OHSWEKEN, Ontario (Reuters) - In a grey, shed-like building on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve in southern Ontario, Esenogwas Jacobs is getting her kindergarten students ready to head home for the day.
“Gao dehswe,” Jacobs says, calling her students to the door.
“Gyahde:dih,” she adds, it’s time to go.
Her students answer with assertive “ehes.”
No one speaks a word of English.
“I just use Cayuga with them,” Jacobs said. “Mostly they can respond back in Cayuga, so it’s pretty cool.”
The eight children of this kindergarten class carry on their shoulders the hopes for preserving the language of the Cayugas, one of the six nations that make up the Iroquois Confederacy of southeastern Canada and the northeastern United States.
Since the 19th Century and until recently, Canada has pushed for the assimilation of its native population, sending aboriginal children to boarding schools where they were taught the language, culture and spirituality of Canadian society.
While the effort to assimilate aboriginal people into Canadian culture failed, the schools, the last of which closed in 1996, were effective at stunting aboriginal languages.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has promised to set up a commission to look into the schools, which could lead to a statement of apology similar to one issued by Australia to its aboriginal people this week.
Less than a quarter of aboriginal people in Canada use their ancestral tongue, the government says. The number of fluent Cayuga speakers has dropped from 376 in the 1970s to only 79 today.
“The number of speakers, they’re dying off all the time, like every year,” said Elva Jamieson, who learned the language as a child from her family, but wasn’t allowed to speak it at school. “It gets lonely when you don’t have someone to talk to.”
Jamieson is a teacher at the Gaweni:yo High School, part of the same Cayuga language immersion program that also includes Jacobs’ kindergarten class, as well as a parallel Mohawk language program.
“I think the language speaks to their spirit,” Jamieson said of the 35 pupils at the high school, located about 70 miles (120 km) southwest of the Ontario capital Toronto. “They’re able to grasp it and go with it.”
While the linguistic knowledge of native speakers like Jamieson is irreplaceable, Gaweni:yo -- which means “nice-sounding words” -- is helping to slow the erosion of the Cayuga language, and young people are becoming a viable population of fluent speakers.
The most dedicated meet up regularly to chat in Cayuga and practice new words and some even use Cayuga as the primary language at home.
Jacobs, 24, herself a graduate of Gaweni:yo, tries to speak only Cayuga with her boyfriend, another graduate, and she spends evenings visiting with elders to learn new words.
The program has been running since 1986, but this is the first year that it has included a kindergarten class. Many of her young students are the children of fellow Gaweni:yo graduates and Jacobs encourages them to use Cayuga at home, too.
While the dominant language on the reserve is still English, Jacobs is happy with the progress. The language is going through a rebirth, she said. “It feels good knowing these kids are coming up.”
Not far from Jacobs’ kindergarten, a group of adults are also studying Cayuga in a crowded community centre classroom. One of them is Oklahoman Sally White, a descendant of the Seneca-Cayuga - a tribe that separated from the Cayuga of Six Nations in the 18th century.
The Seneca-Cayuga spoke a similar dialect, but their language has now been declared extinct, which means a man from Six Nations must go to Oklahoma each year to perform their traditional ceremonies.
“Without him, I don’t think we would have (our ceremonies),” said White, who hopes to learn enough Cayuga to teach the basics to her husband and other members of their community. “It’s just about gone. We’re losing a lot.”
But saving dying languages costs money and for many Canadians the price of immersion programs such as the one at Six Nations may be too steep.
Canada’s Conservative government, elected two years ago, has cut a 10-year, C$173 million ($173 million) language revitalization program, leaving the immersion programs at Six Nations dangling by a thread. School officials do not know if there will be funding to continue past the current year.
The death of the language would be a tragedy, according to linguist Marianne Mithun, who spent 10 years studying the decline of the Cayuga language at Six Nations.
“The loss of language is a devastating loss of identity,” said Mithun, a University of California Santa Barbara linguist who specializes in aboriginal languages in North America. “It is the disappearance of their heritage, a blacking out of their intellectual and cultural history.”
While Cayuga still has enough mother-tongue speakers to document how the language should be spoken, a process that is taking place on Six Nations through video and audio archives, Mithun worries that once all the elders die, the living language will only be a pale shadow of what it once was.
“When you get to see a language like Cayuga, you just see other ways of looking at the world,” said Mithun, commenting on the language’s literal nature. “If we care about understanding the human mind, then we’re really missing the boat if we let these languages slip.”
Reporting by Julie Gordon; Editing by Janet Guttsman