Years ago SAY Magazine’s founder and former publisher Leslie Lounsbury acknowledged prominent Indigenous-rights activist Kahentinetha Horn as a woman who had strongly influenced her life. Sadly, Leslie passed away last summer at the age of 68 after a long battle with cancer, before she had had the opportunity to interview Kahentinetha. In honour of Leslie and of other strong influential Indigenous female leaders, SAY felt it timely to explore and share fragments from the life of the renowned Kahentinetha Horn.
A member of the Mohawk Bear Clan from Kahnawake, Québec, Canada, Kahentinetha began her career in the limelight as an actress and model in the 60s, quickly becoming a recognized advocate for the rights of Indigenous peoples and bringing national attention to major issues such as Treaty rights and the control of land and resources. The matriarch of her family with four daughters, Kahentinetha has always stood up for women’s rights—affirming the significance of a life-giver’s role in community and family, and the importance of passing on traditions to the next generation.
“My mother was raised to consider the whole environment—everything that is alive—and this is all based on the Kaienerehkowa, what people refer to as ‘the great law of peace’,” said Kahentinetha’s youngest daughter, Kaniehtiio Horn. “My mother has said that the three things you need to exist as a nation of people is our language, land and culture, and that is what has influenced her life.”
Kahentinetha’s grandparents on both sides of her family did not speak English, so she grew up completely immersed in her culture and language. “My mom would listen to [her grandparents] talk and tell stories of the history of our people. This, I know, created her foundation as a young child,” said Kaniehtiio. “When she got older, her and other young people of Kahnawake would go and listen to members of the community debate and discuss many issues which helped form her critical thinking.”
In the 1960s and early 1970s, Kahentinetha became widely known for her public criticisms of anti-Indigenous racism and government policy regarding First Nations peoples, and for her advocacy of Indigenous independence. Since the 60s she has been involved in many Indigenous rights campaigns including the 1962 Conference on Indian Poverty in Washington D.C. and the blocking of the Seaway International Bridge in Cornwall, Ontario, in 1968.
By 1972 Kahentinetha’s firm political opinions, published as separatist views had appeared in the pages of high profile magazines, university news publications and via commercial television. From 1973 on she has held various positions in the social, community and educational development policy sections of the federal Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (now Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada).
Kahentinetha and daughters Kaniehtiio and Waneek Horn-Miller (co-captain of the Canadian women’s water polo team in the 2000 Sydney Olympics) are all survivors of the historic 1990 Oka Crisis. Waneek, who was only 14 years-old at the time, was stabbed in the chest by a soldier’s bayonet while she carried her then 4-year old sister Kaniehtiio—an image that flooded newspapers everywhere. The Oka Crisis was a 78-day standoff between the Kanienkehaka people and the town of Oka, Québec, over disputed land.
Speaking out has put Kahentinetha in harm’s way at times, but in the face of adversity she has always remained focussed. “She knew from the Kaianerehkowa that you have to fight until you win, not until you die,” said Kaniehtiio. Kahentinetha’s experiences have had an effect on her own life and how she raised her four daughters— she had to change the way she lived and now stays out of the public eye for her own safety. Despite any hardships, Kahentinetha raised four strong, independent and successful daughters and many grandchildren who are greatly inspired by her strength and vigour.
SAY was fortunate to continue this conversation with Kaniehtiio who hosts a podcast of stories told to her by her fierce 78-year-old mother Kahentinetha Horn.
Coffee With My Ma was launched in April 2018 by Kaniehtiio whose life has been largely influenced by her mother, pointing her in the direction of the entertainment industry as an actress, filmmaker, writer and director, and as the co-publisher of the joint family publication Mohawk Nation News .
As a young adult, it became clear to Kaniehtiio that the stories she grew up with were nothing short of fascinating and worthy of sharing with the rest of the world. More importantly, the podcast, which offers listeners an intimate seat at the table with Kahentinetha, provides an opportunity to set the record straight since many of the stories shared about Kahentinetha over the years have been rather damaging and one-sided.
“My mother’s been blacklisted, attacked in the news too many times to count, attacked by her own family members and physically attacked to the point where she even suffered a heart attack,” said Kaniehtiio.
“There were many other young people just like her who were very enthusiastic about the message of protecting our mother the earth and our way of life. But, for some reason, my mom says the press liked her because they could take nice photos of her, but then they didn’t like her when they realized she had a serious message,” said Kaniehtiio. “She became selected and then targeted.”
Kahentinetha has been in the press often for her activism and controversial opinions; however, there are many incredible stories of adventure and bravery that have yet to be heard. Coffee With My Ma celebrates those events and her warrior spirit, including captivating tales of Kahentinetha’s experiences in the entertainment industry, such as her encounters with the legendary Marlon Brando.
Keeping the tradition of story-telling and knowledge-sharing alive, Coffee With My Ma is a way to celebrate Elders. Kaniehtiio told CBC Radio that not only has the podcast been the ideal outlet to share stories about her mother, but it has filled a feeling of emptiness that she often experienced between acting jobs. Kaniehtiio feels a great sense of pride in her work and has found her voice through podcasting.
You’ll have to tune-in to find out more: www.stitcher.com/podcast/coffee-with-my-ma
Mohawk Nation News (MNN) is a daily online publication co-published by Kahentinetha Horn and daughter Kaniehtiio, dedicated to raising awareness about Mohawk people. It began during the 1990 Oka Crisis as a way to provide updates regarding the resistance. MNN has grown to be a recognized source for news and articles offering an independent Indigenous commentary on Kanion’ke:Haka/ Mohawk land, legal issues, culture, history and current issues.