From the archives: Kahnawake seniors keep Mohawk language, culture alive

Josie Horne in 1989 was a pioneer teacher of the Mohawk language.

From time to time, we will visit the Wayback Machine to read stories from The Senior Times archives. This story by Harriett Fels was published in January 1989. Some language has been updated to reflect current terminology.

By definition, being a senior means having witnessed great change. Montrealers over 60 grew up without television, were veteran streetcar riders and perhaps remember the first radio.

Yet for many Montreal seniors, much has remained constant throughout their lives, such as their language, religion and culture. For the senior citizens of Kahnawake, the Mohawk settlement of 6,000 residents just off the Mercier Bridge near Châteauguay, those rights were not assumed. As schoolchildren, they were thrust into a foreign “white world” where they were often punished for speaking the Mohawk language. At that time it was not considered “nice” to be Indigenous.

As one 50-year-old former resident of Kahnawake expresses it: “In those days, I really stood out. When I would go to Montreal and get on a bus, everyone would stare at me. We knew nothing about our own history then. All we knew was what was written in the textbooks about how the ‘savages’ and ‘pagans’ attacked the priests.”

Mohawk society is matrilineal. This means that if your mother is Indigenous, then you are Indigenous. Within Mohawk clans historically, it was the women who nominated potential chiefs and to whom these chiefs were ultimately, though not always officially, accountable. Women were involved in every aspect of cultural, social and political life, a trend that has been sustained in modern Kahnawake to this day.

Alice Rice, 74, president of Kahnawake’s Golden Age Association, and her sister Cecile-Marie Holliday and Annie Horning, are vibrant embodiments of the strong conviction and irrepressible optimism that have characterized the struggle of these Indigenous people toward greater self-determination.

“We started this even before Lévesque did,” says Rice, as she stresses the importance of the Mohawk language and cultural identity. Even though the Mohawk language was at one point totally devalued (it wouldn’t help in finding work), it was never lost, she explains. “I know the Mohawk language and my five children know it too, although they don’t speak it fluently. A lot of older folks don’t know any English at all.”

In addition to the bonds created by their strong cultural affiliations, virtually every resident of Kahnawake experiences a common pride in Kahnawake’s impressive metamorphosis into an extremely progressive and self-reliant town. With a new, state-of-the-art hospital, a complete network of social services and specialized education facilities for children with unique needs, Kahnawake is among the most prosperous of North American Indigenous communities.

The Golden Age Centre itself, only five years old and the hub of much social activity, is a particular source of satisfaction for the seniors.

Josie Horne, 72, a lifelong resident of Kahnawake, says that although there are some things about the old days that she misses, like the sound of the bells jingling on horse-pulled sleighs in winter, she is thrilled about how Kahnwake has evolved over the past decade and a half.

“We have our own high school now, a radio station, a well-equipped hospital, and happily, the Golden Age Centre.” 

Of course, it was difficult in the beginning, she admits, when the St. Lawrence Seaway was first built. “People were displaced and we were cut off from the river. Since the name Mohawk means ‘on the rapids,’ this represented a dramatic shift for us.”

Another more recent shift that everyone in Kahnawake is excited about is the new Mohawk immersion program in the elementary school. Since for most of Kahnawake’s senior residents, primary school memories are painful, they are all the more delighted at the opportunities offered to their youngsters. Horne, a pioneer teacher of the program, affirms that it was the women who were most instrumental in getting the program going. 

“When I began, there were no books in the classroom for me to pull off the shelf to use,” she remembers. “Today, there are math books, spellers, reading materials, social science texts, all in Mohawk. You hear Mohawk on the streets now.”

Kahnawake’s Cultural Centre is chronicling these educational developments, as well as tracing the story of the Mohawk people from their roots to the present. This is not dead history, full of dust from the past, but a dynamic, empowering legacy that is once again animating the daily lives of Indigenous people. Kanatakta, the 33-year-old program director of the cultural centre, is like a loving gardener tending precious and beautiful flowers.

“For the past 15 years, we have been paying attention to the things that make us a Mohawk people,” he says, pointing to sculptures of the traditional Long House (meeting hall) done by some of Kahnawake’s children. “As a result, there has been amazing growth. For example, in 1980 there was one part-time person involved in the school immersion program; today there is a full-time staff with over 200 children participating.”

Kanatakta says that although Mohawk is still on the endangered language list, he is confident the language will become strong again. His enthusiasm is contagious.

Overall, it is impossible for the people of Kahnawake to feel anything other than profound satisfaction in their achievements. The women, and notably the seniors, who maintained their heritage when it was difficult to do so, have played a monumental role. The Golden Age Centre is thriving, due to the dedication of its executive — Alice Rice, president; Geraldine Canoe, vice-president; Lillian Stacey, treasurer — and its members. Alice Rice and her sister routinely prepare soup and sandwiches for snacks (50 cents each) and on the day of my visit, had just finished filling three huge bags with presents collected and wrapped in festive paper for the patients in the hospital. 

Although pride radiated through her every word, Alice Rice is not a woman to rest of her accomplishments.

“I look forward to every day,” she announces. “There is always a new challenge. It’s what keeps me young.”

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