Beauty of the Mohawk Language in our Early Years Program by, Otsistohkwi:yo/Melissa Elliott

Tsi niyoht tsi yohskats nonkwawen:nan nok niyonkwariho:tens

(The Beauty of our Language and Culture)

The history of education in my community, Ohswe:kon (or Six Nations of the Grand River Territory), is anything but beautiful. Education, as an institution, was introduced by the Government of “Canada” through the Catholic and Anglican church, with the sole purpose of assimilating our peoples and severing our connection to our land, families, and culture. Residential schools or government sponsored Boarding Schools operating from 1800s to the 1990s, were explicitly designed to “kill the Indian in the child.” Our languages, culture, and society were viewed as inferior, heathen, dangerous and a barrier to economic progress. As a result, children were ripped from our communities and taken to such institutions as “the Mush Hole” (or the Mohawk Institute, located in Brantford, Ontario) for “educating.” Children were abused, many died, and our own people even began adopting the belief that our peoples, languages, and ways are, in fact, lesser and a hinderance to our own progress.

With the trauma of Residential Schools still lingering in our collective consciousness, education has left an impression on our people that is cold, divisive and painful. So how do we, given this history and trauma, bring beauty to our youngest children’s education? This was a question that I held as I was tasked with developing the first Mohawk Immersion, Waldorf and Lifeways inspired preschool program at Skaronhyase’ko:wa Tsyohterakentko:wa Tsi Yontaweya’tahkwa (The Everlasting Tree School) in 2017.

How do we, as Rotinonhsyon:ni peoples, define beauty? How do we carry this beauty in an educational structure as we work with our youngest children? Can this even be done within an educational structure? For those of us who teach at Skaronhyse’ko:wa, these questions inspire us to imagine ways to transform the colonial, traumatic institution of Education into one that is healing, life-giving, and beautiful.

We recognize that Education for our peoples was not always this way. Before Europeans arrived on our lands, we were educating our children through our family structures in a holistic way, that built on the gifts each child brought with them. Our children’s “education” was not separate from the land but through the land. We “educated” through both oral traditions and experience, rooted in our language, culture and spirituality. It was an education that involved the entire community.

While we cannot turn back the wheels of time, we can imagine new ways of bringing our own traditional knowledge to transform modern education. At Skaronhyase’ko:wa, we are doing this everyday through Onkwehonweneha (our language) and Niyonkwariho:tens (our culture).

Albert Soesman, when reflecting on the works of Rudolf Steiner in his book “Our Twelve Senses,” speaks to how language has a spirit or “folk soul”. He states, “when you listen to a language, you actually listen through the being of an archangel, who leads a group of people, as it were, and forms them” (Soesman p.123). While we do not traditionally view our language as being tied to archangels, we do believe it has a spirit. I was once told that our language, Kanyen’keha (or Mohawk), has the quality of water; the inflexes and vocalization reflecting that of a running river; slow, rising and falling, with short stops along the shore. Our people, the Kanye’keha:ka (Mohawk people) would make our settlements along the rivers in what’s now upstate New York. Our language, therefore, reflects the spirit of the land we come from and is intrinsically connected to it.

Therefore, as we surround our young children in Kanyen’keha, we are connecting them with the land and our ancestors. In our speaking, we hope to preserve the beauty of our language, that our children will hear its river-like, healing qualities. As Soesman also states, “language is a formative element…the formative process goes very deeply into the human being” (Soesman p.124). By surrounding our children in our ancestral languages, we are aiding their bodily formation. Kanyen’keha flows over the children as a river, the vibrations go into their entire being and help shape their growing ears, mouths, heart, and brain to that of Kanyen’keha.

Unlike other mainstream child care programs, Onkwehonweneha and Niyonkwarihotens are not a subject of study for the 3- and 4-year-olds who attend Kanenhanonnha (Protected Seeds Early Years Program), it is the environment, the teachers, and way we interact with each other. We bring the beauty of our language through the relationship each of us teachers have with our language.  I, for example, am one of the first Mohawk speakers in generations of my family, and worked hard, dedicating 5 years of my life to becoming a Mohawk speaker. Due to intergenerational trauma in my family, I encountered many deep seeded blocks along my path of language learning. For myself, this included my own self-image and issues with shame, need to overcome this and be comfortable being wrong when I spoke Kanyen’keha and never stop trying. At Skaronhyase’ko:wa we strive, as teachers, to heal ourselves and the blocks we may have encountered in our language-learning due to intergenerational trauma. We speak our language because we love our language. This love permeates through each of our words and is felt in a real way by the children. I continue to see in our work that when this love and passion for our language is felt by the teachers, the children more freely pick up our languages. Language exchange then becomes a beautiful, healing, living process.

In the end, our goal is for our language and culture to live and breathe within the children. This will not only help undo the legacy of trauma within our community, but it will help the children in their development. As we learn to speak, and eventually, think in our language, our worldview changes. For example, in Kanyen’keha we cannot describe a tree, plant, or landscape without describing what it is doing. “Tsi yonontote” translates to where a mountain exists. As opposed to English, a noun-based language, the environment is not a mere thing, it is living. Speaking and thinking in our languages allows us to experience the beauty of our mother earth in a fuller, more relevant way.

In our Kanenhanonnha (Protected Seeds) Early Years Program, we have transformed Waldorf and Lifeways pedagogy, the closest educational models to our own, to a program that reflects Niyonkwariho:tens (our culture). For our “handwork” we harvest O:nenhste (corn), braid, dry, shuck, and grind to make Kanenhstokwen (Corn mush) for our snack. We tell traditional stories daily, to continue our legacy of oral traditions. On Fridays, we gather the children to build a fire and burn our traditional tobacco to give thanks for the everything on the earth, the sky, the creator, and each other. Though this approach, of creating a program in which our languages and culture live, asks much of us teachers, in terms of planning, translation, and imagination, it is the only way to create an education that moves past its colonial and traumatic legacy, into one which is healing, holistic, relevant and beautiful for our children.

At Skaronhyase’kowa Tsyohteratentko:wa Tsi Yontaweyatahkwa (The Everlasting Tree School) beauty is living through our languages and culture and those of us that bring it alive. As this year, 2019, has been declared by the United Nations as the International Year of Indigenous Language (IYIL2019), we are finally entering a time of global recognition and support for our collective efforts. I encourage all of you, parents and educators reading, to continue using your mother tongue with your children. It is transformative, it is healing, it is beautiful.



Soesman, Albert. (1990) Our Twelve Senses. UK, Hawthorn Press.