Mohawk language school seeking permanent home in eastern Ontario

An Indigenous organization in Tyendinaga, Ont., is calling on the federal government to help build a new language and cultural centre in the territory because their language is under threat of extinction.

The group called Tsi Tyónnheht Onkwawén:na is an Mohawk language school, and has helped to serve the Tyendinaga Territory, south of Belleville, for more than 17 years.

Executive Director Callie Hill says they want to see the creation of a permanent school called the Kenhtè:ke Language and Cultural Centre, to help teach future students, and support the community.

Hill says there are few first generation Mohawk speakers in the region and only an estimated 2,500 Mohawk speakers across Canada and the United States.

Brittany McBeath has been learning the language with the group for two years.

Mohawk on her mother’s side, she says her great-grandmother was the last to speak it in her mother’s family, and she has sought to reclaim that.

“Language learning is so much more than just learning the language. It’s really closely tied to creating a stronger sense of identity, creating a stronger sense of community.”

An artist’s rendition shows the building and grounds. The facility is shaped like a turtle, an important animal representing Mother Earth to the Mohawk people. The facility would cost an estimated $10 million.

Hill says it would have classrooms, art studios, a rooftop medicine garden as well as a functioning kitchen.

“We’ll be able to do traditional food and food sovereignty and that sort of thing. We’ll have a common area, where we’ll be able to hold meetings, or celebrations, or workshops to help educate,” she said, adding that the proposed centre would be for people in the community from outside of it.

“That’s important as well.”

More than eight acres of land in the territory has been donated to the Tsi Tyónnheht Onkwawén:na to build the new centre.

The building itself would also focus on sustainability and the environment, says Hill.

The group has been working in donated spaces for 17 years.

This project to create a permanent home takes on more urgency as Canada learns more about the residential school system that was designed to erase Indigenous culture.

Curtis Maracle is a member of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte and says it’s vital for the community.

“Our identity is in our language,” he explains. “A permanent place where we know where people can go, and it probably would give the language group here some pride in having their own location. Not having to worry about finding other places around.”

Hill says with few first generation speakers in the area, they want to provide children and adults access to their heritage and who they are.

“We don’t have a speaking community here,” she explains. “From preschool age to adults, it’ll be for everyone. We want it to be for everyone.”

Hill says while they have held discussions with the federal government, no funding has been committed so far.

But still, it leaves students like McBeath hoping.

“I want to be able to teach my children from a very young age so that they don’t have to learn it in their adult life as I have.”

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