Two Row Wampum and Reconciliation

The discussion on the Two Row Wampum a treaty between the the Mohawk and Dutch was one of the highlights of last Thursdays events. It began with a few words from moderator Ellen Gabriel who talked about the importance of Mohawk treaty rights and how the government could learn from the the Mohawk about good governance. Tom Porter a Mohawk teacher from Kahnawake who brought some of his students to the TRC opened with a greeting in the traditional language. “The Reason we do this greeting is so that you can hear and see things clearly, that you can have an open mind about the discussion.”

In her discription of the the Two Row wampum Gabriel spoke of how the rivers never crossed, I sign of respect that neither culture would disturb the other as was written. She talked about when the British arrived in upstate New York they made treaties with Mohawk. “This is about peaceful coexistance the original peace treaty with one of the original democracies” Gabriel then went on to introduce John Cree a Mohawk Elder from the Bear clan of Kanesatake. who started by talking about the creation of the two row wampum.

It brought us the great laws that were very easy to follow but now not so much and when the Dutch came we made sure that we would respect each others culture” Cree went to add that the the land belong to the women of the community, that like women the land provided for the people. The next panelist introduced by Ellen Gabriel was Tom Porter a chief of the Bear clan in Kahnawake. Tom echoed the words of Gabriel and Cree. “Before the whites arrived, we had a system of government, we had a set of laws and unlike the ancient Greeks our women were equal and we didn’t have slaves.

He quickly moved to the subject of the residential schools, native children suffered severe abuse at the hands of the church’s who ran them. “We were told that we had to change our names to christian ones” He spoke of the schools in the United States, Australia and New Zealand where similar abuses happened. “We have a duty to share the stories of the residential schools with younger generations to insure that we learn and understand why it happened? We to insure that we teach the culture, songs and stories so that we can maintain who we are” Tom’s message was that of pride, pride in who we are as so that we can undo the damage to our communities and our culture. He referred to his students sitting in the front row that they had their names and spoke their languages and that they were now teaching the older ones that knowledge.

The final panelist was Skawennati Fragnito who talked about why she had been invited to speak about she had been born in exile. “I have a Mohawk mother and a white father and two Mohawk grandparents but I am not on the registry in my community because my mother married my father” She compared the Indian act to one of the omnibus bills currently passing through parlinement, she talked about how native women lost their right by marrying white men while native men did not have that problem.

And that was how it was designed to work, a forced assimilation for the women who married outside their race lost their voices within their communities. It was a very effective piece of legislation. “Who we were came through the women in the community, the children lost their rights as well. It split up families and caused a lot of pain” In 1985 the Indian act was ammended to include those who were originally with rights got them back. Unfortunately the damage was already done because a lot of those children were not welcomed back into the community because of their white liniage. “I don’t want to be called a survivor, I don’t want to be a victim I want us to thrive. We had a strong culture in the great law of peace, we are sharing this land and we have break that cycle of father and son.”

She concluded by saying that we all have to come together in order to thrive. Ellen finished with speaking about the children and how of all the subjects spoken very little is said about the two spirited people that the LGBT community needs to be recognized as well. That the band councils were just an extension of the government, that we needed to acknowledge the societal problems facing the people in our communities and urban areas.

Irkar W Beljaars

 mohawk_voice (Twitter)

Marching for Missing and murdered Native women by Irkar Beljaars

February the 14th has become synonymous with missing and murdered Native women, marches and vigils take place all across the country and like the sisters in spirit which takes place on October 4th, questions still remain. The most common question that I hear as both a journalist and an activist is why? Why is this happening? Ellen Gabriel the former president of the Quebec Native Women Association has said that violence against Native women is directly linked to colonialism, when she spoke at this years march in Montreal. “It isn’t just 500 women, 600 women, 800 women it’s millions! Since the time of contact, it’s been about economics, a land grab and the best way to destroy a nation, a nation who lived sustainably on mother earth was to attack the women.”

