Mohawk doc about growing up native shocks, in a good way
Mohawk Girls, Tracey Deer’s film about three teenage girls growing up in Kahnawake, is pretty striking – and it shouldn’t be. But the fact is, rarely do we hear anything on the evening news about native kids that doesn’t involve solvent abuse or high suicide rates. Deer’s documentary, in which she intersperses interviews with three vibrant young ladies from across the Mercier Bridge with video footage from her own adolescence, shows the ups and downs of growing up native in the shadow of the big city.
"Most people, it’s not necessarily that they have misconceptions," says Deer, "it’s that they have no clue. Even though Kahnawake is so close to Montreal – as a lot of reserves are close to [big cities] – the gap is really big, between our community and the rest of the wider world."
Deer had two main goals for Mohawk Girls: "I wanted to start a dialogue in my own community. The other thing was to show other Canadians what it is like to be a young native person. Hopefully a non-native audience will be able to relate to these young girls. Why shouldn’t people be able to relate? There are many things that make us unique, but we also have a lot in common with everyone else."
One nasty reality particular to young native girls is other people’s stereotyped ideas about what you’re capable of – especially if, like Deer (and Lauren, another girl profiled in the doc), you choose to go to high school outside the community.
"Low expectations and misconceptions are definitely part of the problem. Nobody expects very much out of us. Mostly, from [my peers in high school] I would just hear, ‘Isn’t it about time for you to mate? When are you going to get pregnant? Isn’t that what you people do?’ There was never any idea that I could become a doctor or a lawyer alongside them. And the teachers, even, would never encourage me. It was always, ‘Oh, don’t worry, you girls are never good at sciences, so don’t waste time [in advanced courses], you’ll just be disappointed.’ The worst thing is, I think they were just trying to be helpful!"
The end result was that Deer became even more determined to prove them wrong. Though the filmmaker admits to many conflicting feelings about her Mohawk identity and her desire to "make it in the outside world," Deer – who is now 28 and lives in Mile End – can rest assured that Mohawk Girls has found an audience. The film has played at festivals across the country, as well as on TV, and, this week, is receiving a theatrical run at Cinéma du Parc.
"People are really reacting to it," says Deer. "Also, the girls have gotten so much feedback, people think they are so brave to speak their minds. I think people who come to the film are curious and want to know more. What I can say is that I’ve never had someone come up to me and say, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly how I thought it was [to grow up native]."