About a month ago, Waneek Horn-Miller broke ground on a house in Kahnawake, the native reserve located on Montreal’s South Shore. Horn-Miller, a former Olympian water polo player and a long-time native rights advocate, was seven months into her first pregnancy, and expecting to move there with her boyfriend Keith Morgan, also a former Olympian, in August. Instead, she received word that roughly 60 of her neighbours had delivered a petition to the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake questioning her right to live on the reserve. The reason: Morgan isn’t native. The sentiment was crudely reflected in a note left on the foundation of her new home. “Go back to Lasalle, white man,” it read, an apparent reference to the Montreal neighbourhood on the other side of the St. Lawrence River. (Morgan actually grew up in Calgary.)
Horn-Miller picked a bad time to move back to her community with the man she loves. Acting on 100 or so anonymous tips, the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake voted in February to evict 26 non-natives from the reserve in a bid to preserve “our own culture and language,” according to council spokesperson Joe Delaronde. A new batch of roughly 30 eviction notices was sent out last week. Recipients have 10 days to leave.
Though the notices haven’t been particularly successful—only four people have actually left Kahnawake since February, according to council figures—they’ve brought considerable attention, and scorn, to Kahnawake, a community perhaps best known for its steelworkers, smoke shops and massive Internet hosting facilities. There is dissent on the reserve itself, led by a Kahnawake women’s group and fuelled in the pages of the Eastern Door newspaper, whose editor likens the evictions to a witch hunt. Pro- and anti-eviction factions have set up duelling Facebook pages, and an anti-eviction petition will be presented to council next month. The subject dominates council meetings and lunchtime chatter at the Water Drum restaurant.
For all the noise, however, the debate over who should have the privilege of living on Kahnawake’s 11,000 acres has been an abiding part of the reserve’s history since its inception in 1680. Given its proximity to Montreal and its location on the St. Lawrence, the reserve has been something of a melting pot. The confluence of French, Scottish and Irish populations meant there were never actually many “pure” natives living in Kahnawake; visitors, writes researcher Matthieu Sossoyan, who teaches at Vanier College, were often taken by Kahnawake’s “great mixture of blood.”
Nevertheless, the community’s history is rife with attempts to keep the Iroquois culture intact—even if today this culture itself is a vestige of many others. One need only look as far as the nearest phone book: the dominant surnames—Delisle, Delaronde, McComber, to name a few—are products of intermarriage between natives and non-natives.
Coincidentally or not, in 1973 a young Jean Chrétien, then Indian affairs minister, approved Kahnawake’s bylaw to evict non-natives, sparking one of the first modern-day feuds between the band council and anti-eviction groups. As recently as Pierre Trudeau’s tenure, notes Sossoyan, the goal of the federal government was to whittle down the number of people living on reserves until the reserves ceased to exist. “The government tried genocide, and that didn’t work,” says Eastern Door editor Steve Bonspiel. “They tried assimilation, and that didn’t work. Now they are pitting natives against each other, and that’s working because we’re fighting like hell.”
In Horn-Miller’s case, the Mohawk council partly sided with the petitioners: she could stay, but the father of her child had to go. “[Horn-Miller] is not breaching any laws by building the house, and she and her child are welcome to live there,” the council wrote in a press release. “However, if her non-native partner were found to be living in breach of the Kahnawake Membership Law, the MCK would have no choice but to take action against him.”
The question remains: why are they fighting now? It might be a simple equation of demographics and geography. Like many reserves, Kahnawake has trouble retaining, housing and employing its many young people, and the difficult economic climate means fewer jobs and more scapegoating of those who, in the strict sense of the term, don’t belong.
As well, the reserve itself is barely a quarter the size it once was, and though the council is in the midst of several land claims, compensation will come in the form of money, not acres. “We’re all squeezed onto a postage stamp,” says Delaronde, who wouldn’t comment on how council will enforce the evictions should recipients refuse to leave.
Delaronde says the notices are only being sent to “recent arrivals,” who have lived in Kahnawake for three years or less. As well, he says no one with a child with at least one Mohawk parent will be asked to leave; in theory, at least, this means Keith Morgan’s legitimacy in Kahnawake will be confirmed with the birth of his child—though Delaronde cautions that this allowance might be altered in the future.
The uncertainty, and her neighbours’ ire against her family, has left Horn-Miller perplexed and saddened. “I can’t believe it,” she told the Eastern Door newspaper last week. “I never thought in this community, where I have been a positive force and contributed in every way possible, that this would happen to me at my most vulnerable time.”