When Marion Delaronde was down to her last dollar, she told a white lie.

Delaronde needed a job and the Kahnawake Cultural Centre needed a puppeteer for its children’s TV show. So she applied, exaggerated her puppet-making abilities and landed the gig.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” says Delaronde, a Mohawk artist and filmmaker. “I had to teach myself and I was so broke that I only had enough materials to make one puppet. There was no room for error. I remember sitting at my kitchen table for hours, planning it out so I wouldn’t sew myself into a corner.”

Delaronde recounted this story surrounded by dozens of Muppet-like creations: a chef, a scientist, a string bean with beady eyes and braided hair. And then there is Tóta, the one who started it all.

Brought to life by elbow grease and imagination, the puppets make up the ever-expanding world of Tóta tánon Ohkwá:ri (Grandmother and Bear). The show teaches kids to speak Kanien’kéha — the language of their ancestors — through songs, slapstick humour and hand-drawn animation.

It’s such a hit in the Mohawk territory that people from town phone in with story ideas or requests to have their friends and family reimagined as puppets.

“A lot of these characters are based on real people,” Delaronde says. “And a lot of the stories we tell are stories our Elders told us about Mohawk values like sharing and community.”

Marion Delaronde, on the set of Tóta tánon Ohkwá:ri.
Christopher Curtis

Three generations ago, just about everyone on the South Shore territory was fluent in Kanien’kéha. Today, fewer than 4,000 speakers are scattered across Quebec, Ontario and upstate New York. The struggle to keep their language going isn’t merely about words and sentences. It’s the very thing that makes the Mohawks who they are.

“This language binds us to our ancestors,” Delaronde says. “When I started speaking it again, it connected me to my grandmother. She was a teacher, she was a machine. Not in an unfeeling way, she just lived to show us our language.”

She paused to compose herself.

Delaronde’s grandmother Josie was on the show just before she died, teaching Bear a song about canoeing. She may have shared the screen with a puppet but, behind all the make-believe, Josie was teaching her granddaughter the song.

“To feel those words come out of your mouth, it’s powerful. But I also don’t really have time to sit down and feel the weight of everything we carry. It’s heavy.”

One of the founding principles of Canada was to kill Indigenous languages and eradicate dozens of First Nations in the process. This wasn’t merely, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has called it, a “dark chapter” in our history. It’s the whole book.

But Kanien’kéha isn’t dead.

It lives on in television and radio programs, through comic books, art and a year-long course where students put their lives on hold so they can study full-time. In a society that passes down knowledge through oral tradition, language contains everything from the Mohawks’ matrilineal system of government to their history dating all the way back to creation.

Today Kanien’kéha words can be seen on street signs in Montreal, and it isn’t uncommon for Mohawk Elders to give an opening prayer at events hosted by the city. Another small but notable victory for Mohawk culture: Montreal modified its flag in 2017 to include the Tree of Peace — a symbol of the treaty between the Mohawks and the other nations of the Iroquois Confederacy.

Konwatsi’tsá:wi Phillips brings Tota to life.
Christopher Curtis

Without fail, acknowledgements like this are met with backlash from the self-appointed gatekeepers of Quebec identity.

The same handful of angry white columnists will point to the idea that Mohawks only settled around Montreal after a series of battles with French settlers in the early 1700s. The subtext is always more or less the same: Mohawks were allies of the British, Mohawks were enemies of New France and its allies, Mohawks don’t belong here.

This happened again, last month, after the Montreal Canadiens paid homage to the Mohawk Nation with a land acknowledgement before their first home game. In a statement read by Canadiens announcer Michel Lacroix, the team recognized that their arena sits on unceded Mohawk territory.

Apparently, this gesture was an act of aggression against Quebec.

“Hogwash,” wrote Mathieu Bock-Côté, in the province’s most read newspaper, Le Journal de Montréal. This “delegitimizes the presence of Quebecers inside Quebec, making them feel like strangers in their own country.”

“There’s a tone built into this discussion that seems to imply Québécois historians are incapable of bias.”

In a piece titled “Truth Before Reconciliation,” La Presse columnist Isabelle Hachey, quoting three white historians, said that Quebec isn’t traditional Mohawk territory. The province’s white Indigenous affairs minister called the land acknowledgement “a mistake” by the Montreal Canadiens.

Former Parti Québécois cabinet minister Joseph Facal, who once lied about having a “black friend” so he could write racist things in his newspaper column, called the land acknowledgement “idiotic.”

None among them bothered asking a Mohawk expert for their perspective. Instead, the columnists perpetuated an idea as fact and coerced the Canadiens into replacing the statement about Mohawk land with a message about respecting “First Peoples.”

“There’s a tone built into this discussion that seems to imply Québécois historians are incapable of bias,” says Taiaiake Alfred, a Mohawk academic and author. “A Québécois historian is steeped, shaped and molded by their upbringing in Quebec. And everyone knows that, in Quebec, les iroquois and the Mohawks have a particular place.

