"There is no weight in carrying a language around"

June 07, 2017

David Kanatawkhon

“There is no weight in carrying a language around,” said David Kanatawakhon, a long serving lecturer in the First Nations Studies program at Western University.

For more than 25 years, Kanatawakhon has been an important member of the Faculty, in the First Nations studies program. He has worked to increase knowledge of the Mohawk language, teaching courses at Western and Brock University, and developing pedagogical materials including five Mohawk language dictionaries, four textbooks and 70 children’s books.

For his work, Kanatawakhon is receiving an honorary Doctor of Laws honoris causa from Brock University.

Kanatawakhon first came to Western in 1983, completing an undergraduate degree in Anthropology, with a Linguistics Specialization. In 1990, he taught his first Mohawk Language course, for credit, and “over time I worked that up into a job.”

While he initially taught a course in Mohawk language acquisition, he eventually began teaching Indigenous knowledge courses in Iroquoian Arts and Culture, and Iroquoian History. He also teaches a summer course in Oneida language acquisition.

A language, Kanatawakhon said, is the central part of the culture. “No language, no culture; if you want people to understand a culture, you have to know the language. If the language disappears, so does the culture.”

“Iroquoian cultural traditions are all about living with the world. Western culture is about stuff,” and the language reflects that, with the Iroquoian language focusing on interactions with the world and each other. As an example, Kanatawakhon points to the Mohawk word for car, wagon and sled being basically the same, describing something being pulled.

“There is little focus on stuff, because stuff doesn’t stay around long enough.”

The Mohawk language has about 3,500 speakers of varying degrees scattered over 6 communities, and Kanatawakhon said, “I’m working in a language that is literally losing speakers every day,” but he has seen an increase in interest from students.

“The younger generation is more interested in knowing who they are and about being identified. Young people realize they can be successful – can have a good job, an education – but what you need to be is someone who knows who they are.”

Kanatawakhon feels everyone should know at least one other language. “Learning to speak a language gives you a different perspective on the world; it makes you more open-minded,” he said. “When you walk through the woods, it is not just one plant, or one bird, or one tree. We live in a world with so much variety and difference. The planet seems to get along with difference. It’s just humans that don’t.”

For his part, Kanatawakhon speaks three languages – English, Mohawk and Oneida – can read French and Spanish, has taken courses in German and Russian, and wants to learn Japanese.

In his time at Western, Kanatawakhon has witnessed a change in attitude toward Indigenous students, and Indigenous students have started to identify themselves more readily, instead of “just trying to blend in”. He thinks there is more work to be done, specifically in making language courses more readily available to students.

“I didn’t come to Western because they had good Native support. I came because I wanted to learn linguistics. Most students come for a specific thing to learn,” he said. “I want to see a solid language program where they can learn their language while also doing another major.”

“I always feel bad for students who just get their degree. Getting a degree is just a small part of the time at the University,” said Kanatawakhon. “People should see universities as a source of education and discovery, not just a source of degrees.”