CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 16 . . . . March 30, 2007
When folks wax nostalgic about their adolescent years, I have to wonder if they have forgotten what it was really like. While the longing for lost youth is understandable, I do not miss the confusion and angst that seemed to shape each day of my teenage years - and I had an excellent adolescence.
In Tracey Deer's film Mohawk Girls, she looks back on her own adolescent years and wonders if things are any easier today for other young Mohawk girls. Through the lives of Felicia who is going into high school, Amy who lives with her grandmother and plans to graduate and Lauren, a mixed race teen who is also about to graduate, Deer shows that, while the teen years are still a challenge, there is hope for the future of the Mohawk nation.
All three girls live on the Kahnawake reserve within view of Montreal. However, Felicia states that she "could have lived on Mars" for all the connection to Montreal she experienced. Connected or not, the city does encroach on their community. Two bridges and multiple highways cut through the reserve. Even the name Kahnawake, which means "by the rapids" loses meaning as the St. Lawrence Seaway took away their access to the shoreline. One store owner says that there are 108 other cigarette stores in town and then says, "I hate this town." Amy admits that she wants to leave and go "Anywhere but here." A patron in the store replies, "That's everyone's destination." He left the reserve to go to Syracuse for five years and three more in Detroit. "You have to get away to appreciate the reserve, then you come back. After a year, that wears out and you have to go away again." Tracey Deer understands this as she also left the reserve for a time and is now back to stay. This is not simply a story about the challenges of adolescence. For each of the girls, the challenge is to maintain their culture and self-identity during these most difficult years.
Lauren's mother felt that her life was going nowhere and decided to enlist in the American military. She met and married Lauren's father, and they were stationed together in Germany. After a year there, Lauren's father decided to end the marriage. The only place Lauren's mother could think of to go to was back home, and so she took Lauren and her sister back to Kahnawake. As Lauren's father is an Afro-American, Lauren has no voice on the reserve. She cannot vote and has been treated as an outsider. She admits that it has been difficult getting acceptance. Along with 200 other students, Lauren has chosen to attend high school off the reserve where she feels more accepted. As English is the language on the reserve, she struggles to learn French. French, Lauren states, is the "language of the enemy." She recalls how during the Oka Crisis, when her family members were leaving the reserve, they were pelted with rocks. "The angry mob shattered more than our window that day." That was her first experience with hatred and made it easy to reject the French and the French language. However, her mother points out that, if she plans to live in Quebec, she will have to learn French. Lauren finds that her friends from town have a different idea of fun than those on the reserve. She admits that she tries not to live up to the expected stereotype. Lauren rejects blood as a determiner of her Mohawk heritage. She feels that, if she is willing to learn the Mohawk language, that act should say more than her mixed race heritage. Filmmaker Deer shows her own identity card which identifies her as 90.63% Mohawk. This method of determining who is and who is not Mohawk was agreed upon years ago to ensure the people's survival.
Amy's parents split when she was a child. Raised by her grandparents, she says that she just got used to her parents not being there with her. Amy's grandmother explains that her son never really had much of a chance. He "went from boy to father. He did the best he could." Amy is very close to her grandparents, and they have assumed the parental role with success. Amy likes school and plans to leave the reserve after graduation. However, she admits she will probably come back because of family. At one point in the film, Amy's grandmother lists the number of Amy's piercings. Amy reminds her of the ones she has missed. While the grandmother cannot understand the piercings, she states, "Better than track marks on her arm." When Amy gets accepted to school in Lennoxville, she is excited and apprehensive as no one else she knows is going there. She almost considers not going as she is afraid to leave and perhaps drift away from her culture.
Ultimately she decides to go and feels that she will be able both to leave and maintain her culture.
Felicia, the youngest of the girls, has joined the school wrestling team mostly because she was told it was not for girls. Here, she says, she is able to channel the anger that "takes control over me at times." Her teacher admits that Felicia is frustrating her. She does not really try in school and shows no concern for the future. Those comments apply to many of Felicia's classmates as well who "are happy with mediocre." Felicia points out that the drinking problem with her age group is high. It is common to see 12-year-olds "walking down the highways drunk. They see that in their parents or older siblings. They think it's cool, but it's not. If we don't clean up our act, the Mohawk nation won't last." Felicia was sexually assaulted by her cousin's friend. She wanted to press charges, but she was convinced not to as it would cause problems in the family. For her age, Felicia sees her world with very adult eyes. She states that she has taken 85 of her friends for pregnancy tests. "I'm sick and tired of bringing my friends for pregnancy tests." Felicia suffers from "tunnel vision" and has been told that she will probably be blind by the time she enters her twenties. She refuses to accept that fact. Just in case, however, Felicia is learning to read Braille. She says that even though she lives in a house of seven people, she feels very much alone. She wishes that she was able to communicate with her parents. Near the end of the film, Felicia goes to Survival School where she is immersed in the Mohawk culture. Here she learns chanting and joins a group which shares this tradition with the non-Native world. Felicia's group is presented at a workshop at the University of Massachusetts. The group was supposed to meet once a week, but the students enjoyed chanting so much they met every day. Felicia says that she finds a release in singing.
Amy is selected class valedictorian, but she spends much of the ceremony wondering if her mother will arrive and, if she does, will she and her father fight. All she wants is to have a photograph taken with them.
At Lauren's graduation, her mother is very proud. Lauren's paternal grandfather comes to the ceremony, but her father cannot attend. Lauren and her sister seem to understand and hope that he is looking after himself as he does contract work in the Middle East.
Mohawk Girls is a wonderful look at three very impressive young women with diverse life experiences. Each has enough challenges in life to sabotage any success. However, they all rise above their difficulties. They endure the regular challenges of growing up while, at the same time, they stay true to their Mohawk culture. As is the case with Tracey Deer, they look like they will do fine. At the end of the film, Deer shows her own house at Kahnawake. She left for awhile but found the pull to return too strong. She is proud of her culture and hopes some day to guide her own teenagers through their time on the reserve.
Mohawk Girls is a film brimming with potential in a number of class areas: Native Issues, Canadian Law, Civics, Parenting or Peer Mediation. The film also reveals a side to life on a Native reserve that many non-Natives know little about. If Felicia sees her life in Kahnawake as far away from Montreal as Mars, how many Montrealers know what life is like on Kahnawake? Mohawk Girls provides some much needed insight.
Frank Loreto is a teacher-librarian at St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School in Brampton, ON.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.