Actions and Commitments

Call to Action # 16: Language and Culture (13-17)

Six Nations Polytechnic celebrates largest Indigenous languages graduating class

June 21, 2023
A group of people
Some of the graduates of Six Nations Polytechnic’s Ogwehoweh Languages for Mohawk and Cayuga program are shown following a ceremony last Friday. An instructor says they’re integral to ensuring Mohawk and Cayuga languages survive. (Aicha Smith-Belghaba/CBC )

CBC News: More than a dozen Mohawk and Cayuga language graduates walked across Six Nations Polytechnic’s stage recently, marking the largest class to complete the bachelor’s degree since the program began. 

Some graduates also became the school’s first to earn their bachelor of arts with honours, studying in the Ogwehoweh languages program for an additional year.

They’re integral to ensuring Mohawk and Cayuga languages survive, said Polytechnic language instructor Tom Deer. He spoke at the ceremony Friday in Six Nations of the Grand River, Ont., where the languages have been taught since 2016. “Our languages are on the verge of extinction,” Deer said.  “You’re part of a very small group of people. The burden of learning it as a second language and passing it on to the next generation is very heavy.” 

Indigenous languages at risk
Six Nations Polytechnic celebrates largest Indigenous languages graduating class: Duration 9:38
More than a dozen Mohawk and Cayuga language graduates walked across Six Nations Polytechnic’s stage in southern Ontario, marking the largest class to complete the bachelor’s degree since the start of the program in 2016.

Click on the following link to view the video:

Mohawk is considered “definitely endangered” by UNESCO and generally no longer learned as a first language by children in the home, according to its World Atlas of Languages. Cayuga is “severely endangered,” with only grandparents typically speaking it. 

There are 1,030 Mohawk speakers and only 210 Cayuga speakers in Canada, according to 2021 data from Statistics Canada.

All Indigenous languages in Canada are at risk of extinction because of discriminatory colonial policies and cultural genocide, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission found. Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and put into residential schools where they were punished and shamed for speaking their Indigenous language. 

man stands in longhouse
Edward Thomas, shown in Six Nations Polytechnic’s longhouse, has graduated with an honours bachelor of arts degree and can now speak Cayuga, an Indigenous language considered severely endangered by UNESCO. (Aicha Smith-Belghaba/CBC )

Edward Thomas, 39, graduated with honours — a “moving” and “bittersweet” experience, he said. His Indigenous name is Honohsase, which means “he builds a new house.”  Thomas said he first learned Cayuga as a child from unpaid teachers volunteering their time to pass along culture and traditions to the next generation. 

Now, he can do the same through his work with Ganohkwasra, an organization that provides shelter, counselling and support for families fleeing violence.  “It was an incredible experience … to know I’m going to promote our language and culture to help my people, Thomas said. 

Grads key to ‘revitalizing’ Cayuga, Mohawk

Graduates can work as translators, consultants, curriculum developers and teachers, and be part of the international push to keep Indigenous languages alive, Rebecca Jamieson, president and CEO of Six Nations Polytechnic, said at the ceremony Friday.

This is the first year of the United Nations’ decade of Indigenous languages, she said. The goal is to push for sustainable changes to preserve, revitalize and promote Indigenous languages.  “Because of your commitment to this program, our community is one step closer to revitalizing our languages,” said Jamieson. “You believed in all of your hearts your languages will continue on. More children will be raised learning to speak the language.”

Another graduate, Tania Henry, 43, said that growing up, nobody in her family spoke Cayuga and she didn’t have the opportunity to go to immersion school. She got “serious” about learning it when she was in her 20s, and now has an honours degree and is a language teacher at Polytechnic.

Henry spoke to CBC Hamilton from a campus longhouse, where students practise making speeches, singing and dancing for when they participate in ceremonies. 

She said the program is unique to the Haudenosaunee people, incorporating two of their six languages as well as distinct cultural teachings.  “It makes it really special, not just for us as a people to have accessibility to a program like this, but for others in this country to have the opportunity to learn about who we are as a people.”