KAHNAWAKE -- The Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) community of Kahnawake is working to ensure that not even the COVID-19 pandemic will halt the community’s efforts to teach its language.

Rotehrhatá:se Lahache studies Kanien’kéha (the Mohawk language) at Karonhianónhnha School, and his mother Kahente Leborgne knows how important it is for him to do something she didn’t get to.

“I didn’t have it, and it was important, and I feel like I’m missing something not being able to speak, so I don’t want him to ever have that feeling,” said Leborgne.

Her son is now her teacher, and tries to use the language whenever he can.

“With all my classmates, we all like to talk to each other after, and we like to talk out here,” he said. “It’s not really that easy, but it’s fun.”

At Kahnawake’s Language and Cultural Center, students can take a two-year immersion course as adults.

“While you’re in it, everyone is supporting you and telling you how happy they are, and proud of you because that’s what’s missing in their lives too,” said immersion student Kahsennenhawi Kirby.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the language and cultural center to postpone new admissions to the program for a year, and while the programs get some federal funding, those in the community say it’s not nearly enough.

“Without our language, we’re not really unique, we’re not our own people,” said Karihwanó:ron Immersion School principal Joely Van Dommelen. “We need our language. It’s part of our culture, so we need to get that back. one day I hope that our community is able to pay people as a job to be able to take our language on as a program.”

Only about 10 per cent of the community speaks Kanien’kéha, and there are still very few teachers around.

For years, many felt pressure to learn English, and few schools taught Kanien’kéha.

“There was too much pressure to go to schools that taught English,” said Steve Bonspiel, editor of the community’s Eastern Door newspaper. “Then parents would tell their kids, look, if you want to get a job, if you want to do this, you want to be in ‘mainstream society,' you have to learn these languages and you have to forget about your language."

For those who study the langauge, they know how important it is. 

"I knew something was missing in my life, and it's my language," said Kirby. "Your culture is who you are, and if you don't have that, then who are you?"