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Indigenous languages focus of World Languages Day 2022

As a way of raising awareness, UCC’s annual World Languages Day focused on Indigenous languages, bringing them to life in a virtual workshop and assembly that featured Kanietenhawi Deer, the language and cultural coordinator, and language department manager for the Woodlands Cultural Centre in Brantford, Ontario.
The day’s lineup replaced what is usually a week of events focusing on languages, says Sophia Berezowsky, UCC’s department head of modern and classical languages and adviser to the World Languages Week organizing committee, headed by Sufian Alawiye, a Year 11 student.

“We did all the planning for the day in expectation of holding the workshop and assembly live,” Sufian says. “We even planned for a Pluralism Fair with clubs creating videos and displays, but COVID made that impossible.”

All Upper School students and staff were invited to the workshop and the assembly; those who were unable to attend will have the opportunity to view videos of the events.

During the workshop, Ms. Deer discussed the language suppression that occurred following the American Revolution and prohibition against speaking Indigenous languages during the Residential school era. She also talked about the languages of the Six Nations that live together on a reserve along Ontario’s Grand River: the Cayuga, Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca and Tuscarora nations. Many of the nations were displaced from their New York homes after the War of 1812 between the United States and Britain and were forced to relocate to this area, an uprooting that Deer calls “our own Trail of Tears."

"There is a small community of people keeping our languages alive," says Ms. Deer, who spoke Mohawk at home and is now learning her native Cayuga language. “Part of my job is trying to bridge the gap between these people and the larger community. We are working hard to re-establish our connection to the land and ceremonies and language is an important part of that. Your language is your identity and your culture."

She noted that Canada is an Indigenous word that means town or gathering place; Ontario means beautiful lake; and both words are derived from the Iroquois language.

"We still use many Indigenous words or names in our language today," she says.

At the assembly, Ms. Deer offered a prayer of Thanksgiving in Mohawk, a traditional part of any gathering that brings the focus to the reason for getting together, whether it’s a holiday, a meeting, a wedding or a funeral.

"I really enjoyed it even though I didn’t know the meaning," Ms. Berezowsky says. "A language’s power transcends understanding."

The entire program engaged the audience, adds Sufian. "It was really insightful and people learned a lot."

Both Ms. Berezowsky and Sufian hope that next year’s insights will be gleaned from in-person events.
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