Tehokwiráthe Cross and Karhó:wane McComber will lead the next crop of immersion students who start their two year journey September 6. (Stéphane Lavoie, The Eastern Door)
Next week, when the students file into the Kanienkehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center to begin their two-year journey in the Kanien’kéha Ratiwennahní:rats Adult Immersion Program, two new faces will great them.
The cultural centre hired Karhó:wane McComber and Tehokwiráthe Cross, as the program’s new instructors for classes that begin after Labour Day.
They will replace Akwiratékha Martin, who took a job in Tyendinaga, and Ryan Decaire, who is off to the University of Toronto.
Both teachers enter excited to pass their language ability on to the next crop of students.
“I kind of got inspired,” said McComber when asked why he applied for the position. “When I would come in sometimes to substitute a few times and when they started having their language conference here, I felt that it was so far the most productive way of producing speakers and language preservation, with adults rather than children on their own in an academic setting.
“The focus here is on the language, the structure of the language and becoming orally proficient. I thought it was such an awesome thing.”
Immersion rather than academic grammar-style learning means, for McComber, being comfortable in a variety of situations, which builds the fluency McComber hopes can make Kanien’kéha more than a second language.
“When you have to learn a subject in your language that is not your first language, first you have to learn some of the vocabulary that goes along with that subject, and then perhaps adding the language that you would speak regularly,” said McComber. “You think about subjects rather than how to speak.”
McComber learned the language as an adult by attending Indian Way School, and constantly working on building vocabulary and proficiency.
Cross, a graduate of Ratiwennahní:rats in 2012, taught elementary students at Karihwanóron Immersion School, and is excited to go from the younger students to those who graduated secondary school and older.
“I helped a friend of mine teach adult classes,” he said. “She has done them at the cookhouse, and then she did them here too. I helped her three times and got a feel for how it would be with adults.”
He sees teaching primarily young adults as an ideal chance to share what he has learned.
“I’m very involved in the language and I saw it as an opportunity to advance that and help people with the knowledge I have,” said Cross.
KOR staff is excited to have such quality candidates to lead the program.
“I’m thrilled to have them and they’ll be a welcome addition to the staff here,” said interim KOR executive director Lisa Phillips. “We’re very pleased with the outcome of the interview and selection process. I know they’re a great addition to the program.”
Cross related a story to illustrate why he is so passionate about learning and teaching the language. It came from when he was growing up learning from fluent teachers, who would ask him a series of questions.
“They would say, ‘what are you going to do one day if you’re walking and someone says, ‘Where are you from? What are you?’ and you say, ‘I’m Mohawk,’ and they say, ‘Well, can you speak Mohawk?’ ‘No,’ ‘Well then, what makes you different from everybody else?’” said Cross.
“That’s something that always resonated with me coming from these elders that it was the root of who we are, the identity is in that language.”
Eastern Door profiles of graduating students from the immersion program show that most (if not all) students feel compelled to study the language to learn more about who they are.
“Becoming fluent in the language is important to me for a few reasons,” said Kwahará:ni Jacobs, who starts classes September 6. “Kanien’kéha is a better expression for our people, and learning the language would give me a deeper understanding of our ceremonies because you can’t always explain everything we do in English.
“Another reason it’s important to me is because it’s a step closer to reconnecting to our old ways; I want my kids to have it as their first language, and lastly, it’s important to me because my tota’s a first language speaker, and somebody who worked for years teaching the language. It’d mean the world to me to be able to speak to her in only Kanien’kéha.”
Knowing the importance of the program comes with a blend of pressure and opportunity for the new teachers.
“The pressure was already there, regardless,” said McComber. “Actually there is a little bit less pressure because this program exists now. When I started (learning), it was the fall of 1993, there was nothing around at that time, and there was less acceptance of people wanting to learn than there is now. It seems that in the whole community there’s a lot more support for people to learn. That kind of takes the pressure off a little bit.”
McComber hopes for the program to grow from its current state to include an immersion course for teachers and those with upper intermediate language skills.
“The goal of the program would be to have second language learners with as much of an understanding of the structure of this language as a first language speaker has, innately,” he said. “That’s where we need to go.”
“Another thing is just to have it become an every day thing again the way that it was not so long ago,” added Cross. “It was a flourishing, living, breathing language that happened everywhere you went, but it’s not the case anymore, and that’s what we want having this program is to have it come back to that, aontaka’shátste’ne’ (to become strong again).”