Episode 7 of Working It Out Together examines the common literary trope so prevalent in mainstream arts: the Indian Princess/Pocahontas, and the harm that has come to Indigenous women due to the pervasiveness of that stereotype in society today. For centuries the “Indian Princess” has been recognized as an erotic thing, a sexual dream or ideal that exists only for the European white male. The process of colonization reshaped strong beautiful women into the hyper-sexualized noble savage, only to be dominated by all men. Today we witness the harm this archetype has perpetuated with the aid of such movements as “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women”.
This week features the story of Heather White, one of the lead actresses on the popular award winning television show Mohawk Girls, created and directed by Tracey Deer. However, White is also a High School language arts teacher at Kahnawa:ke Survival School. It is here that she cultivates a safe environment for her students to discuss and challenge how media shapes their concepts of women and beauty. “As actors, our job is constantly to tell the story through someone else’s vision, but as a teacher that is where I get to be myself.”
With her first hand experiences on Mohawk Girls, White is able to teach her students about the extensive work that goes into the manufacturing of media as art, be it television programming, magazines, posters, or film. In this way her students understand that it is “ok when they walk in the world that they walk into one that is real. That it is 100% ok for them to be who they are, to walk this world proud of who they are.”
Earlier this week White discussed with me how her new found celebrity has given her the the platform to make human connections: “It is a great opportunity to tell people ‘this is who I am, this what I do and this is what I think’. To be able to say all of the things that I wish were said to me when I was younger, I think that is the greatest thing for me. There were no trail blazers like me and I grew up not seeing it. I am only now starting to see different women.”
White’s father Sykes Powderface, also featured in this week’s episode, explains the traditional position of women in the community: “Women were the most respected individuals in the community. Without women, there are no more children. You must always take care of the women, that was the first order that was taught to us.”
Michele Audette, Indigenous women’s rights advocate, explains that women had their roles, that men and women knew exactly what they were supposed to do “for the community, for the family, and for them self.” With the men off hunting for months at a time, it was the women who were the leaders in the community. But when the Europeans began to settle “this all changed; spirituality became religion, they changed our language, and they changed our system of our society. ”
When speaking with White, she reflected on what Mohawk Girls is really about, and what it means to women who watch. “Mohawk Girls could have been anything, and that is the most satisfying part of it. But it is not just about us (Indigenous women). There are so many universal themes that bind us (all women) all together and that is a gift in itself.”