By Susan Hickman
Photos by Luther Caverly
One of the biggest dilemmas facing First Nations people today is identity, says Kahente Horn-Miller, Carleton’s New Sun Visiting Aboriginal Scholar in the School of Canadian Studies.
“Identity,” says Horn-Miller, who arrived on campus last July, “feeds into all aspects of our lives. It gives a sense of belonging.”
The question of Horn-Miller’s own identity as a woman of the Mohawk Bear Clan of Kahnawake on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River came to the forefront when her mother Kahn-Tineta Horn, a renowned Mohawk political activist, participated in the 1990 Oka Crisis, a violent land dispute between the Mohawk people and the town of Oka, Quebec.
“My mother was doing a master’s at the (Carleton) School of Canadian Studies and I was finishing high school when I realized my mother was an activist,” explains Horn-Miller. “It was an awakening point of who I am.”
Horn-Miller would soon throw herself deeply into the study of her history and that of the Mohawk and Iroquois people at the University of British Columbia and, later, at Concordia University in Montreal. She began to understand the reality of colonization, the Indian Act, the Iroquois Confederacy, as well as the politics of the Oka Crisis and, most importantly, what it meant to be a Mohawk woman.
Identity feeds into all aspects of our lives. It gives a sense of belonging
After earning an undergraduate and a master’s degree in anthropology, all while remaining an active member of her community of Kahnawake, she went on to pursue a doctoral degree. For her master’s, she examined the history and evolution of the Mohawk Warrior Flag, a symbol of resistance against colonization and unity in the indigenous rights movement that became prominent during the Oka Crisis.
“The Mohawk Warrior Flag comes from my community,” Horn-Miller explains. “It is an expression of Mohawk identity.”
For her PhD, which she completed in 2009, she interviewed women of Kahnawake, ranging in age from their early 20s to 80-something, to determine how they were expressing their identity. The Kahnawake tribe, who call themselves Kanienkehaka, or People of the Flint Place, are the most easterly tribe of the Iroquois Confederacy. Many of the women, says Horn-Miller, told stories of Sky Woman, an Iroquois woman who fell to the earth at the time of creation. Inspired, Horn-Miller rewrote the Iroquois creation story in the first person, incorporating the lives of the women she interviewed. The work centres on her interests in identity, women’s issues and governance.
“A main finding of my PhD work,” she says, “is the need to find balance. Women say in order to be self-governed, you have to be self-determined. You have to know who you are, where you come from, how you are grounded in your culture, and you have to know the impacts of colonization, and the ground you stand on in order to see the path ahead of you.”
Horn-Miller, whose first name Kahente means “she walks ahead,” believes she is a self-determined person.
“I know my history, and why I am here, and it’s very clear to me what I have to do — take all the gifts I have been given and use them to the very best of my ability — because it’s my responsibility as a Mohawk woman to do that.”
Before arriving at Carleton as the New Sun Visiting Aboriginal Scholar, Horn-Miller was coordinator for the Kahnawake Legislative Coordinating Commission, the body that oversees the legislative development process based in Haudenosaunee principles of consensus building. Her work in governance and community issues involves interpreting culture and bringing new life to old traditions and practices.
It’s important to find solutions, and to help my people in a way that is constructive. I am trying to help sort out this situation through my research, so that maybe reconciliation can happen.
An issue at the forefront of her research is the eviction of non-natives from the community of Kahnawake. While the issue has a long history, in 1981, the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake ruled that Mohawks who married outside of their nation lose the right to live in the community homeland, in order to preserve cultural identity.
“Two systems of thought are clashing with this membership law,” explains Horn-Miller, who is interviewing people on the evictions list to determine what identity means to them in context of the situation. “It’s important to find solutions, and to help my people in a way that is constructive. I am trying to help sort out this situation through my research, so that maybe reconciliation can happen.”
Horn-Miller is compassionate about the significance of the older traditions and the role they play, but is also aware that as an Aboriginal educator, and a Kahnawake woman, she can see the larger picture.
“I am solutions-oriented,” she admits. “I’ve learned to be objective and it’s always about finding balance.”
Ultimately, Horn-Miller hopes her research work will aid other First Nations communities across Canada that are dealing with similar issues.
“The identity question centres on lands and resources. If we can bring back balance into my own community, that will show other communities that they are not alone, and maybe there are solutions that can also be found from other First Nations.”
Horn-Miller says she hopes to stay on at Carleton. She loves teaching and witnessing the rewarding “aha moment” her students experience in her classes.
“Being able to give to them what I have learned and now understand . . . now that I am teaching full time, I am able to expand on ideas that have been percolating and that I have been working on for some time. I am also able to give back to my community and to other First Nations people.”
The identity question centres on lands and resources. If we can bring back balance into my own community, that will show other communities that they are not alone, and maybe there are solutions that can also be found from other First Nations