Seeing in colour (by Kahawíhson Horne)

This week’s guest blogger is Kahawíhson Horne. She is Kanien’kehá:ka from Kahnawà:ke who is currently enrolled in the Ratihwennahní:rat’s Adult Immersion Program. She is a recent graduate of Concordia University with a BA in First People’s Studies as well as a background in media, food sovereignty, and language revitalization. She is an avid gardener who enjoys sushi and a good bottle of wine.

Speaking Kanien’kéha is like watching television in colour,” is an oft repeated anecdote passed down from my grandmother by way of an unknown elder. “English,” she continued “is television in black and white.”

Iroquois cradle board

My grandmother is young enough to be mistaken for my mother, yet she has had and lost her mother tongue in a time outside of even her own memory. To this day, she can recall conversing in English to hordes of now deceased relatives who she would later learn never spoke a word of that language while alive; yet in her memory, they always will.  

While she can understand shards and fragments of my own ability to speak Kanien’keha as the words form on my tongue, her own connection to the language has become as distant as a pressed flower whose scent has long since faded.

Red flower.

I’d apologize for my rather liberal use of metaphor—I tend to rely on the immediate emotional response evoked by imagery to make my point—but here, it is particular effective.

As Tom Porter discusses in his autobiography, “And Grandma Said…”, the Kanien’kéha word used for “red” is onekwenhta:ra, which is in turn derived from onekwènhsa (blood). Therefore, a person wanting to refer to their shirt as being red is essentially referring to said shirt as being the colour of blood.

Colours in Kanien’kéha

In this fashion, much of Kanien’kéha relies on visual imagery: In fact, it isn’t unusual for language instructors to liken the language to a three—dimensional movie complete with an emphasis on depth and perspective.

Having been essentially raised in a Kanien’kéha immersion school, from an early age and having taken definitive steps into adulthood to expand my knowledge, I realize that I’ve often taken for granted that on some level, I retain a degree of what linguistic scientists refer to as speaker’s intuition. Essentially, while writing or speaking in Kanien’kéha, some words just feel right or wrong and often are or at least are close to being correct—even if I can’t explain why. 

Recently, I’ve come to appreciate how much I’ve taken it for granted that I have to think completely differently in both languages. As a child I was an avid reader, and learned English very quickly. I’ve often told students that learning a new English word for me was sort of like catching Pokémon, “gotta catch’em all.”

Puzzle box

One advantage for an English learner is that one can gather many (comparatively small) English words all day with or without reading them, and still be able to get their point across. The words simply mean what they mean and are pretty self-explanatory in my opinion. Nobody learning the meaning of the word “shoe,” is likely to fall into a web of confusion.

Take the same word above shoe or “áhta,” and try to conjugate it by slapping on a possessive pronoun like “Raóhta (his shoe).” In this instance, neglecting to pronounce the in that word can lead to it being interpreted as “his excrement,” and you’re on your way to a very different conversation from the one you would’ve envisioned.

Complicating matters is that there is also a long list of equally long words in which the same root word can show up constantly with very different meanings, and one word can be translated as an entire sentence in English. That is, by the way, discounting the complications of using the appropriate prefix, pronoun, and suffix, many of which can indicate but are not limited to the sex of the person you’re talking about, their relationship to oneself or others (transitive pronouns), tenses, moods, directions, adjectives, locatives, and many more.

Longest word in Mohawk language?

Coming to understand and appreciate those differences and my own experiences with language learning has been a matter of some deep self-reflection as to what the language represents for me and how my connection with it has evolved alongside my own sense of who I am.

Lest someone think that I had some relative advantages over others that enabled me to become a proponent and advocate of Kanien’kéha revitalization, I can say that—like many Onkwehón:we—I too am the product of a family assailed by violent alcoholism, vicious mental illness, and endemic trauma.

 My singular advantage was that I happened to be born at the right time. My parents—feeling decidedly empowered after the events of the Oka Crisis—took to wanting a child who could speak Kanien’keha and I consider myself tremendously fortunate for having come into the world under those circumstances.

When I look back at my school years in Mohawk Immersion; it all returns to me as though it were a long, cool crisp morning with a slight charge in the air due to the constant likelihood of seasonal thunderstorms.

Medicine bag

In the background, there’s always the smell of burning tobacco, manure from nearby pastures, and sulfur from the naturally occurring deposits found in many households on the outskirts of the community. Mornings were spent gathering in a room that was essentially a mural portraying all of creation while each child took a turn doing a Thanksgiving address, then going for a morning run past fields of horses and the train tracks that divided the area we call mohawk trail from the residential area of Clay Mountains.

