Culture  Does blood determine belonging?

Tracey Deer’s Club Native reflects on Mohawk identity

Club Native opens with shots of different people reflecting on and responding to the question, “What does it mean to be Mohawk?” The film discusses the lingering effects of blood quantum ideology, a product of the sexist Indian Act – a policy which until 1985 denied native women and their children native status if they married a non-native, while allowing men to retain status for themselves and grant it to their family.

While the federal government’s policy now permits both men and women to preserve their status regardless of whom they marry, the residue of past legislation remains in native communities. The film focuses on the Kahnawake band, which denies membership to both men and women who marry out of the community. Interspersed with the four main storylines are interviews with several Kahnawake residents, on the topic of belonging and the consequences of marrying outside of the community.

At the screening at McGill earlier this month, filmmaker Tracey Deer joined cast members Waneek Horn-Miller – also the director of McGill’s First People’s House – and her husband, Keith Morgan, to answer questions from the audience. Horn-Miller, an Olympian and an icon of the Oka Crisis in 1990, faced scrutiny from her community after marrying a non-native. Here, a member of the audience reports on the panel’s responses.

How was the film received by the community of Kahnawake, and how does the community agree with and respond to the vision of the film?

Tracey Deer: There was poor attendance and overall apathy. Discussion was minimal. I think, on the whole, the community doesn’t want to think about this. I think there is so much fear in our community of becoming a target for scrutiny by your own lineage.

As a filmmaker, how was it different working on a project within your own community? How was it putting together these stories, that are from people in your community, without feeling that you were distorting their message?

TD: This isn’t the first film I made about my community; the first film was Mohawk Girls. It was crazy. I thought it would be so easy, that it would be a breeze. Actually, I think it was the hardest film I’ve ever made. I was afraid about who would be upset because I made it – about my parents’ reaction, and the repercussions for those I love if people didn’t like my film.

In Mohawk Girls, we looked at sexual abuse and alcoholism. This wasn’t a glorious portrait of my great community. But I feel these are issues we need to talk about in order to get to a better place. Making Club Native, I didn’t have any fear for myself, because I think this is greater than me. But I did fear for the people in the film and that was crippling for me at some points….

What did you hope to achieve with the making of Club Native?

TD: Well I want it to spark reflection, thought, and conversation in our communities. [People think that] as long as we find the right blood quantum and have our kids with the right amount of [native] blood, then we don’t have to think about anything else: we’re “surviving.”

I feel that if we continue on this path, we may have native people with the right amount of blood in them, but what are we going to have in terms of culture, language, and pride to hang on to? I feel we are really at a crossroads right now, and I am hoping that this film brings up these questions, gets people talking, and hopefully opens up their hearts.

Waneek Horn-Miller: Our communities – Kahnawake is not the only one – are so focused on this idea of purity and image. We need to start thinking about community building. Our leaders…are stuck with this mentality that they should be like [they were]…hundreds of years ago when we were all really dark and really “native.”

[It’s] a terrible thing to tell a young woman: “You know what? Just marry the right colour. It doesn’t matter how he treats you or what he’s like.” I think we should ask: “what is he willing to do for his community? How is he going to treat you? Is he willing to learn your culture?” Those should be the questions, not “Marry out, get out,” which is [the case] right now.