Skawennati’s work is about how Mohawk cultural practices, language, and stories will continue and evolve in cyberspace and other digital realms.
But she also has pressing concerns about the here and now of being Mohawk in the physical reality of Kahnawà:ke Mohawk Territory.
“I think that by kicking out Mohawk people you are not protecting the culture, the language or the population,” said Skawennati, referring to Kahnawà:ke’s controversial “marry out, get out” membership rule which says community members must leave when they marry or live common law with a non-Indigenous spouse.
That’s what happened with her mother decades ago after she married a non-Indigenous man. As a result, Skawennati and her siblings grew up elsewhere in the nearby Montreal region.
“I lost out on a lifetime of living next to my family, my people,” said Skawennati.
Skawennati, her mother, and three siblings were part of a group of 16 plaintiffs that brought a lawsuit against the Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke (MCK) concerning the membership law.
On April 30 Quebec superior court ruled that the marry out get out sections of the law are discriminatory and therefore in violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“We never wanted to go to an outside court. We wanted this to be determined by our people, by Kahnawà:ke,” said Skawennati.
“My mom has been working towards getting back on that membership list for over 40 years, and we felt we had no more recourse, and the reason why we asked for damages is because money talks. We weren’t even in it for the money, we wanted to send a message.”
One issue complicating matters is that Kahnawà:ke’s membership law has been under review since 2014.
“I was one of the proponents of taking our time with this bill because of the complexity of it, cause it affects so many people’s lives,” said Jeremiah Johnson, a community representative on the team that’s drafting the new membership law. “It’s something that shouldn’t be rushed through. Every aspect needs to be thought of, every angle, it needs to be done with a lot of care.”
Kahnawà:ke drafts new laws using what they call the Kahnawà:ke Community Decision Making Process, where community members are invited to meetings where they speak to a legislation team regarding potential laws before they are adopted and enacted.
But there are restrictions on who can speak at these meetings.
“I’m not on the membership list, so I come in and I’m not allowed to speak,” said Skawennati, who is one of approximately 4,500 considered a Mohawk of Kahnawà:ke in the eyes of Canada but not by the council.
“I think that the tables are already turned against us.”
The court agreed with Skawennati and awarded her $1,000 in damages for her not being allowed to speak at a 2013 community meeting regarding membership.
“I’m not very surprised with the outcome of the decision, I expect a non-native judge would view our membership law and regulations as somewhat unconstitutional because their perception of discrimination, in this case, differs from ours,” said Johnson, who went on to explain that while only members in good standing with council can speak, non-members with ties to the community have other ways to voice their concerns.
“They can still speak through a proxy,” said Johnson. “A person who is on the membership rolls can take their issues and bring it forward so I mean they’re not completely stifled.”
Skawennati said she tried this method and found it unsatisfactory.
“It’s very hard to get a proxy,” she said. “I did bring people to the meetings who are on the membership list, family members and you know it’s never the same as speaking for yourself, they haven’t lived it, they’ve gotten to live on their reserve, my hometown, all their lives.
“They don’t know what I’ve gone through or what my mother has gone through, that feeling of exile.”
The court also ruled that the issues of membership and residency need to be addressed by the people of Kahnawà:ke, and Johnson feels that the people who were a part of the court case are an exception when it comes to how people in Kahnawà:ke feel regarding membership and residency.
“I believe most people in the community respect the will and the customs of our community and abide by our laws,” said Johnson, who adds that it doesn’t appear that the new membership and residency laws will change the marry out, get out custom.
In a 2017 survey conducted by the MCK, 79 percent of 124 respondents (of an estimated population of about 6,000) said they want the marry out, get out provision to remain. All of the community members surveyed are on the council membership list.
“In the 60s business used to be conducted in Mohawk at council meetings, but then things started being conducted in English because there was a whole era where language wasn’t being used because we were accommodating non-native guests,” said MCK press attaché Joe Delaronde.
Delaronde suggests that Kahnawà:ke’s proximity to Montreal and its surrounding suburbs make it susceptible to an erosion of culture.
“It’s the character of the community people worry about, our style of humour, the way do things, it’s not always about ceremonies,” he said.
Skawennati rejects this point of view.
“The judge, I feel really got it when he said ‘you’re kicking out Mohawks’. You’re treating us, people like myself, my mother, my family, and of course the other plaintiffs like we’re less than, or that we’re not valuable, but we’re actually precious.”
As for non-Indigenous people eroding Mohawk culture, Skawennati adds, “We’re going to make Mohawk babies, and that’s really important.”
Johnson points out that all Mohawks can attend school or cultural events in Kahnawà:ke, but when it comes to living there, the law is clear “our community is for our people,” he said.
The amendments to Kahnawà:ke membership and residency laws are expected to be completed before the Autumn. For her part, Skawennati urged people who disagree with marry out, get out to speak up.
As always, she’s concerned with the future of being Mohawk.
“If we want to be Mohawks in the future, well then people who think of themselves as Mohawk should be on that membership list.”