Bridging two worlds: Mohawk filmmaker Tracey Deer

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Tears are streaming down Tracey Deer's face.

The filmmaker is recounting the 1990 Oka crisis in which members of the Mohawk community of Kanesatake took a stand in the band's land dispute against the town of Oka, Quebec, which was planning to build a golf course on a native burial ground.

The standoff, which lasted three months through that summer into September, would carve an indelible scar on Deer's psyche.

"That's when I learned to hate."

It is April and Deer is attending Hot Docs 2008, the biggest documentary festival in North America, taking place in Toronto. Her latest film, Club Native, is screening here. It is a triumphant return on the heels of her highly-acclaimed coming-of-age documentary, Mohawk Girls, from 2005.

Deer is literally channelling the Oka experience for me âe" the point of crisis, when there were whispers of a new offensive by the Canadian army onto the reserve. That's when women and children were told to leave their homes. It would become a seminal journey for Deer.

"There were 200 cars of women and children and each one was being searched for weapons. As we inched closer to the end of the Mercier Bridge, we could hear a roar," recalls Deer.

"As we got closer, rocks were hitting the car. My mom got really scared. My mother is a strong person. I have never seen her look like that. She told us to get on the floor of the car," recalls Deer, who is re-living the trauma in front of my eyes.

"Our windows were smashed, there was debris all over us."

The filmmaker's voice is cracking and trembling: "It was terrible."

The tears are streaking down her cheeks.

"Oka was when I learned that I was different."

Deer says after those horrific experiences, she became an angry teenager. She hated white people. But Deer eventually made a choice that would change her life, she decided not to give in to it.

"My work is my effort to bridge the gap between those two worlds: native and non-native. It's to get away from that [i.e. Oka]. It's so destructive."

In Club Native, Deer's eye turns back to her community and on the issue of band membership. It is a taboo topic. In the film, she follows four women who are either struggling to attain or retain their membership. It is a process fraught with history and emotion.

During the film âe" which uses inventive animated sequences produced by native animator Jesse Bochner âe" Deer explains that band membership is now determined by band councils. Ironically, those councils have reverted back to an archaic, colonial system of determining one's status: blood.

"What inspired me was my younger sister in Texas. She fell in love with this white guy," explains Deer. According to the rules, neither her sister's partner nor any of their children would get band membership.

"I told her, 'stick it out, happiness is more important' and then, she got pregnant! I thought, 'wow, this is perfect.'" Deer is smiling again, her zeal and warmth are infectious.

Attacking the way band membership is done âe" i.e. you have to prove all four of your grandparents were band members âe" was not an easy task for Deer.

"Nobody talks about it. It was tough for me, even as an aboriginal person."

Deer likes to point out that becoming a band member wasn't so stringent even in the days prior to European arrival.

"We have a long history of mixing. Genetically, we are mixed but then came the Indian Act."

The act âe" which once served as a blueprint for South Africa's apartheid policy âe" determined who could be called "Indian" based on percentage of Indian blood. That all changed in 1985 when the government allowed each band to decide how to determine membership. According to Deer, little has changed.

"The Indian Act affected your very survival. We had lived under it for 100 years. Generations were brainwashed into how important their blood lines were."

Deer wants to change that. She'd like to live in a world in which love and family are important above all else.

One of the film's most compelling sequences concerns Olympian Waneek Horn-Miller, who courageously tells of her emotional breakdown and of the man who helped her through the dark haze.

Horn-Miller was a member of the Canadian women's polo team at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. One might recall the stunning shot of a nude Horn-Miller on the cover of Time Canada (holding a strategically placed polo ball). She exuded grace, power and beauty.

But in Deer's film, a diametrically different story emerges. Horn-Miller worked behind Mohawk lines during the Oka crisis. She was 14. Near the end of the dispute, she was stabbed by a Canadian soldier. Club Native contains riveting footage of Horn-Miller as she faced off with Canadian soldiers.

Post-Sydney, Horn-Miller went into a tailspin. She did not know who she was anymore. During this time, she started seeing another athlete, a non-native guy. It would turn serious.

"Who knew the person I would fall in love with would be white," says the former Olympian in the film. Conflicted but proud about her Mohawk heritage, Horn-Miller decided to lay all her cards on the table. She made a crucial phone call.

"I said to him: âe~I need to have native children.âe(TM)"

There was a pause and the answer would knock the athlete off her Mohawk stance.

"He said: "Waneek, I would never stand in the way of anything you wanted to do for your community. Do what you have to do."

Suffice to say, Horn-Miller is now living with her man on the reserve. It is a bone of contention with her family.

"Why can't they consider the quality of your character?" asks Horn-Miller.

Deer says her community has to question its desire for survival with the kind of lessons it is imparting on the women of the reserve.

"To reproduce with a native is your number one responsibility. But our standards are so low, so what if he's an alcoholic or abusive?" points out Deer, who herself is getting married in 2009 to a native man.

The filmmaker has screened Club Native on the reserve and reaction has been good.

"People have come up to me to say 'thank you.'"

There is one incident that makes Deer feel optimistic about the future.

"One of the native guys went up to Keith [Horn-Miller's partner] after the screening, shook his hand and said: 'Welcome to the community.'"

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