Interview by Luisa Maffi, Editor of Langscape Magazine, Co-founder and Director, Terralingua
In June of 2019, I was very fortunate to attend a unique event: the HELISET TŦE SḰÁL “Let the Languages Live” conference in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada (June 24–26, 2019).
Organized by the First Peoples’ Cultural Council and the First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation, two prominent First Nations organizations in British Columbia, in partnership with the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, Let the Languages Live was an international gathering of Indigenous Peoples to celebrate the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages. The conference brought together over one thousand Indigenous language experts and advocates from around the world to celebrate Indigenous languages, share knowledge and experiences, and support one another in their language maintenance and revitalization efforts.
It was a rare opportunity for me to listen to and learn from an extraordinary group of Indigenous language champions, deeply committed to ensuring that the many voices of humanity — the world’s diverse languages, most of which are Indigenous — continue to be heard. In particular, in the context of Langscape Magazine’s special 2019 project, the Indigenous Youth Storytellers Circle, I was especially interested in making contact with the younger generation of language champions — the Indigenous youth who have devoted themselves to keeping their languages alive and well for generations to come.
I wasn’t disappointed. In a number of conference sessions, I heard exceptional Indigenous youth speak with passion and commitment about learning their ancestral languages, reconnecting to their cultural traditions, and becoming active in language and culture revitalization. They spoke openly about the sometimes daunting challenges as well as the profound rewards of engaging in such efforts. It was clear that they all shared a deep sense of a mission that went well beyond their individual selves.
I was immediately convinced that these brave youth’s experiences should be shared widely, and decided to follow up with several of them after the conference to propose interviews in the form of written Q&A exchanges. Jordan Brant (Mohawk), one of the participants in the panel discussion “Youth Involvement in Language Revitalization” along with Skil Jaadee White (Haida) and Gisèle Martin (Tla-o-qui-aht), agreed to the interview. Here’s my illuminating exchange with Jordan. I do hope it will be inspiring to other Indigenous youth and to anyone with an interest in language revitalization!
Luisa Maffi (LM): Please introduce yourself: your Indigenous name, if you have one; your non-Indigenous name; your tribal affiliation, lineage, etc.; your age; where you were born and where you live now; a bit about how you grew up and your life experience and activities so far; anything else you’d like to say to identify/describe yourself!
Jordan Brant (JB): Wa’tkwanonhwerá:ton sewakwé:kon. Rohahiyo Jordan Brant yónkyats, Kenhtè:ke nitewaké:non táhnon Kanyen’kehá:ka niwakonhwentsyò:ten. My name is Jordan Brant, and my Kanyen’kéha name is Rohahiyo. I’m 29 years old. I was born and raised in Kenhtè:ke (Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, in what is now known as Ontario, Canada) and belong to the Kanyen’kehá:ka (Mohawk Nation). I currently reside in Ohsweken (Six Nations of the Grand River) with my fiancée and have been teaching Kanyen’kéha (Mohawk Language) at Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa, a full-time adult language immersion program, since 2015.
LM: Did you grow up speaking your language, or at least hearing it spoken around you? Or, if you didn’t learn your language as a kid, when did you start learning it? What led/motivated you to start learning? Was anything or anyone particularly instrumental in your decision to learn? And how did you go about doing it (personal initiative, language apprentice program, etc.)?
JB: I’m not a first-language speaker of my language, but was very fortunate to grow up around people who were passionate about the language. The last fluent speaker in my family passed away before I even began to learn the language or to take it seriously, so the majority of my learning was done at school. Luckily, growing up in Tyendinaga, the second language requirement was Kanyen’kéha. Back then, it was about 30 to 40 minutes per day of language instruction, which was all that was allotted in the school system. The teachers would do their best, but the time restriction and classroom sizes are really non-conducive to creating fluent speakers of the language.
I’m not a first-language speaker of my language, but was very fortunate to grow up around people who were passionate about the language.
I took my classes in elementary school and then one class in high school. I had speakers and teachers along the way telling me about the importance of the language, and how I really needed to become a speaker. But I was young and didn’t take it seriously at the time — and, to be honest, it didn’t seem possible.
It wasn’t until my last year of university that I really considered a future career in the language. I was preparing for my LSAT exam for Law School, and was doing everything I could to become a land claims negotiator. At the time, I was luckily taking a Kanyen’kéha class with Kanatawakhon Maracle, and he convinced me that where my people really needed young students was in the language. He also told me that I shouldn’t waste time “studying” the language, but that I needed to become a “speaker” of the language, and therefore I had to go to Brian Maracle’s two-year full-time immersion program in Ohsweken. Instead of pursuing a Master’s Degree or going to Law School, I packed up and moved to Ohsweken in September of 2013.
He convinced me that where my people really needed young students was in the language.
LM: What challenges and rewards have you encountered in following your language learning path? How did you cope with the stumbling blocks and frustrations that must undoubtedly have come along with it? And what has been the best thing about it for you?
JB: I’ve noticed that the main challenge of any language learner is opportunity. Most prospective students cannot simply put their lives on hold for two years to go and become speakers of their language in an immersion environment, especially when the pay is less than minimum wage. This is especially evident when students have children to take care of and other essential responsibilities.
