Mohawk Girls creator in real-life drama
Despite CBC report, Tracey Deer isn't being evicted from Kahnawake over her mixed marriage – but she's taking a stand on it anyway
The CBC Web report looks like a real-life Romeo and Juliet story, about a loving couple soon to be exiled because of their parentage.
"Tracey Deer, creator of Mohawk Girls, about to be evicted from her native Kahnawake where show is set," the headline reads, referring to Deer's comedy-drama TV series, the fifth season of which is in production. "She and her husband, who is non-Indigenous," says the story posted earlier this week, "are among 20 families that have received eviction notices as part of the Kahnawake Mohawk Council's long-standing and controversial law that bars mixed-race couples from living on the territory."
Irony of ironies, that the maker of a program showing aspects of life on the Montreal-area reserve that most Canadians wouldn't otherwise see is being booted out. It's a compelling tale, but it's not true.
"I've yet to receive my letter," Deer said in a phone interview this week. She acknowledged the CBC report, based on a podcast interview recorded last fall, had run ahead of actual events, although she didn't say that she had made any attempt to correct the record.
Deer's issues with the membership law are deep. The CBC's non-news item, however, partly could be about chiming in with an apparent sequel to the story of novelist Joseph Boyden, whose professed aboriginal identity was recently flayed in Indigenous media. Here we are again, with a storyteller white people can appreciate on one side, and a group of condemning Indigenous people on the other. The CBC made the scenario even simpler by not bothering to check its story with any of Deer's supposed persecutors.
In a way, the 39-year-old filmmaker has been priming for most of her life for a confrontation that has yet to occur. She's deeply concerned with identity, she said, and the constraints of the Kahnawake membership law run through her work. They come up in the TV show (about four young women discovering themselves and looking for love), in the Mohawk Girls documentary that prompted the series, and especially in Club Native, a 2008 documentary that focuses entirely on how the law affects some people on reserve.
Club Native is a passionate and partisan film that makes no attempt to present all sides of the story. It consists almost entirely of interviews with people who are struggling to gain membership or are afraid of losing it, and with those who have more or less serious doubts about the rules. It presents the bizarre but not unique case of a woman who has lived at Kahnawake her whole life and is a registered Indian under Canadian law, but is not a member of the Mohawk of Kahnawake. It shows two lively, loving mixed couples who dread receiving the letter that will bar them from living on reserve.
We never hear from anyone who thinks the rule against residency for mixed couples is a good thing, although such people aren't hard to find among the 7,000 or so residents of Kahnawake. A 2011 survey found that 78 per cent were in favour and only 6 per cent strongly opposed. Loss of culture and identity through a swelling non-Indigenous population was a big concern. The response to one survey question provided another explanation: "Do you think if non-natives consistently become part of the community that over time this would give the federal government enough power to take away our land and Mohawk status?" Eighty-five per cent said yes.
Fear of lost status and land have a strong basis in experience. For more than a century, until 1985, the federal government held exclusive power to decide who was native and actively tried to shorten the list. About half of the original Kahnawake reserve has been stolen away on one pretext or another. Many other Indigenous communities in Canada have lost reserve land or been summarily moved to other, smaller territories, most of those deprivations having occurred since the 1940s.
Kahnawake has seen many iterations of its 33-year-old membership law, the latest of which were debated during lengthy public discussions aimed at community consensus. "Nothing can be rammed through with this process," said Joe Delaronde, a spokesman for the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake. "The sentiment is very strong that we have a law and that people should respect it." But there's still no clear way to enforce the residency part, he said, and the law has been challenged in court and at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.
Deer said the prospect of being denied membership and its privileges because she married a white man "is so harsh. This is who I am. How can you tell me I'm not? I've spent my entire adult life struggling with these issues."
But when asked if she thought there was a need for any kind of membership law, and if so, what it should look like, Deer was stuck for a response.
"I wish I had the answer, but I don't," she said after a long pause. "What I hope is that my work will help us talk and think about this." She did say that she believes families should have the power to decide who is within the family, and that this should weigh more heavily against the broader collective will.
In any case, she and her husband have another home off reserve. "I'm not capitulating to the rules, I'm doing this for my family's emotional well-being," she said.
The fact that's she now only a part-time resident at Kahnawake may explain, she said, why no action has been taken against her. Delaronde said that letters are only sent after complaints are received. As for who may be part of a family, Delaronde said the council has no position against that. "We're not saying, 'Don't marry out,' or that you can't visit and stay over whenever you want."