Root Word Method

Before Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa (OK) came into existence, Kanyen’kéha was taught at Grand River using “whole words.” (Many, perhaps most, Onkwehonwe languages across Turtle Island are still taught this way.) The problem is that Kanyen’keha, and all the other Onkwehonwe languages on Turtle Island, are polysynthetic, where single words are often the equivalent of a whole sentence in English.

Learning by whole-word teaching requires students to memorize the equivalent of whole sentences – exactly as phrased. It is impossible to remember that many unique sentences just to hold a simp̱le conversation. Fortunately, in the late 1990s, Kanatawakhon (David Maracle), of Kenhteke (Tyendinaga), developed a root-word Kanyen’keha dictionary that listed all the root words in the language. At the time Kanatawakhon was an instructor at the University of Western Ontario. He passed away in 2023.

OK began using this root-word dictionary as the basis of teaching the language in its first adult immersion program in 1999. Over the next ten years, OK developed and refined a curriculum to enable students to become highly proficient speakers. The curriculum starts with the grammatically simplest forms of the language and gradually adds grammatical complexity so that students can think in the language and say and understand things they’ve never heard before.

Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa’s root-word curriculum has been translated into four of our sister languages (Seneca, Oneida, Tuscarora, Cayuga) and is being used to teach adult immersion programs in their communities.

(For more, see our short Youtube video explanation.)