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Kanien’kéha mapping project gets funding to move forward

April 7, 2022  By Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door

A language revitalization and mapping research project is receiving $100,000 in funding from the National Indian Brotherhood Trust Fund to begin a new phase.

“Language and landscape: Revitalizing Kanyen’kéha through place name mapping” seeks to identify and preserve the Kanien’kéha words used to describe places in an effort to revitalize the language and contribute to reshaping Kanien’kehá:ka relationships to land.

In doing so, the project – hosted at MohawkAtlas.org – challenges not only a colonial naming system that leans heavily on the legacies of conquerors but also the colonial worldview it perpetuates.

“Our understanding of space is so colonized in terms of boundaries, borders, land ownership,” said Kahente Horn-Miller, associate professor in the School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies at Carleton University, who has worked on the project for two and a half years.


“When you take away those borders and boundaries that are put in by colonizers, it changes how you relate to the space, and also in understanding our traditional names for those spaces, those places,” she said.

The work grew out of a dissertation by Horn-Miller’s former graduate student, Rebekah Ingram, who is now an associate researcher at Carleton’s Geomatics and Cartography Research Centre.

“What (Ingram) learned was that when we named our places, they were always about us in relationship to those spaces, but you’d only be able to understand what that name meant if you were sitting on the water because the waterways were our highway, so to speak,” said Horn-Miller.

Ingram was inspired when she was learning Nishnaabemwin. As a linguist, she could not make sense of the name Ticonderoga, often believed to mean “tail of the pup” in Abenaki, she said. She eventually discovered it is a Kanien’kéha name.

“As a non-Indigenous person who grew up in the US and currently lives in Canada, it just seemed like we should know who the names belong to and what they mean as a very basic form of recognition,” said Ingram.

She hopes the map will be useful to Kanien’kehá:ka communities and that it will help non-Indigenous people recognize that a Western lens is not the only way to view the world – that there is a complex and rich understanding of the continent that predates colonization.

“One of the features of the atlas is that it can be viewed without the colonially based divisions of states, countries, and other administrative boundaries using the satellite-imagery layer. In this way, we can begin to see what ‘Kanien’kehá:ka space’ really is,” she said.

Last summer, Horn-Miller and Ingram held mapping workshops in Akwesasne, Tyendinaga, and Kahnawake to complement their efforts to mine place names from old documents.

The new infusion of funding, which is for one year, will allow the researchers to work toward a language revitalization methodology by launching a new phase in Akwesasne that can then be replicated elsewhere.

With the assistance of Abraham Francis, environmental services manager for the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, the researchers will host a series of workshops and then put on a summer camp that will pair elder speakers with young people who will be trained to capture footage of hard-to-reach places using drones.

“It’s an engagement opportunity that I think has these really great ripple effects across the work that we do at the intersection of community, the environment, research, all of these wonderful things,” said Francis.

He cited the centrality of the white pine tree to the Kaianere’kó:wa as an example of how Haudenosaunee cultures reflect the land on which they were created. He believes a relationship with the land is inextricable from the survival of the language.

“I just really love that this opportunity is available, that we have amazing innovative researchers and scholars that exist as part of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy,” he said.


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