A note from the filmmaker:
I grew up in Toronto, a city built on the land of the Mississaugas of New Credit. For four years I lived in Montreal, just across the Pont Honoré Mercier from Kahnawake. I’ve driven through Wahta countless times on the way to my family’s cottage near Georgian Bay. These names were invisible to me. I didn’t know how to pronounce them, and knew nothing of the people who called theses places home.
My first encounter with Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory was in the fall of 2010. I had just moved to Belleville, Ontario, to attend the photojournalism program at Loyalist College and was exploring the region with a new friend from the area. I was driving along Highway 2, about 15 minutes east of Belleville, when my friend told me that we were approaching Tyendinaga and we should turn around. We were not welcome there, he said.
Five months later, while working on a project about grandparents who were raising their grandchildren, I met Margaret, then 75, and her great-granddaughter Ellie, then six. Margaret and Ellie live in Tyendinaga. They invited me to visit them at their home, and I spent many days there over the next two years. I continued to return for visits after I moved to Waterloo, and then back to Toronto.
Located about 200km east of Toronto, Tyendinaga is home to roughly 2,200 people, and many more who are Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte but live elsewhere. Much of the Territory is south of Highway 401, and its southern border is the Bay of Quinte. Tyendinaga has a strong culture of political activism, and rail and road blockades there have sometimes attracted media attention. But fewer people outside of Tyendinaga are aware of its more serene qualities. In the summertime, the community hosts outdoor events like the fair and the pow-wow, which attract people from all over. Houses along York Road are illuminated by elaborate string-light displays through much of the winter. The water, seen through the tall trees along Beach Road, looks like an ocean.
In 2011 Margaret and Ellie both enrolled in Mohawk language immersion programs. Having been raised at a time when her Mohawk identity was heavily stigmatized, Margaret had never learned her language, and was eager to make up for lost time and ensure that Ellie would not have to do the same. Ellie was part of the first group of students at Tyendinaga’s primary immersion school, Kawenna’on:we, which translates in English as “First Words,” and Margaret enrolled in the two-year adult immersion program, Shatiwennakarà:tats, which translates in English as “They are Raising the Words Again.” These programs started between 2004 and 2011, and are attended by members of the community who believe that language has a deep tie to their culture and their place in the world. Their motives are diverse, including a desire to bring the language back into day-to-day use, to feel a stronger connection to their culture, to honour the place they live in, to pass the language on to their children and, in-so-doing, give them opportunities they themselves never had. For these reasons some have taken their children out of mainstream Quinte Mohawk School and enrolled them in these pilot programs, which are run by the umbrella organization Tsi Tyonnheht Onkwawenna. After generations of language loss due to the effects of residential schools, day schools, and other instruments of assimilation, people are fighting to revive an invaluable part of themselves.
Over the months following their enrolment, I met many of Margaret and Ellie’s classmates and teachers over tea, at dinners, and at community events. When the language was brought up in conversation, a heaviness surrounded it- a palpable, deeply felt sense of loss. The more I was around it, the more I wanted to understand what was behind this feeling. I became consumed by a desire to learn more, and then by another, more troubling question: is it right for me to document a story that is so different from my own?
My background is Scottish, Norwegian, Irish and English. My earliest ancestors on my mom’s side came to North America in the late 1700s, and my dad’s in the late 1800s. I have never had a desire to learn about the places they came from. More interesting to me has been how my ancestors identified with the place they came to, and how a celebrated and even romanticized idea of Canada has been woven into my family history.
Learning about language revival in Tyendinaga became a way of exploring - and grappling with - the history of the country I live in. Listening to the experiences of the people I’ve met in Tyendinaga has shed light on a reality whose nuances I was largely unaware of: the effects of colonialism are still very real parts of many people’s lives. After all, a language would not need to be revitalized if it had not been jeopardized in the first place. When language is silenced, as I’ve been shown by the people I’ve met, so is sense of culture, sense of history, sense of self.
The content of Raising the Words is part of a story profoundly different from my own. But in another sense it’s part of a story I share. The struggle at the centre of the documentary is the result of policies made or reinforced by governments that I’ve elected, that my ancestors elected or, at the very least, of a socio-political climate that I am a part of by virtue of living in this place. It’s the product of stereotypes that I’ve supported throughout my life, even just tacitly, because I didn’t know the difference.
This film looks at six people’s struggle to restore a crucial part of their culture, and stems from my own wrestling with the issues around that struggle. It takes Mohawk language revival as a starting point for considering what has been left out of a national story, the human impact of this distorted narrative, and how people are fighting to change it.