot more young families are putting their kids into Freedom school, into the Mohawk immersion programs.
I feel lucky because my mom did teach me the language. But not until I was eleven and we got my father out of the picture… We didn’t kill him, they just divorced (laughs). Like I said, his family was hardcore Catholic, so it was when he was out of the house, or the room, that my mom would teach me, but when he came back, I knew I had to stay in English or he would punish us. And when he was finally out of the picture, I moved back to Freedom school from which he took me out when my mom tried to put me in the first place. My mom became a Mohawk language teacher there. And today, she has the responsibility of giving the Deer Clan names at the longhouse. And so, from her, until I went away to university, I was almost fluent, and I knew a lot of my culture, but being away for five years for a Bio Honours degree, I started to forget the language. But my mom always said, “It’s in your blood, even if you don’t know it, just clear your mind of all your other thoughts and you’re going to know what they’re saying.” Because now, when I talk, or speak, I feel that I’m lagging, it takes a while, but I see the picture of what they’re saying. I don’t hear words, I just see a picture. And that’s why I think the language helps with the environment, or anything too, because you’re not just saying this or that, you’re actually describing it, you’re seeing the whole bigger picture and how it connects.
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