Gabriel went on to mention the report from Human Rights Watch detailing the abuse by the RCMP. HRW had spent a decade talking with Native women and girls about violence against Native women and how the RCMP had failed them but also that they were victims of police brutality, over policing and sexual abuse. This report is clearly another black eye for the national police force who is still reeling from the sexual abuse scandal involving female RCMP officers which came to light in 2011. Gabriel asked the question “Who are we supposed to go to?” when referring to the to RCMP.

Prime Minster Stephen Harper had this to say when asked in the House, “If Human Rights Watch, the Liberal party or anyone else is aware of serious allegations involving criminal activity, they should give that information to the appropriate police so that they can investigate it” It’s this quote by the PM that has many asking why should cops be investigating cops? HRW has since fired back at Harper for telling abused Native women to “Get on with it” which begs the question, how do you tell a police officer that another officer raped her? In my opinion that would be like asking the Klu Klux Klan to take a survey to see if any of their members are racists. I mean seriously, how are police officers supposed to remain unbiased?

Many of the speakers believe that a national inquiry is the only way to get answers and some measure of peace for the families who lost loved ones. But there is also a need for a national civilian body to investigate police misconduct claims says Gladys Radek the founder for Walk4Justice based out of Vancouver. Radek who spoke at the march talked about how she had been raped three times by police officers and how she had lost her niece Tamara Chipman who disappeared along the Highway of Tears in northern British Columbia in 2005. Radek had taken my film partner and I to the site where the Pickton farm had been just last year.

Bridget Tolley, who founded the Sisters in Spirit back in 2005-06 and helped found the Families of the Sisters in Spirit just over two years ago after the Harper government cut funding to the sisters in spirit. Tolley of Kitigan Zibi, QC, lost her mother Gladys Tolley when she was struck and killed by a Sûreté du Québec cruiser in 2001. Bridget is afraid that she may never see justice but hopes her work will prevent others from going through what she has. “ We are going to continue to fight for the families, we are going to fight until Stephen Harper does something about this issue because we are not going anywhere!”

Though many marchers demand that the Harper government do something to address the growing violence against Native women many believe that will only happen if there is a change in government which brings us to the question, will the NDP or the Liberals do anything if and when they get into power? Bridget Tolley mentioned Evidence to Action, the group that replaced the Sisters in Spirit, what I want to know is why was evidence to action even needed when the Native Woman’s Association of Canada had an already established data base ready to be used to solve cases?

Over the last 7 years that I have been a part of this, there has been one underlying message, my sister, mom, grandmother, niece or auntie has disappeared. The police haven’t done anything and now the trail has gone cold. It is a common message and the grief is common too for all family members want is justice but it continues to allude them. One thing that hasn’t stayed common is the faces of the 1000’s that march, there increasing in number. Native and non Native alike, women and men, their voices saying enough is enough. One of the many things I took from that march was something Gladys said, that for every woman that goes missing child loses their mother and a mother loses their child. Something to think about, for whatever happens, it is clear that those 1000’s that marched on February 14th is that this issue is not going away and the people are far from IdleNoMore!

Irkar Beljaars

mohawk_voice (Twitter)

Aboriginal AIDS Awareness Week!

Breaking Down Stereotypes and Raising Awareness


The Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, in partnership with the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network, presented their aboriginal awareness week event last week in Montreal on December 2nd. Emcee’d by Harvey Michel, it brought First Nations together to help support change in aboriginal communities in regards to AIDS. Unfortunately, AIDS is still a four letter word in most First Nations communities. Nakuset, the Executive Director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, spoke about how little is being done for aboriginal women in regards to AIDS in Montreal, and how important it was to have this particular event to draw attention to the lack of services native women receive in this city.


Naturally, change starts with attitude towards a disease that is seriously on the rise in First Nations communities. Aboriginal people in Canada continue to be over-represented in HIV/ AIDS epidemics. The 2010 EPI Update from the Public Health Agency of Canada reports that 4,000 to 6,100 First Nations, Inuit and Metis are living with HIV, including AIDS.


The theme for Aboriginal AIDS Awareness week this year was a focus on community. National Chief Sean A-in-chut Atleo commented on the role we all have to play in responding to HIV/AIDS. “Everyone has a part in creating change. The fact that you are gathered here today demonstrates your commitment to addressing how HIV and AIDS are unfolding in First Nations, Inuit and Metis communities. You are leaders in your own right.”


