Nathan Thanyehténhas Brinklow
Thanyehténhas grew up with stories of his older cousin, Mohawk linguist David Kanatawakhon Maracle, traveling through Tyendinaga to record the few Mohawk speakers left in the community in the 1970s, before language revival had begun. Nathan became a fluent speaker as an adult, and now teaches full-time at Shatiwennakaratats, Tyendinaga's two-year adult immersion program.
Many historical factors have led to the current resurgence of the Mohawk language, says Thanyehténhas. "You think of the American Indian Movement and growing protest movements of the 70s coming out of the Vietnam war, and people feeling empowered to fight back against society and against the government. So I see that as sort of an undercurrent and foundation for people reclaiming their Indigenous identity. Then we start getting conflicts in contexts like Wounded Knee and then Kanienkeh; Mohawks went down and took back disused land in New York State. And then things kept building upon that, that sense of national identity, that I’m a Mohawk person first; I’m not a Canadian, which many people had thought before that. And then going on into Oka, galvanizing moments where yeah, we are a people. We are standing as a people for something. We have our own values. And then within that it’s like “Well, we want to be a people, we need our language.”
As an exchange student in Nairobi, Kenya, Thanyehténhas observed a wealth of languages being spoken around him, and this experience reinforced his observation that non-multilingualism is a uniquely North American norm. "Nowhere else on the planet is unilingualism valued so much as in North America," he says. "People who grow up in Europe, it’s easy to grow up speaking two or three languages. Your mother may be German, your father may be French, so you learn at least German and French, then maybe you go to school in English, so you just grow up in multiple languages all the time."
Thanyehténhas imagines Mohawk one day thriving in Tyendinaga. "You think about Chinatowns across the country and different communities. I wish we could have something like that, where you would go to a part of the town and everything would be in a different language. A lot of people from around the world have that: little India, little Italy, little China, all these different small communities. I wish we could do that," he says. In this future scenario, Thanyehténhas imagines a confused person from out of town coming driving through Tyendinaga: "All of a sudden they run into a whole bunch of signs that aren’t in English anymore. And they’d be like “Okay, what the hell is going on here?” And then realize “Okay, well, this isn’t in English because these aren’t English people.” I think that’s the best statement we could make for the rest of the country—if people came through here and got uncomfortable because they only heard people speaking Mohawk; they drove through here, saw Mohawk signs, heard Mohawk on the radio. If the primary language of the community was in Kanien'keha. That’s proof assimilation didn’t work, and that’s like proof that we are our own people."
Despite a strong devotion to language revitalization, Thanyehténhas says his community has a very long way to go. "We’re fighting very fast to make sure it doesn’t just go away, that it doesn’t just become something that a few people study and can use at longhouse for ceremonies; that it can actually still be a language that people speak on the street," he says. "I think sure it’s a possibility the language will die," says Thanyehténhas, "which is why a lot of people are doing a lot of stuff to try to make sure it doesn’t."