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Major CURA funding announced for Cayuga language revitalization

Dr. Carrie Dyck was awarded a major SSHRC grant to research Cayuga language maintenance.

By Janet Harron

Dr. Carrie Dyck knows that big trees grow from small seeds.

Last year the associate professor in the Linguistics department was awarded a $20,000 SSHRC development grant under the Letter of Intent program to prepare a CURA proposal. This year her proposal on Cayuga language maintenance has borne fruit – to the tune of $999,947 over five years.

Dr. Dyck says she and her Six Nations community partners are thrilled.

“They would say Gwahs oyanre which means very good or totally cool,” she laughs. Dr. Dyck puts the almost million dollar grant in perspective by relating that the Department of Canadian Heritage’s Aboriginal Language Initiative currently commits $5 million per year toward all the First Nations languages in Canada. Since there are about 50 languages and several thousand tribal councils and bands in the country, it doesn’t take a math whiz to deduce that the five million per year doesn’t go very far.

“I applaud Dr. Dyck for her interest and initiative in advancing knowledge of Cayuga,” said Dr. Ray Gosine, vice-president (research) pro tempore. “This project is another example of how researchers from our Faculty of Arts are leading the way across this country, collaborating with community groups, grassroots partners, specialized researchers, and other post-secondary institutions, to explore and better appreciate chapters of Canada’s distinct heritage and culture.”

Team members on the project include the partner organization, the Woodland Cultural Centre (Brantford Ontario), and co-investigator Amos Key, a Cayuga speaker. Other team members include various community organizations such as the Six Nations Language Council, the Six Nations Polytechnical Institute (affiliated with McMaster University), and the Tecumseh Centre (Faculty of Education, Brock University, St. Catharines).

Dr. Dyck hopes to bring in researchers from Glendon College (York University) to work on the project as well as other post-secondary institutions in the southwestern Ontario region. More importantly, the group will also collaborate with grassroots learning associations such as the Jake Thomas Learning Centre (named for the late Iroquoian orator, artist, and educator Chief Jake Thomas).

The research team will focus its energies initially on three key groups – children of under five years of age enrolled in a pre-school immersion program, people between 40 and 70 years of age who were discouraged from speaking Cayuga while growing up but who understand it, and adult second language learners who are currently at the advanced intermediate level.

Another challenge, according to Dr. Dyck, is to expand the spoken language from private homes and community Longhouses to the public domain. She also wants to see an increase in the prestige of Cayuga, whereby, for example, people in positions of authority would use Cayuga expressions corresponding to hello, good-bye, etc. The team also plans to utilize both traditional and new media to enhance the status of the language.
“Ideally we want to see transmission between parents and kids – this is key if you want to maintain it [Cayuga] as a second language. One daycare is currently getting fluent speakers together with kids,” said Dr. Dyck. Accomplishing this goal often means that a generation is being skipped (grandparents are teaching grandchildren); an advantage is that the language is still being transmitted the way it always has, from an older generation to a younger one.

Revitalizing a language is a huge challenge. Many might question why the work is even necessary or useful, seeing as there are so few speakers of Cayuga anywhere.

Not surprisingly, Dr. Dyck has a strong response.

“What we have to address is the political environment that says these languages are dying because they are economically useless. We can’t judge a language on an economic model,” she said emphatically. “It’s social Darwinism to suggest that certain languages have survived because they are somehow inherently better when that’s not what happened. As English speakers, if we had been systematically beaten for speaking, removed from our parents, and told that our language was dirty, substandard and deficient, how long would English have survived?”

Dr. Dyck goes on to say, “The whole question is framed incorrectly. It shouldn’t be ‘Why should these languages survive?’ but ‘Why shouldn’t they survive?’ It’s a basic human rights issue.”