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Helping a language to live

Dr. Carrie Dyck has received a developmental grant for her work on the Cayuga language.

By Janet Harron

A million dollar CURA grant like the one recently awarded to Dr. Lisa Rankin doesn’t happen everyday, but another Faculty of Arts researcher is laying the groundwork for future success in that competition.

Dr. Carrie Dyck of the Linguistics Department recently received a $20,000 developmental grant under the Letter of Intent program to prepare a CURA proposal.

Her project “Cayuga Language Maintenance” aims to maintain the Cayuga language of the Six Nations as a vibrant and living language. Less than 100 people — approximately one to three percent of the population — of the Six Nations currently speaks Cayuga, which is from the same language family as Oneida, Mohawk and Seneca.

Dr. Dyck approaches the question of Cayuga from a more positive perspective. “The language is still spoken 500 years after being actively suppressed – that in itself is positive,” she said. Explaining that Community University Research Alliances grants are meant to be the start of something big, Dr. Dyck envisions the establishment of a language foundation for Cayuga with its own building and projects directed by Cayuga speakers.

The project will record what fluent speakers know – this will in turn enhance the Cayuga dictionary that Dr. Dyck helped to produce back in 1992 and will benefit work she is currently doing on Cayuga grammar. Dictionaries, grammars and lexicons are major tools in the fight against language loss as they are used for teaching and literacy training.

This is of particular import for Cayuga speakers due to its huge oral tradition. As Dr. Dyck explained, within its Longhouse religion there are some ceremonies that take four straight days to recite. Not to mention the thousands of years of ecological knowledge that have been passed down over the generations. All of these aspects of culture and traditional knowledge are in danger of being lost as native speakers die off.

Dr. Dyck spoke highly of the dedicated language activists at Six Nations who are taking personal responsibility for this project. “They are doing it because they know no one else will … a CURA grant would most importantly act as moral support for them.”

For the first time this fall, a Structure of Cayuga course will be taught at Memorial and Dr. Dyck mentioned that adult courses in Cayuga are now being held at McMaster, U of T, and Glendon College.

Dr. Dyck is planning a series of community workshops in the first two weeks of July at Six Nations. These will take place at the Woodland Cultural Centre, one of the project’s key community partners in Brampton, Ont. Not so long ago the centre was the site of a notorious residential school known as the Old Mush Hole. From 100 speakers to a living language? Anything is possible.