I was incredibly fortunate that I was offered a place to stay for free with the family of Dr. Susan Hill, one of my professors from university. They really took me in and took care of me. I also had to walk two hours to my first day of class since I didn’t have a vehicle at the time, but was immediately taken care of by classmates (whom I had just met), who would give me rides. I was young, able-bodied, had a place to live, was well fed, had no external obligations, and had been given the opportunity to learn my language. I truly owe everything to my family, my fiancée’s family, Dr. Hill’s family, and my fellow students Kawennayenton Ken Montour, Ariwayens Artie Martin, Thohahokton Chuck Gamble, and Kahontiyoha Denise McQueen. Without them, I wouldn’t have my language and I wouldn’t be where I am today. It definitely takes a community to raise a speaker.
It definitely takes a community to raise a speaker.
LM: Was there any special moment or episode in this journey that you recall as a turning point, a transition — something that made you suddenly feel like “ah, I’m not turning back now”? If yes, can you please describe it?
JB: I’d really like to pinpoint an exact “aha moment,” but language has been such a long journey that it’s difficult to highlight a single moment as a turning point. During the two years of the immersion program, we spend 1000 hours per semester in the language, hearing it, reading it, writing it, studying it, and, most importantly, speaking it. Over two years, that’s 2000 hours in the classroom, plus frequent extra studying or socializing in the evenings and weekends. The reality of a language such as Kanyen’kéha is that a learner will need to spend thousands of hours to become proficient due to its linguistic difference from English, and students need to really change how their mind perceives the world. The program is fast-paced, but the transition to fluency is incredibly slow, long, and grueling. All of this is worth it.
In my own language journey, I’ve known kids their whole lives and have only ever spoken with them in Kanyen’kéha because it’s their first language. I’ve taught students who have surpassed my own level of fluency and are dedicated to raising their kids as first language speakers. I’ve spoken with older speakers and had the opportunity to listen to their crazy stories from the old days, and all of this makes the work worth it.
I’ve spoken with older speakers and had the opportunity to listen to their crazy stories from the old days, and all of this makes the work worth it.
LM: Do you feel that learning the language has been changing how you see yourself and your place in the world, how you relate to other community members (particularly the older generations), how you connect to your people’s cultural and spiritual traditions and your traditional lands and lifeways? If yes, how so?
JB: Absolutely. Kanyen’kéha is classified as a polysynthetic language, meaning that the language is primarily composed of verbs, and that one word in Kanyen’kéha can translate to an entire sentence in English. Sentence structure is incredibly different as well. For example, in English one would say “Bob put the book on the table,” but in Kanyen’kéha that would be rendered as “On the table, he put the book, Bob.” You’ll notice that “Bob” is first in the English sentence, but last in the Kanyen’kéha sentence. This often occurs in Kanyen’kéha, as it allows the listener to paint the scene in their head. Oftentimes the action of the person is much more important than who the person is, and therefore the most important information is delivered first in the sentence.
In Kanyen’kéha, oftentimes the action of the person is much more important than who the person is.
This aspect of the language alone really changed how I formulate words in my head. There are also a lot of possible variations of this sentence that would indicate specificity. It really makes one think about not only using the right words, but also using the right words in the right order to get across exactly what one wants to say. Forcing myself to think long and hard before I say something has definitely benefited me both as a speaker of Kanyen’kéha and as a person.
As far as personal cultural connections, language has really allowed me to find my place. The more I learn in the language and about the language, the more I understand that it really is everything. Without our language, we have no ceremonies, and therefore the language is often associated exclusively with our ceremonies, and that is certainly understandable due to how intertwined they are. One thing that I’ve come to understand is that language should be everywhere, and not exclusively for our ceremonial usage. Whether we are out at a restaurant, out hunting, at a lacrosse game, at the mall with our friends, or wherever we may be, why shouldn’t we be using our language if it’s who we are? From the time we wake up to the time we go to bed, it’s always the right time to speak Kanyen’kéha.
LM: Jordan, you went from being a language learner all the way to being a language teacher. That’s quite an accomplishment! Describe how it happened, and tell us something about the adult language immersion program you teach in and what your role in it is.
JB: Nyawen’kó:wa. As I mentioned before, it took a community of people to get me to this point. I was fortunate to be able to finish my two years of study at Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa, and I was incredibly fortunate to be hired to teach here right after graduation. The program is over two years with 1000 hours per year in class, five days a week. The majority of students enter the program with very little to no background experience, and the objective is for them to graduate as Advanced Level speakers. There are tests throughout the year that students must pass, and these are all done orally. The goal of the program is to create speakers, and therefore all of the drills, testing, and the year-end exam (a videotaped ACTFL OPI*) is done orally.
My job is to deliver the material to the students in the language, run drills in class to generate understanding of this material in the language, manage the classroom, and most importantly, do these things well enough to turn them into Advanced Level speakers after two years. I’ve never gone to teacher’s college or anything like that, so the methods, teaching strategies, and curriculum are unique to Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa and a few other programs. Luckily for me, the program is now twenty years old, and the trial and error of twenty years has created some amazing resources and teaching methods. I basically teach how I was taught here when I was a student, and we continue to change and revise and grow every single year. I really attribute the success of Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa to never becoming complacent and always changing and evolving every single year.
