Mohawk Girls and Indigenous Languages

by Emily Coppella
January 28, 2022

While Canadians are often identified in popular culture through stereotypical language identifiers, such as our pronunciation of “sorry” or use of “eh”, Mohawk Girls demonstrates that the media's portrayal of Canadian English is starting to shift, better reflecting the diverse realities of language on Turtle Island. Mohawk Girls is a comedy-drama television series created by Tracey Deer. The show follows the complicated lives of three best friends and a recent newcomer to their small community on the Mohawk reserve of Kahnawà:ke, by the St. Lawrence River.

Mohawk (Kanien'kéha) is one of approximately 70 Indigenous languages in Canada and is spoken by around 2,350 people, mostly in Quebec and Ontario. The Mohawk language is a member of the Iroquoian language family, with distinct eastern and western dialects as well as variation within these groups and across different communities.

Despite being set on a Mohawk reserve, the language used in Mohawk Girls is primarily English, not Mohawk. Nevertheless, Mohawk plays a vital role in the show’s community. While the characters typically speak English, they also incorporate Mohawk words and phrases into their conversations. The show’s on-set Mohawk consultant, Wentahawi Elijah, helped develop a realistic script based on the linguistic realities of many Indigenous communities. Even if not fluent in Mohawk, many people blend Mohawk into their English, as well as study the language and work towards reviving it. In the above video, the show’s creator talks about the importance of having Elijah on set to train the cast and advise the crew on the Mohawk language.

Throughout the show, greetings and farewells are often done in Mohawk, as are other common phrases; for example, “thank you so much” is instead “niawen’kó:wa.” Sometimes characters express their love for one another with the Mohawk phrase “konnorónhkwa,” which is often translated to “I love you” in English, but is closer to meaning “I show you I care.”

To learn more about the revitalization of Mohawk, check out the Mohawk Language Custodian Association.