Mohawk Girls: Gearing up for the final season with Head Writer Cynthia Knight

Mohawk Girls returns for its fifth and final season this Tuesday, Nov. 14, on APTN. Co-created and executive produced by Cynthia Knight and Tracey Deer, the series stars Jenny Pudavick as Bailey, Brittany LeBorgne as Zoe, Heather White as Caitlin and Maika Harper as Anna, four modern-day women trying to stay true to their roots while navigating sex, work, love and what it means to be Mohawk in the 21st century.

I caught up with the lovely and talented Cynthia Knight by phone whilst she was riding in the back of a cab during her recent visit to New York City. Stuck in traffic, we had a nice chunk of time to catch up since my visit to set in Kahnawa:ke, Quebec, last season. We had lots to cover, and we finally we managed to get around to this final season of Mohawk Girls.

How are you feeling right now as the final season of Mohawk Girls is about to be launched Tuesday evening?
Cynthia Knight: Talk about ‘Empty Nester’. It is such a weird time. There are so many different feelings. We are so thrilled that we knew the series was ending because we got to finish up the girls’ storylines and get them to where we wanted them to be. And we were really excited for the audience to see that. All in all, from the time we first shot the pilot which was in 2009—the whole process has been about nine years.

I think for me, part of me is you know, looking forward to doing something else. But, it is really difficult, these people, these characters, we live with them all year long. We are in development, then prep, then production, then post, and then we start development again. And it has been like that for five years. So it definitely feels very weird that we won’t be coming back to this. We have been so incredibly blessed with a cast and crew that gets together every year and it feels like this wonderful reunion. Definitely, a lot of mixed feelings going on.

What about Mohawk Girls, as you are reflecting back upon the journey, are you most proud of?
Tracey and I always like to create content that is above all else entertaining, but that also has a deeper message. To create material that is not heavy or preachy, that is entertaining, but is capable of something important and builds bridges between communities; I think we really found that magic formula with Mohawk Girls. I feel that the producers [Rezolution Pictures] and the network [APTN] and the fans have given us the ability in this platform to really talk and delve into these issues and this community. We shed light on who they are and, how similar we all are. We get to really break down stereotypes and misconceptions.

We get so much feedback from friends or people who happened upon the show and they are like, ‘Wow, we never realized this,’ or ‘We always thought Kahnawa:ke was that,’ or ‘I never really thought about native people in that light.’ To tell the story of Mohawk Girls in a light and entertaining way, so that people can just enjoy the show. To show modern, vibrant Mohawk women, and Mohawk people, and have that depiction on television when people are so used to seeing them in a very heavy, kind of historical context for the difficulties in many of their communities, I think really that is what I am most proud of. I feel that we really contributed to the very important and timely conversation about our [Canadian] history and our present-day relationships with native communities. People have definitely heard and responded, and I am just so elated about that.

As a writer, looking back over your many years working on Mohawk Girls, where are you as a writer now?
It is so interesting. You know you learn and grow so much with each project. Tracey and I were recently working with our digital media people. We fell upon some old content from previous seasons and they did some amalgamation videos of fun moments from all of the seasons. It is so incredible to watch the progression and the journey.  Mohawk Girls was the first time that Tracey and I were at the helm. Not only was she directing, and I was the head writer, but we were showrunning, so we got to see our creative vision. We made a lot of mistakes. We always do. We always will. But, we learned so much.

I think one of the main things as a writer is to be confident and really go for it with what you want to say. Have faith in yourself and your ability to it, but at the same time surround yourself with great talent, and be really open to their ideas and their perspectives. Even though I have been writing for a long time and at the helm of this show, it has been an incredible, incredible learning experience and an opportunity for a huge amount of growth.

What about colonization and the stereotypes of Indigenous people have altered your lens since your involvement with Mohawk Girls?
Oh so much! I like to think that I am a conscientious person and an egalitarian. As a Jewish person, I and my people have experienced so much racism over the centuries as well, so I felt that I was so in tune with that and certainly with native people. And as a child, my mom’s best friend was from Kahnawa:ke so I had no notion of what it was beyond ‘they have different practices but we are all people’ and I thought I knew everything. But I have learned so much over this process.

We have this one storyline with Anna [Maika Harper]. People are telling her that McGill is a colonialist institution and she is being brainwashed and she, like me, was ‘really?’ It’s not that I didn’t believe but, I couldn’t even give you an example of what that meant if I tried. But researching and talking to Tracey, you see how ingrained it is in our way of thinking. So often you don’t know that you don’t know.

I am very, very sensitive to any jokes about any minority group, and I don’t remember what the comment was, but someone made a comment on set and I didn’t even react. A lot of people bristled, and I didn’t because I didn’t even realise that it could be offensive.  Afterwards, I felt so horrible that I hadn’t noticed. The key is to learn and hear and understand and be open to knowing that there is stuff that you don’t know. It has been a huge long process for me of constant growth. Every season, every time I am in Kahnawa:ke, every time I am talking to people, I was shocked with how much I didn’t know, even me, a member of another minority, so I am highly sensitive to it.

Cynthia and me on set in Kahnawa:ke in the summer of 2016.

Can you give us any hints about what is in store for our fabulous foursome this season?
I think and I hope fans are going to be really gratified with where our characters end up. We’ve for a long time known for at least two of them where we wanted to end their storylines and two we did not know. We did not know Zoe [Brittany LeBorgne] and we did not know Anna. With Zoe, there is a bit of a surprise in store, but I won’t tell you what. Bailey [Jenny Pudavick] has a real battle this season. I mean you know, she is with James [Jeffrey Wetsch]. She has tried it before. How is she going to make it work? It is a real battle. Anna, we had lots of different ideas of where we end her, but we are very happy. And, I think Caitlin [Heather White] is the most gratifying.

Any last messages for fans that you want to share?
You know, you can write something that you think says something important or that you want people to respond to, but if people don’t watch or get invested, and don’t care and don’t support the project then there is no show. But so much of what gets us through those very challenging times that productions like Mohawk Girls experience, is knowing people out there, both native and non-native, all sorts of people from across the country are invested and care about our girls, about the characters. I mean, they want to see what happens to them and they are learning and growing right along with them.

Tracey got this call recently from a Jewish guy who grew up in Montreal but was living in Toronto. And he had grown up thinking that Kahnawa:ke was this weird scary place that you just never go to but he just happened to catch an episode of Mohawk Girls. He then binge-watched the whole series and he called Tracey. He was in Kahnawa:ke. He came all the way from Toronto and brought his adult son and he was there for the weekend and he came to see the place and again, just build a bridge. He realized how wrong he was and how many misconceptions he had, and he wanted to open his eyes and see the place for real.

It is those kinds of stories or fans who are young women who are inspired by our characters’ bravery and relate to how flawed they are; this is really the whole joy and purpose of creating a series, telling any kind of story, and putting it out there. To touch people and to inspire people, make people feel that they are not alone. So for our fans who have been so vocal about it to us, we are just infinitely grateful for you sharing your stories and for all of your support and enthusiasm. This has been a really special experience.

My thanks to Cynthia for taking the time to speak with me.

Mohawk Girls season premiere airs Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. ET/CT/MT on APTN.




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