By Jennifer Shea/Quinte Arts Council
When it comes to learning the native Mohawk language and culture of Kanyen’kéha, children and adults now have the option of following animated six-year-old Tsítha (sounds like Jee-tah) and her friends on the website, Learning with Tsítha (Tsatéweyenst Skátne ne Tsítha).
With funding from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, the website was created by the Tsi Tyonnhéht Onkwawen:na Language and Cultural Centre (TTO) and launched in June 2020. In less than a year, the site has amassed more than 2,000 regular users from Toronto to Montreal – far beyond Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory.
Carman Maracle, Creative Director of the website, describes the main character as being similar to Dora the Explorer: “Tsítha is probably a six-year-old Kanyen’kéha girl, very inquisitive, very curious about nature and her community. She likes solving problems; she gets involved in things where she thinks she can be helpful and does it in the language, which is key to the whole thing.”
Website visitors can watch animated stories, listen to an audiobook, or practice the language through word games, memory games and math challenges. Words are shown and sounded out by syllable and all of the pages have captions in English. Beyond learning the words of this beautiful native language, the site is filled with rich cultural references. For example, “The Beginning” is a video that describes the Rotinonhsyon:ni (Iroquois) creation story.
Callie Hill, the Executive Director of the TTO, is especially pleased that the voiceover on the website has been done by a local family. “The mom and dad are both second language speakers and then had their children and raised them as first language speakers. The voices of Tsítha and Tsianito (sounds like Jan-ee-toe) – the little girl and the beaver – are actually two young girls from our community and Sose (sounds like Zoh-zay) is (voiced by) their dad. It’s a real success story, I think. The other voices throughout the website all come from people in our community who have taken on the responsibility to learn the language as adults.”
When developing the main character for the website, Hill and her team decided it was best to make it a young girl, in keeping with the Mohawk matrilineal culture. “We follow our mother’s line,” says Hill. “We have three (Mohawk) clans: Turtle, Wolf and Bear. My mom was a Turtle, which makes me a Turtle clan member. Anyone within your clan is really your relative.”
The Learning with Tsítha/Tsatéweyenst Skátne ne Tsítha website is just the latest in a number of tools being employed to help teach the native Mohawk language and culture. SInce the late 1990s, the TTO has been offering a variety of methods to learn the language, including formal classes for children and adults. Says Hill, “We operate a school with pre-school and primary immersion from K to 4. Our adult program is accredited in partnership with Queen’s University – with a Certificate in Mohawk language and culture.”
The future looks very bright for Tsítha and her animated friends. The creators would like to build the animated stories from the website into a TV series with APTN (Aboriginal Peoples Television Network), which could generate further resources to add more interactive components on the website. There’s also a teachers ’manual in the works that would accompany the website and facilitate more use by teachers, many of whom are also learning the language alongside their students. Visit tsitha.ca
This story originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Umbrella magazine, out soon.