MONTREAL — The Kahnawake Mohawk community south of Montreal has a long tradition of female leadership but has never had a female grand chief — until now.
Over the weekend, Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer, 41, became the first woman and first person who identifies as LGBTQ to be elected to the post, replacing former grand chief Joe Norton, who died last year.
A woman leading the Mohawk territory is a "natural evolution," Sky-Deer, a longtime councillor, said in a recent interview. Women, she added, have always played an important role as custodians of the land, in passing down language and culture, and in governance.
Sky-Deer said she believes her upbringing and closeness to the Mohawk culture and language resonated with voters.
She said she chose to enter Kahnawake politics in 2009 after working in a tobacco factory upon graduating from the University of Central Florida with a degree in psychology. "I was like, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t go to school all these years to do this kind of work,'" she said of the tobacco industry. "You know, I want to be working for my people trying to make change."
Sky-Deer takes the reins of a community emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic and facing a number of issues, including a lack of housing and a need for more well-paying jobs for community members.
But first, she said, there's a need for healing.
Kahnawake has been deeply affected by the discovery of unmarked graves at former residential school sites in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, she said, adding that she wants to organize some activities to help uplift people's spirits.
"There's been a lot of anger and sadness and trauma, because everybody has a story in terms of how they're impacted by the residential school experience, be it (that) their grandparents were survivors, their parents were survivors, or maybe just a friend or somebody they knew," she said.
Sky-Deer is also aware that the very political system under which she was elected is controversial. The band council structure was created under the federal Indian Act and has sometimes been run in a way that is inconsistent with the traditional, collective decision-making process of the Mohawk people, she said. "How Mohawk people understand governance and the way the system is now is at odds with each other."
As grand chief, she said she hopes to find a middle ground that balances the approaches so "people can feel like they have a voice in what’s going to happen and what’s coming, and that the council doesn't just unilaterally make decisions."
Sky-Deer said she's eager to hit the ground running in her new post. Her first official council day was Monday, which began with a traditional tobacco-burning ceremony.
She said she believes she's taking over at a time when the federal government is facing unprecedented scrutiny in regard to its relationship with Indigenous people. This added attention to Indigenous issues, she said, could create opportunities with regard to negotiations between her council and various levels of government.
Her message to her council and her community, she said, is that they have a voice in the process. "Once they feel that, that's empowerment, and when you feel empowered, the sky's the limit."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 6, 2021.
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press