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More Than Words -Mohawk Language and Cultural Revitalization in New York

For many centuries, the Kanienkehaka (also known as the Mohawk) spoke of a prophesy which said that one day they would return to the home of their ancestors in the Mohawk Valley. Mohawk territory encompassed what is now described as eastern to central New York and stretched from the Catskill Mountains north to southeastern Canada. That dream came true in 1993, when Tom Porter left the Akwesasne Mohawk Reservation, which straddles the New York/Canadian border, to re-establish a Mohawk community at Kanatsiohareke or the “Place of the Clean Pot.” The goal of Kanatsiohareke is to provide a cultural revitalization center for the Kanienkehaka and other nations of the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois Confederacy. Lisa Matthews, Cultural Survival education program coordinator, recently spoke with Kay Olan, co-director of Kanatsiohareke, about the organization and what it means for the Mohawk Nation


Lisa Matthews: What is the mission of Kanatsiohareke?

Kay Olan: Our mission is to revitalize, maintain, and pass on the accurate history, culture, traditions, and spirituality of the Kanienkehaka people so that our own people know from where they have come and where they are going. It is also for non-Native people to understand who we are as a people and community.


What is the main focus of Kanatsiohareke?

Our main focus is offering Mohawk language immersion classes, which at the current time we offer in the summer. This is important because our language is on the brink of extinction. [The number of Kanienkehaka people who spoke the Mohawk language] about seven years ago, according to an informal census that we took ourselves, was below 10 percent. And many people who were fluent at that time were older people so we didn’t know how much longer we would have them with us to teach. At that time, we had to do something immediately to reverse that trend, even though the so-called experts were saying that it was already too late. That’s when we started to offer language classes.

We had a meeting this past year to evaluate the success of our program. According to the experts, the percentage of fluent [Mohawk] speakers would be less than what it was seven years ago. But it isn’t, it’s slightly more. So, what we and other Kanienkehaka communities are doing is very, very slowly reversing the trend—which is against all odds, according to the experts.


Why is the loss of the Mohawk language your main concern?

Once a people have lost their language, they have lost as much as maybe 50 percent of their cultural connections because there is so much tied up in the language that cannot be translated. It is not a matter of saying words, it’s a matter of passing on to future generations who we are as a people, what our original instructions are that were given to us by the Creator in terms of how we are supposed to act, how we are supposed to relate to each other and to the rest of the natural world and to the universe; how we fit in and our role. For example, incorporated into the simple act of counting from one to 10 in the Mohawk language is a retelling of our Creation Story. If we lose our language we lose that.


What other programs does Kanatsiohareke offer?

Alongside immersion classes, we also offer a class in summer that teaches a special [Mohawk] language. It is for people who are already fluent in our language, but want to learn ceremonial speeches for wakes, funerals, and marriages. Because there are only a handful of people left that know those speeches, we’re desperate to train more of our people, so that we can conduct those ceremonies [in Mohawk]. So far we’ve offered that class for three or four years, and we’ve been told that at least four of our former students are now conducting ceremonies in their own communities. This summer was very exciting because we usually get older people to come to this class. But this summer we had a whole bunch of young people from age 18 to early 20s. It’s encouraging because they’ll be passing on that information for a long time—it shows young people take an interest, and value their culture.

We have put on a lecture series each year for the last two years—people have loved it. Each time we have a different topic, sometimes the lecture would be on our creation stories, the Great Law, our clan system; this year it is on our ceremonial cycles. We are hoping to start recording our lectures so that people who can’t make it will be able to get either a video or cassette of what went on. We were not able to do that before because we did not have the equipment.

We also have a two-day festival the last weekend in June—anybody can come. We have music, dancing, food, various artists and crafts, wagon rides, Native American storytelling, historical and cultural lectures, more food, a silent auction each day; it is a lot of fun. It’s a good time to network, to meet new people, to see people you have not seen in a while, and to learn more about our culture and history.

We are starting to offer teacher workshops this fall. They are geared toward educators but anybody can attend. This is a way in which we can offer accurate information about our history, our culture, who we are, from where we’ve come, where we are going, Native issues, song, dance, crafts; all within a community setting so people get to experience what that feels like.


How is Kanatsiohareke sustained

We have two corporations, one is a nonprofit, and the other, which is for-profit, runs a bed and breakfast and a craft shop that helps to sustain our community. Our businesses donate back money to help keep our programs going. They provide a way for people to approach us comfortably and for us to make new friends. Through our craft shop, we promote the traditional and contemporary crafts and arts of our people so they have an outlet to continue producing their artwork.


How can individuals get involved in promoting Kanatsiohareke’s mission?

There are all kinds of ways people can help out. Some people send us donations; that helps us financially to be able to maintain this place, pay our bills and keep it heated, buy pencils and paper—whatever we need. Some send a letter of support, which always lifts our morale. People come to Kanatsiohareke and offer their physical help; helping in the garden, carpentry, painting, computer work, et cetera.


What are some of your future goals?

We are hoping to find ways to use environmentally friendly ways of sustaining our community and living lightly on the earth. We live according to the cultural and spiritual teachings of the Kanienkehaka people, but of course we are living in 2003 and so just like everybody else, we need to balance today’s technology with our spiritual connections.


To get involved, or for more information about events and programs, visit the Kanatsiohareke Web site at This interview was transcribed by David Bahia, a Cultural Survival intern.

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