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New York's Native American Communities Fight To Preserve Endangered Languages

ROCHESTER, NY (WXXI) - A language can tell you a lot about a culture. There are some words that just don’t translate into English, or any other language. This is especially true for Native Americans, who are working to preserve their languages after decades of being told by the U.S. and Canadian governments they were wrong to speak them.

Mohawk language classes take place a few times a week at the Native American Cultural Center on Empire Boulevard in Webster.

The classes are pretty informal, held in the basement of this old house turned community center. Sometimes there’s a classroom full of people, sometimes one or two people show up. Around the room, labels on objects show what their Mohawk names are.

Ronnie Pollack is the executive director of the center and a member of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, Eagle Clan. She talks about how native languages were almost lost when the U.S. government built residential schools around the country, a practice that ran from the 1800s into the mid-1900s in some places.

“It was pretty much a collaborative between the government, the U.S. and the Canadian government and the Catholic Church primarily to gather up as many young Native American children that they could from reservations and bring them to these residential or boarding schools.”

She says the plan was to take children from their communities and force them to assimilate, so when they grew up, they wouldn’t identify with their native backgrounds.

Pollack talks about how losing a language really translates to losing a culture.

“In the aspect too of … it was like shameful to speak your language. You know it was shameful to be who you were as an indigenous person, you know it was like you were looked upon as…dirty or society wasn’t going to accept you.”

But she says as generations begin to move farther from the residential school era, there’s a renewed hunger to learn these languages.

Evelyn General has been taking these weekly language classes at the center to refresh her memory.

“My parents always spoke Indian in the house, all the time. And they used to get so mad all the time because we could understand what they’re saying, but then we always repeated it after them in English, and they used to get so mad about that, they’d go “You know the language why are you speaking English, why are you answering in English?”

She is has been in Rochester for 42 years, but is originally from Akwesasne, a Mohawk territory that straddles parts of Canada and Northern New York.

“I had forgotten a lot of my language, and I’d like to revisit. Even though I don’t have really anyone to speak to at home.”

There’s another local preservation effort happening at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where a group of researchers is working to document the Seneca language with the aid of artificial intelligence.

They use something called an ASR, or an Automatic Speech Recognizer. Basically, you put audio of the language into the system and the ASR will document and transcribe the language.

Robbie Jimerson is Seneca and a 4th year PHD student on this team. He says for cultural reasons, the Seneca language wasn’t written down. An alphabet was only formally created about 20 years ago. And many Seneca people are hesitant to record the language, so a lack of data has been a hurdle for the project.

Not only that, Seneca is a complex language.

“Encoded in a very basic Seneca word is three things, it’s the person, the time, and the action. So you get a big variation of words. So a basic Seneca word could theoretically be said 4,000 different ways. And that’s on the low end. So we would want to have our ASR see all of those versions right. So the fact that we don’t have a lot of data is further compounded by the variation even within the word itself.”

He gives an example.

“So you could say like, o'gatganye:' is like I played, ësatganye:' is like you’ll play, ahsatganye:' you could play, waënötganye:' they play, so it’s like a lot of the variation is in there.”

Jimerson says his collection process is going to the Cattaraugus Reservation, south of Buffalo, where he grew up and still lives. There, he simply talks to people. Through this, he says he’s not only collecting the language, but also stories about their culture.

He talks about how residential schools also affected the Seneca community.

“So my dad actually went to a boarding school. In those places they were beat for speaking their language. My great uncle Sully told me he was literally taken behind a shed and beaten for speaking his language. And they were forced to go there. And he went there not being able to speak English. So I feel like, people don’t realize that boarding school era just ended really. So now, my father’s generation, some of them didn’t want anything to do with Seneca. Not my father but, because they didn’t want to teach their kids Seneca cause they were like, they’re gonna steal you they’re gonna send you to school they’re gonna beat you.”

Jimerson says as the number of people who speak Seneca as their first language decreases, the need for more people to learn it gets more urgent. And they’re starting young. A friend of Jimerson’s has been dubbing over English cartoons with Seneca narration.

According to Pollack, there are about 3,500 people who speak Mohawk as their first language. And close to 175 who speak Seneca.