The days were filled with medicine walks, playing in the forest, and learning how to bead, sew, or craft. I was taught how to use a loom and made my first beaded tobacco purse at 7.  When I was 10, we were shown how to skin a rabbit, how to pick and prepare some medicines, and were expected to cook meals on any given day of the week.

During my time there, we built a small longhouse, a sweat lodge, and forded a creek by building a small bridge in the forest where we played during our lunch breaks (which became a problem when bears were sighted in the area).

Karihwanoron: Precious Things

My world was heavily populated by teachers and children who came from old school traditionalist families which in Kahnawà:ke, are often called “longhouse,” people. Essentially, people who come from families that secretly practiced longhouse ceremonies even while it was publicly scorned by the majority of community members who were either very Catholic or Protestant. As a result, I came to share many of the same values and beliefs that they did and even after having lived, worked and studied in Montreal while making friends from all over the world, there is still a generational and cultural divide between myself and most members of even my own family.

While longhouses are the traditional dwellings of Kanien’kéha, modern replications of those same structures currently operate as social and ceremonial centers. (Wikimedia Commons)

As the only child of separated parents, life for myself outside of school had little to offer emotionally.  I’ve always derived a sense of fulfillment—a wholeness even—from learning and making others happy that just didn’t extend to my home life. My mother was married to a lacrosse player and always seemed more interested in a magazine than whatever thing I read about that I thought was cool, while my father was far too embittered by a lifetime of trauma to form an emotional bond with.

Throughout my life I’ve struggled with an intense feeling of isolation ranging from being the only Kanien’kéha speaker in my family as a child, to being the only Kanien’kehá:ka person in the room while other people from my community dropped out of Cegep (pre-university colleges in Québec) like flies after their first experiences with racism and ignorance.

Paradoxically, embracing these differences somehow made the consequences of having them more bearable amid tremendous inner turmoil in an urban environment that could be very hostile to my own reality. I am happy to say that where many Indigenous people carry a lot of embarrassment or shame in the line of their cheeks, the curve of their words, or the colour of their skin, I was fortunate enough to have never been ashamed of where I came from and in fact, cannot even fathom why I should be ashamed.

That pride is what lead to my gradual disillusionment with western academics amid the contradictions of non-indigenous teachers teaching me about my own history or identity.

Their lack of an indigenous identity wasn’t necessarily a problem until they inevitably stumbled over their own words with little to no understanding as to how they were disrespecting their indigenous students by centering their own feelings or opinions on things that we have to live with; often at the cost of disregarding our earnestly expressed feelings or opinions. Somehow, the fact that they often did not know what they did wrong even if it was explained to them somehow made these incidents more insulting.

During that time, I came to question my own mistreatment by various family members and quickly realized that part of the reason I was even pursuing a university degree was to live up to the expectations laid out for me by those same people whose opinions I could no longer respect. I had simply gone along with it because I knew I could do it even if my own lack of motivation gave away the lie that I wasn’t doing any of this for me.

While I am not entirely unhappy that I managed to accomplish my Bachelor’s degree in First People’s Studies at Concordia, I discourage other Indigenous youth from making the same mistake I did. I wasted so much time following a life course I was uncertain of because I was only ever expected to have a degree and put my worth in the hands of people who I grew apart from anyway.

After grudgingly following through with earning my degree, I now contemplate what I want and while I know reconnecting with one’s language can be a struggle, I remind anyone reading this that it’s never the wrong thing to do. In a way, my life course has come full-circle and I am currently enrolled in an adult immersion program.

It has become very rewarding because I realize that I love learning new things and that coincides with my capacity to enjoy life. In an echo of my earlier love of reading and learning new words in English, it’s like a clogged dam has slowly given way to clear, running water and I can pursue something with single-minded purpose because I want to do it and consider it a fine first step on the road to self-love and meaningful involvement within my community.

If there is anything I want to impress upon the reader by sharing my own experiences and several unique elements of Kanien’kéha, it’s that reconnecting with your language and community is an act of self-love and words change you. Take for example, any negative thing anyone has ever said to you that might have negatively affected you and consider the implications for positive growth that other words in other languages might present for those who are willing to seek them. Every language presents a world of meaningful expression derived from the beliefs and teachings of our ancestors, and as Onkwehón:we (Real people), there is always something there for someone who is willing to look.

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