Many of the speakers on Friday shared a common message: the situation is getting very, very serious, especially for Aboriginal women. Part of the message was defeating the myth of AIDS as just a gay disease. A big issue of the spread of AIDS is drugs, and how rampant drugs have become in our communities. Also part of the message was the need to get beyond condoms and work on self-healing. The rise in AIDS can be linked back to residential schools, due to the lack of sexual education and the fracturing of the family structures that happened on many First Nations reserves. There are also links to Native youth depression and self-esteem, which have been a factor in the increase of AIDS. Fiona Cook of the Native Women’s Association of Canada had this to add:
“People are scared in the communities[…] there was better work 25 years ago than there is today, which increases the importance of friendship centres. Old myths die hard”! Cook went on to talk about the need for resources and proper investment in First Nations communities. “We cannot combat AIDS if we don’t have the resources.”


One of the most powerful presentations of the morning was from Visioning Health: Arts and Positive Aboriginal Women (PAW). Doris Peltier talked about her battle with sexual assault and how she became an activist:


“The essence of who we are is beautiful.” Peltier went on to speak about the display of HIV Positive Aboriginal Women’s artwork from all across Canada, proving that being Positive isn’t a death sentence. There is life after becoming Positive.


Former Liberal MP Marlene Jennings talked about the importance and much-needed work in both Native and non-Native communities to combat AIDS, and like Chief Atleo, Minister of Health Leona Aglukkaq sent a message talking about how pleased she was to mark the 23rd World AIDS Day and the start of Aborignal AIDS Awareness Week in Canada:


“The Government of Canada recognizes that Aboriginal people are over-represented in the HIV/ AIDS epidemic. We are committed to keep working with aboriginal communities to reduce the spread of HIV while providing care and support for those living with and affected by HIV and AIDS.” The government of Canada this year alone has invested more than $72 million in programs, research, surveillance, and a greater awareness under the Federal initiative to address HIV/AIDS in Canada. But when it comes down to it, it’s all about attitude. Attitude towards people with HIV/AIDS and the fear that people still have of people living with these diseases.


I recently saw a story on CNN about a non-Native teenager being denied admission to a prep school because of his HIV status. The prep school’s position seemed to be the archaic 1980s point of view about the disease. One of the fears the prep school mentioned was the fear that this child would become sexually active, which was the basis for their denial of an honour student who just wanted to go to a good school.


Now, the fact that a non-Native prep school for well-to-do families can still use archaic stereotypes to deny an honour student the right to a good education goes to show that the fear of HIV/ AIDS crosses class lines and culture lines: it can be a community in Canada or it can be a community in the Midwestern United States. These stereotypes are what Aboriginal AIDS Awareness Week are trying to eliminate.


In the end, we should be embracing people with HIV/ AIDS and not discriminate against them, and hopefully initiatives like AAAW will help to do that.


You can listen to Irkar Beljaars on Native Solidarity News every Tuesday at 6pm on CKUT (90.3 FM) and @Mohawk_Voice (Twitter).


THE Indigenous media arts festival!


The 12th annual ImagineNative film and media arts festival took place from October 19-23 with great fanfare. The festival, which promotes the latest indigenous films, videos, radio and new media began in 1998 and has become one of the most important indigenous festivals in the world. It has provided a much needed platform for the sharing of indigenous works and connecting them with buyers and industry execs. ImagineNative, also known as the centre for aboriginal media, continues to grow and reflect the needs and beauty of our culture. The organizers are determined to eliminate stereotypical views of indigenous peoples through indigenous cultural expression.

ImagineNative itself got started on Wednesday the 19th with an opening gathering presented by the Thunderbird centre. There was the traditional opening prayer followed by a meet-and-greet before heading off to the TIFF Bell Lightbox to see the screening of “On the Ice” by director Andrew Okpeaha MacLean which was followed by an opening night party featuring a performance by A Tribe Called Red. There were many other events, including an artist talk and reception event with Jason Edward Lewis on the Thursday night and a curator talk and reception with Cheryl L’Hirondelle on the Friday.