“We were the bad guys, the enemies of France. So is it any surprise that the Mohawks and Iroquois are excluded while perspectives from allies like the Algonquins are elevated? They don’t treat this like a debate among academics, they treat it as settled fact when their evidence isn’t terribly compelling.”

To clarify, Mohawks are Iroquois. They’re one of six nations belonging to the Iroquois Confederacy, a group that shares a similar language and a political system led by clan mothers and whose territory extends from Ontario to New York and into the St. Lawrence Valley in southwestern Quebec.

The argument against the historical presence of Mohawks in Montreal goes like this: When the French explorer Jacques Cartier arrived on the island in 1535, he encountered an Iroquois-style village called Hochelaga. Just like Mohawks, these Iroquoians lived in longhouses, fortified their settlement with palisades and farmed corn.

But a century after Cartier’s trek to the island, when Maisonneuve founded Montreal in 1642, the “St. Lawrence Iroquoians” were gone. While some historians claim the Huron absorbed what remained of the Iroquoians, Mohawks contend they were ravaged by disease or repelled from Montreal following a hunting dispute with the Huron.

Most records of Mohawk settlement near the island came after the Great Peace of Montreal in 1701, when hundreds moved north from the Hudson Valley in New York.

But recent finds are beginning to undercut that argument. Three years ago, archeologists unearthed evidence of an Iroquois village at the corner of Peel and Sherbrooke Streets. Carbon dating dates the site to the mid-1300s, centuries before European contact. Previous digs also yielded artifacts typical of an Iroquois settlement in Montreal.

“No one is saying that there wasn’t an ebb and flow of borders between nations,” says Kenneth Deer, a Mohawk Elder who worked with the Canadiens on the land acknowledgment. “And the whole thing of, ‘Well, they weren’t Mohawks, they were St-Lawrence Iroquoians.’ That’s a colonial term, it’s a made-up category.

“But the Iroquoians were Mohawks. If they didn’t call themselves Mohawks, they were early Mohawks, they were our ancestors. Those who say they weren’t, they’ll argue that the Iroquoians can’t be Mohawks so, therefore, Mohawks can’t claim the land and that land belongs to the French.

“My question is this: What happened to the St. Lawrence Frenchmen? Well, over the years they became Lower Canadians, Canadians and eventually Québécois. So Europeans can evolve but the Iroquoians can’t evolve into Mohawks? Indigenous people have to stay stuck in a glass bowl. There’s a duplicity there that smacks of racism.”

An entire field of academic research was based on scripture rather than science.

Alfred says settler historians have a track record of bringing prejudice into their work. The recent debunking of the Bering Strait theory is a poignant example.

“For centuries, this theory was upheld as a hill to die on for white academics,” says Alfred.

“They were sure that Indigenous came to North America by walking over the Bering Strait 15,000 years ago. And the whole of white academia selectively used evidence to support that claim. Now, we’re finding with new scientific discoveries — from historians that weren’t ingrained with that prejudice — that the theory was complete and utter bullshit.

“You have archeological finds that go back 20,000 years and more. And do you want to know why this theory collapsed? Because it was based on a book by a 16th-century Jesuit with no expertise in archeology.”

The Jesuit, Joseph de Acosta, wrote that Indigenous people had to have come from Asia or Europe since all men are descended from Adam. In other words, an entire field of academic research was based on scripture rather than science.

Which brings us back to the Montreal Canadiens.

“As well-intentioned as folks are in wanting to do land acknowledgements, it is incredibly difficult to squeeze hundreds of years of history and complex identity concepts into one or two sentences,” says one Mohawk expert.

The expert — who speaks Kanien’kéha and studies Mohawk oral histories — doesn’t want to be identified in this article because of the caustic public debate surrounding the land acknowledgement.

“There’s archeological evidence that supports the idea that Algonquins resided on the island. There’s linguistic evidence that possibly more than one Iroquois dialect was spoken when Cartier arrived at Hochelaga. This all supports the stories we hear in Kahnawake, that Montreal was a trade hub, a meeting place for different people. The river was a sort of border between Iroquoian and Algonquin peoples.”

While the theory that Mohawks have some historic claim over Montreal isn’t ironclad, it’s far from “hogwash” or “idiotic” as some Quebec nationalists claim. If anything, the violence of their opposition to the theory betrays an anti-Mohawk bias.

Consider this: eighteen months ago, Mohawks in Kahnawake blocked a railroad that runs across their territory to protest a crackdown on Indigenous land defenders in British Columbia.
For generations, land in their community has been expropriated to make way for trains, power lines, a commuter bridge to the city and the St. Lawrence Seaway. In wresting back control of the railroad to make a stand, the Mohawks were merely using the tools of colonialism against the colonial government.

No one used violence or threatened to. The Mohawks actually contacted Canadian Pacific Railway ahead of time to warn them of the blockade. Even the term “blockade” seems excessive. There was a campfire, a trailer, some elders and a few children standing guard over a lawn chair used to “block” the railroad.

