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Kanatsiohareke, Language and Survival

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Kanatsiohareke, a Mohawk community located in central New York State, is working hard to help revitalize Kanienkeha, the Mohawk language. The community has been offering Mohawk language immersion classes for the last fourteen years. This is important because Kanienkeha is one of the many Native American languages at risk of being lost forever. It is said that when a people lose their language, they also lose fifty percent or more of their culture, identity and self-esteem. The expression “lost in translation” refers to the fact that it is difficult and sometimes impossible to translate some words and concepts from one language to another without losing significant cultural and spiritual connections. That is why it is crucial to maintain, protect, use and teach our languages.

Kanatsiohareke is the site of, layer upon layer archaeologically speaking, old Mohawk bear clan villages. After the Revolutionary War, most Mohawks were forced to leave the Mohawk Valley in order to find refuge in other places. A few of them carried with them a prophecy that told of someday returning to their traditional homeland. That prophecy was passed down through the oral tradition from generation to generation until 1993 when a group of Mohawks, led by Mohawk elder and spiritual leader Tom Sakokwenionkwas Porter, left Akwesasne and returned to their ancestral home in the Mohawk Valley. They had purchased a farm at auction and now began the work of renovating buildings, planting gardens, introducing a herd of cattle, opening a Native Craft Store, fixing up a Bed and Breakfast and offering workshops, conferences and cultural exchange programs with various colleges and community groups.

In 1997, Kanatsiohareke hosted a Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) language meeting. Attendees came from the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora nations. Participants reviewed the history of the Haudenosaunee and then discussed the devastating effects of colonization, assimilation and residential schools on their languages. There was an informal survey taken to determine the present day state of Haudenosaunee languages. All six Haudenosaunee languages were in trouble. The resulting statistics were more alarming than anyone had imagined. However, even though linguistic “experts” had stated that our languages were doomed to become extinct, no one was ready to give up. Instead, all agreed that Kanatsiohareke would start offering Mohawk language immersion classes in the summer of 1998. Since then, students have come from near and far to take class. The program has evolved over the years in order to better meet the needs of the students. Some former Kanatsiohareke language students have since started language programs in their own communities. More and more community language programs, language nests, teaching materials and curricula are being developed all of the time. Many of the teachers have met at Kanatsiohareke, from time to time, to brainstorm and share ideas to better improve their classes. The ripples from the churning waters of the Clean Pot are still extending throughout Iroquoia and into other nations as well.

Classes at Kanatsiohareke are held in the summer. At this time, most of the classes are geared for adult learners, are two weeks long and run all morning and afternoon. Culturally related lectures, activities and field trips are woven into the curriculum. Various levels are offered at different times during the summer months in order to meet the needs and experience levels of the students. Some special classes have been offered to already fluent speakers so that they can learn the language used in ceremonial speeches for wakes, funerals and weddings. Some of those students are now helping to conduct those ceremonies on their own reserves. They are using what they have learned at Kanatsiohareke to help maintain their linguistic, cultural and spiritual connections.

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Kanatsiohareke (pronounced Gah nah joe hah lay geh) means “The Place of the Clean Pot” which refers to a naturally formed ten foot wide and ten foot deep pothole in nearby Canajoharie Creek. The depression was carved by the action of water and rock scouring a hole into the creek bed. Long ago, when the Kanienkehaka or Mohawks saw that pothole, they said that it looked like a cooking pot that was washing itself and so called the area “The Place of the Clean Pot” or Kanatsiohareke. It is the traditional name for that area, but it is also a metaphor for a fresh start, a new beginning and the resurgence of linguistic, cultural and spiritual revitalization. It is a place where the Kanienkehaka can reconnect with their homeland and consider what they can do to ensure that the generations to come will still have their language, their cultural and spiritual connections and will be able to say, “We know who we are and we are still here.”

To learn more about Kanatsiohareke, its history, activities and events, please visit

Kay (Ionataiewas) Olan, Mohawk educator and storyteller, has been giving presentations about the Haudenosaunee for over twenty-five years, is a former Director of the Mohawk community of Kanatsiohareke and has released a Mohawk Stories CD.