SUNY Canton Native Student Explores Mohawk Names During Presidential Internship


A SUNY Canton student's new project will help decipher the etymology of Native names and help connect students and faculty with the Mohawk language.

"My name is Tsiawentonnih [phonetically Jaw-one-due-nee] Elizabeth George," she said. "It means she brings a new day. I'm the only person in the world with this name."

Tsiawentonnih George

George, who's a Graphic and Multimedia Design major from Massena, is planning a video tutorial project to help others understand the significance of - and correctly say - Mohawk names as part of her Presidential Internship position at the college. She said the language confuses most people because it is guttural and rhythmic.

"There are only 14 letters [12 characters from the English alphabet and two punctuation symbols] in the whole language, so it's a lot different than speaking English," George said. "I feel like most words you can't hear and then just say again if you don't know the language."

As part of the project, George is currently seeking the help of experts from Akwesasne to help teach others the importance and cultural impact of using someone's given moniker.

Tsiawentonnih George speaks with some students in Southworth Library.

"Another part of a traditional name is that it's not given to you by your family," George said. "A traditional name is given to an individual by a clan mother with available names from each clan on file. These names become available when another clan member passes on. When naming a child, clan mothers feel a spiritual energy that guides them to the proper fitting name that best describes the unborn child's personality."

Beyond the educational component, the project allows her to explore her heritage. Her grandmother isn't Native, so George does not belong to a clan, and her name indicates her lineage.

She said she sees her language project as a means of reconnecting with her family roots. "I've always been passionate about my culture," she said. "Our language is slowly dying, and there aren't many traditional speakers anymore other than elders."

George developed the project while working with Lecturer Daniel McLane, Ph.D., who primarily teaches Sociology in SUNY Canton's School of Business and Liberal Arts. The faculty member mentioned that George should look at creating a resource, or repository, for people to correctly learn Mohawk names and some of the basics of the language. They aim to eliminate feelings of isolation, alienation and marginalization that can negatively impact native college students.

"Our mission is to create an environment with a better understanding and respect for its student body, starting with faculty and staff at SUNY Canton," George said. Our project's sole purpose is to sustain culture and create a more equitable campus. American Indian and Alaskan Native students have a dropout rate twice the national average, making it the highest out of any racial or ethnic group."

Sociologically, McLane said the project was part of an endeavor to analyze existing structures and change them for the greater good of the entire community.

"This is not research, this is activism," McLane said. "I'm a strong advocate for doing anything we can to help our students feel empowered and able to make this college their home."

George is one of 32 Presidential Interns at the college during the fall 2023 semester. The paid Internship program was founded in 2022 by SUNY Canton President Zvi Szafran to aid in developing students' career competencies within their fields of study. The college receives financial support from SUNY to help fund students' stipends for their projects.

About SUNY Canton

As Northern New York's premier college for career-driven bachelor's degrees, associate degrees and professional certificate programs, SUNY Canton delivers quality hands-on programs in engineering technology, management, and healthcare fields. It is home to the Center for Criminal Justice, Intelligence and Cybersecurity. Faculty members are noted for their professional real-world experience in addition to outstanding academic credentials. As SUNY's leader in online education, SUNY Canton OnLine offers hundreds of flexible and convenient courses as well as 23 online degree programs. The SUNY Canton Kangaroos 15 traditional athletic teams compete at the NCAA Division III level as part of the North Atlantic Conference. SUNY Canton also features varsity esports and cheerleading.