Episode 9: Our Music is Our Language: Oneida

In this episode we will examine the efforts of one community to revive their language and culture. One, an immersion centre with a "hands-on, healing-first" philosophy. The other, an unlicensed radio station which focuses on the Oneida language and Native American music rather than mainstream top 40.


season 2 episode 9The Oneida of the Thames are a member of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy. During the years 1745 to 1842 they were stripped of much of their original homeland through a series of "treaties" with New York State. While some remained on their homeland, others settled in Wisconsin and Ontario.

The Oneida Nation of the Thames settlement began in 1840. Theirs is a unique Canadian situation in that they purchased the land as opposed to other Native groups that have retained a small portion of their tribal domain or have their land ceded to them by the British Crown or Canadian Federal Government. Today all three communities are working equally to see the land that was stolen from them returned, all 250,000 acres of it.

Oneida of the Thames is a rural community approximately 40 kilometers from London. The reserve is situated along the southern banks of the Thames River, in Delaware Township. Canada's Oneida population is 5000, with 2000 living on the reserve. Fewer than 100 people are fluent.

season 2 episode 9Part 1

Charley Elijah attended the longhouse all his life and learned from his grandfather his language and culture. These days the 64 year old former traditional chief can be found passing on that knowledge, over the airwaves. Every day between the hours of 7 and 9 am Charley tells legends, and talks about his upbringing, in Oneida. He even wakes up his early morning listeners with a rooster crow, a habit which has earned him the nickname "the Rooster". We visit Charley at FM 89.5, the station the former ironworker helped to build, to hear his show.

As the children are the future of any community, Charley realizes the importance of reaching the younger generation. So, along with the elders who sometimes appear on his show, Charley has an ongoing program with Standing Stone Elementary School. On a regular basis, students visit the studio, where Charlie encourages them to tell stories and talk about their future aspirations, all in the Oneida language.season 2 episode 9

We also follow station manager Glen McDougal on a typical day on the job as he discusses 89.5 FM, the radio station that was started to promote the Oneida language and culture. Currently unlicensed, the station operates within a15 mile radius with second hand equipment. Glen explains the reasoning saying the Oneida have never needed a license to breathe the air, why do they need one tobroadcast over the airwaves? Applying for a license has never been a consideration.

Disc jockeys are given freedom to play what they want, though most prefer Native American music of some form and some like Charley Elijah and Ray John focus on language programming. The station is hoping to upgrade to 200 watts and continue to evade the CRTC.

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Often an unconventional approach to learning can be the most effective. Tsi Niyukwaliho:tu means "Our way of life. Our teachings. Our traditions. What we believe in as a distinct people." Founded in 1987, the Tsi Niyukwaliho:tu Learning Centre is a total immersion school in which Math and English are not the main focus. Instead students who attend the school learn their language and culture, including how to grow their own food and when and how to gather and prepare medicines. The focus is on community learning. Whenever possible the children and community act as teachers/learners. The philosophy of the centre is that to heal from past wrongs, one must first start learning about who they are as Oneida from their own people.

It is here, among the campus's 20 acres of beautiful land we meet Howard Elijah, Director of the centre. A fluent speaker of Oneida and teacher of the 11-18 years old age group, Elijah explains how the community has much healing to do, mostly from the effects of residential school.

We also meet one of Howard's students as they discuss the impact the school has had on their lives and what paths they have chosen since they graduated. Pearl Cornelius teaches the 3-5 age group. We talk to her about the changes she has witnessed in youth and the community in general since the opening of the centre.

As head of the traditional chief's council, Howard has a mission passed on from his grandfather. That one day the land that was stolen in Madison and Oneida counties will be returned to the Oneida. He passes on that belief to the children he teaches. Many have never seen the sacred places they learn about on a daily basis.

season 2 episode 9Language Keeper

Mercy Doxtator has worked to pass on the language her whole life. In addition to teaching children at Standing Stone elementary school, she has tried to reach the older generation as well by teaching night classes. She is active in an Elder’s Circle, a social group that meets on a monthly basis to think of Oneida words for new technology.