* Editor’s Note:ACTFL OPI = American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages Oral Proficientcy Interview. The ACTFL describes the OPI as “a valid and reliable means of assessing how well a person speaks a language,” based on “a 20- to 30-minute one-on-one interview between a certified ACTFL tester and an examinee.” The interview is “interactive and continuously adapts to the interests and abilities of the speaker.” Examples of the OPIs can be found on the Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa YouTube Channel. See in particular Ryan DeCaire’s “before and after” video:
Ryan Decaire shows his proficiency in Mohawk after two years’ study at Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa in a humorous
conversation that deals with economic self-sufficiency and dog poop. Video: Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa, 2013
LM: What’s next for you in your journey of language revitalization and cultural affirmation?
JB: We’re at a very critical time in the lifeline of Kanyen’kéha, meaning that we have to work fast, tenaciously, and smart if we want our grandchildren to speak the language. The majority of our remaining first-language speakers are elderly in age, which is a common and troubling statistic within almost all Indigenous communities. We are creating speakers, but I believe that we have to keep pushing and growing to create more speakers, stronger speakers, and do it faster without sacrificing quality. Long-term funding is nonexistent in many language programs, and that’s a barrier we face constantly, as it prevents us from being able to make serious long-term plans to take speakers even further with their language.
We’re at a very critical time in the lifeline of Kanyen’kéha, meaning that we have to work fast, tenaciously, and smart if we want our grandchildren to speak the language.
As for next steps, I plan on continuing with this program for as long as possible, improving my own language skills to Superior Level, and becoming the best teacher that I can be. We are averaging about six Advanced Level speakers per year. I believe that we can do better. I want 100 Advanced Level speakers to come out of this program from 2020 to 2030.
LM: Any advice for other Indigenous youth who may be thinking of learning their language?
CB: There are four main points I would like to share with Indigenous youth thinking of learning their language:
1) Find a program and get started. If one doesn’t exist, get a group together and start one. Don’t wait.
2) Immerse yourself but be kind to yourself. Language will take your entire life to learn, so set a pace and stick to it. It’s important to work as hard as you can, but it is equally important to relax and take it easy when you’re stressing about it. Depression caused by the effort of learning your Indigenous language is real — take it seriously.
Immerse yourself but be kind to yourself. Language will take your entire life to learn, so set a pace and stick to it.
3) Do what works for you. I followed the old-fashioned study habits for a full year until I realized that it didn’t work for me, meaning sitting in a quiet room with good lighting and “studying” flash cards and trying to learn words. It was basically a full year of minimal results because I tried to force on myself something that worked for most, but not for me. In my second year, I found what worked for me. I’m a “metalhead” and would actually have metal music blaring and have a TV on mute with a show on, and would write short stories using the words that I was trying to study. I found all of the distractions actually kept me on task and inspired, and I could put in hours of work at a time almost effortlessly. Experts would probably say that’s awful advice for retaining information, but that’s what works for me, and I want new students to find what works for them.
4) Show up. Your teacher is like a fitness instructor: they’ll show you the weights, how to lift the weights, what kind of diet to follow, and push you to succeed and get results. If you don’t show up and/or you don’t follow the plan, you won’t get results. It’s the exact same for language learning. Respect your class, respect your teacher, and respect your language by showing up on time.
LM: Anything else you’d like to say that we haven’t touched on?
JB: Take care of yourselves and take care of one another. As a teacher, take care of your students, as they will be the ones taking care of your language. As a student, you’re all in the trenches together: studying, stressing, working, and grinding towards the same goal. Remember that language teachers are in the grind as well, and their well-being is very often neglected, often leading to a very high turn-around rate for new teachers as well as stress-related health problems. Work hard, look out for yourselves, and look out for one another.
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Rohahiyo Jordan Brant is a Kanyen’kehá:ka man from Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. He currently resides in Ohsweken, Ontario, where he is a full-time teacher at Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa Language Immersion School. Rohahiyo is a graduate of the school and has been teaching there since 2015..
The Indigenous Youth Storytellers Circle: Share Your Story with the World!
An Invitation to Young Indigenous People
The Indigenous Youth Storytellers Circle is a year-long project (2019) linked to Terralingua’s flagship publication, Langscape Magazine. We aim to collect and publish personal stories from young Indigenous people who are involved with one or more of the following four Focus Areas:
- reaffirming cultural identity;
- breathing new life into their ancestral languages;
- reconnecting with traditional knowledge and practices, values, and ways of life; and
- reclaiming ancestral links with the land.
The Indigenous Youth Storytellers Circle is recognized as an official project of the United Nations’ International Year of Indigenous Languages, so your story has the potential to reach a global audience. Read other stories from the Indigenous Youth Storytellers Circle.
If you are a young Indigenous person who would like to tell about your experiences connecting to your ancestral languages, cultures, and lands, we want to hear from you!