The press showed them little sympathy.

Mohawks were pilloried in the Journal de Montréal and on talk radio. The most vile commentary came after Premier François Legault insinuated there were men with machine guns guarding the blockade — a ludicrous claim when you consider the camp’s biggest weapon was a plastic chair.

I spent weeks going to the blockade almost every day and never saw a weapon or heard so much as a raised voice. But the well had already been poisoned.

Journal columnist Denise Bombardier took the premier’s word as Gospel, describing Kahnawake in post-apocalyptic terms. She said the community was under the thumb of armed thugs who use “the weapons of terrorists and mass murderers.” Her evidence? One statement by the premier, which would have been disproven in a single visit to Kahnawake.

In an attempt to defuse tensions, I arranged for a La Presse reporter to visit the community so she could see for herself that the Mohawks weren’t, in fact, harbouring terrorists. It’s laughable that someone who works at a daily newspaper just 15 minutes from Kahnawake would need to be taken by the hand and shown how their neighbours live like it’s an episode of National Geographic. The journalist wrote an excellent column but also confided that she received an inordinate amount of hate mail for it.

Even after the blockade ended peacefully, the hate lived on. Journal columnist Normand Lester wrote in February that the Canadian government should put the Mohawk Warrior Society on a terrorist watch list.

His reasoning? Some of them had taken up arms to defend their community against military incursions during the Oka Crisis in 1990.

What Lester didn’t mention was that, during the crisis, white citizens from neighbouring LaSalle pelted Mohawk women, children and elders with rocks as they tried to escape the army in a convoy of slow-rolling cars. Footage of the attack shows police watching as stones the size of lunchboxes rain down on civilians. Some even burned the Mohawks in effigy during what can only be described as race riots along Montreal’s South Shore.

This wasn’t in some bygone era. It was 31 years ago.

There was a time where I harboured my own prejudice against Mohawks. I came up through the French school system in the 1990s, where we were taught that the Hurons were good French allies and that the Mohawks were a warring, savage people.

“You can never trust an Iroquois,” my fourth-grade teacher would say, to a classroom full of nine-year-olds. It sparked hatred in us and I would only realize, years later, that at least one of my classmates was Mohawk.

The classmate later told me they felt like disappearing during those history lessons.

“We’ve always been the bad guys, the boogeymen of Quebec history,” says Deer. “The French colonizers used to tell their kids, ‘Be good or we’ll sell you to the Iroquois.’ So it doesn’t really surprise me to hear people argue that we’re not at home here in our own land.”

Deer was there during the blockade 18 months ago and when the Oka Crisis brought violence to his doorstep decades earlier. But his most scarring experience with colonialism was the loss of his language as a child.

Deer belonged to the generation of Mohawks forced to attend federal day school in Kahnawake. The church-run schools operated more like indoctrination camps. Once there, children faced unspeakable abuse if they were caught using Kanien’kéha.

“We were told it was useless to learn,” Deer said. “It severed the tie we had to our own parents. It was deeply traumatic. We kept our history alive through oral traditions and when you kill that, you take something fundamental away.”

Cory Aionwí:saks Phillips, camera operator and editor of Delaronde’s show.
Christopher Curtis

Back in Delaronde’s puppet studio, there’s none of the heaviness that people like Deer have to carry. Instead, Delaronde and her crew rig a box of cake to Tóta’s hand, making sure none of the puppeteering is too obvious.

“We have to be really on top of things in case some nerd kid notices we messed up,” says Delaronde. “You think I’m joking but I’m pretty sure there’s at least one kid out there, taking notes, ready to point out the slightest mistake. Keeps us honest.”

Like Deer and Alfred, Delaronde is still learning the language. Each script is vetted by teachers and voiced by Delaronde, her colleague Konwatsi’tsá:wi Phillips and the occasional guest actor.
None of them harbour ill will towards Québécois. If anything, they’ll point out similarities between the two peoples. Mohawks live with the knowledge that what little remains of their land, their language and their way of life is under constant threat. So they cannot merely exist and watch it fade away. They have to fight merely to keep from being wiped out.

Sound familiar?

“It shouldn’t be so controversial to say we exist and we have existed on this land,” says Alfred. “Even our language is tied to this place. Just look at the Kanien’kéha word for ‘brown.’ In our language, the word for brown is a description of the dust inside of a tree bark.
“Kind of like Chinese, our language is all about creating little pictures and linking them. And those pictures, that tree bark, only makes sense on this land, in the mountains of the Adirondacks and in the plains of the St. Lawrence Valley.”

Delaronde’s take on this is less philosophical.

“I know that what we’re doing is good, that it’s important but I don’t think I have the capacity, at this stage in my life, to figure out what it all means,” Delaronde says.

“When I’m older and not playing with puppets anymore, maybe then I can sit down and unpack it all. But for now, we make these shows and hope that some kid gets inspired to keep our words alive.”

This article was produced through The Rover, Christopher Curtis’s investigative journalism project with Ricochet.