One of the major events was on the Friday, “A discussion with Buffy Sainte Marie,” presented by the CBC and hosted by Wab Kinew. The Cree singer-songwriter, musician, composer, visual artist, educator, pacifist, and social activist took the audience on a tour of her life, beginning with her ground-breaking musical career, her love of teaching, the cradle board project and her many other projects. Buffy also put on an electrifying performance at the Phoenix concert theatre the following Saturday night. Sean Conway and Lena Recollet opened for the icon, and both acts warmed up the crowd considerably before Buffy came in and blew the roof off. Songs included Big Wheel Spin and Spin, Universal Soldier, Up Where We Belong, Cho Cho Fire and No No Keshagesh, both from her recent album.

Executive Director Jason Ryle had this to say about this year’s festival. “I’m happy beyond words with this year’s imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival. It was our largest Festival ever and I’m so touched by the level of community support. Feedback for our programming and new venue has been immensely positive and I thank everyone for coming out and making this the most successful imagineNATIVE to date.”

As mentioned before, ImagineNative is a film festival and there was no shortage of great films. I was amazed with the level of talent that played on the screen day after day. Here is a sampling of some of them.

“The Creator’s Game”

This documentary provided an in-depth look at the issue of the Iroquois Nationals being refused entry to the 2010 lacrosse world championship in England due to the lack of recognition given to their passports by the UK government. The film was made by Candace Maracle, a member of their nation and community, for a Masters’ thesis. Not only does the film follow the team members, but it also tracks lacrosse stick making and the team’s successful journey to the world Championships in Prague, 2011, where they came 2nd to team Canada. Hearing the use of one of their nation’s traditional songs in place of an American or Canadian national anthem before the team played against Canada was one of the most stirring moments of the film, and represented their struggle for sovereignty that continues to this day.

“International spotlight on the Khoi San III”

These shorts out of South Africa told some fictional, some real-life stories of contemporary Khoi-San communities affected not just by colonization, but by the erasure of their culture from being categorized as black South Africans and a collective loss of culture as a result. The Khoi-San struggle to find their identity while figuring out how to use what they have left of their heritage going forward in post-apartheid South Africa.

“The Uprooted”

Tales from the 1895 Maori forests to modern-day Urban hip hop and its role in the lives of youth play out in this profound collection of shorts. The first film, “OK Breathe Auralee ,”  explored the issue of knowing – or not knowing – where you come from in order to know where to go with your future. Other shorts dealt with themes such as rejecting daily attempts at being defined by your skin colour, to rediscovering your identity in tragedy. All of these shorts spoke to the struggles of identity and self-discovery.

“Bran Nue Dae”

“Bran Nue Dae” is a fabulous romp through 1969 Australia, from Perth to Broome. Combining the priesthood, a road trip, a VW van, bar fights, lots of mistaken identity and musical numbers, this feature-length, irreverent film follows one young man’s journey to find home, love, and acceptance… Oh, and his real dad.

“The Tall Man”

The Story of Palm Island, a paradise with a dark history.  It is the story of an Aborigine man who insults a police officer and is arrested, only to die 45 minutes later under suspect circumstances. This tragic story about racism and hypocrisy within the Queensland police force proves that justice is still very hard to come by in this day and age. “The Tall Man” was preceded by a short documentary called “WoodCarver,” about John Williams, a Totem Carver who was murdered by a Seattle Police officer in the middle of a public street. Bear Witness, the filmmaker, made the short as a comment about the casual brutality of it all and how life went on without anyone saying or doing much of anything about such a horrendous incident. Bear Witness is also a co-founder of A Tribe Called Red.

“Saving Grace”

“Saving Grace,” by the late Merata Mita, tells the story of Maori men in New Zealand; husbands, fathers and brothers who have battled violence in their lives. The story spans the different nations of the Maori men who learn to look within themselves and their culture to battle their inner demons and free themselves of the violence that has plagued their lives. This is a truly beautiful film with stunning scenery and powerful stories that I believe anyone who has anger issues should see. Mita truly created a beautiful work of art.

“Every Emotion Costs”

A feature-length film about two sisters returning to the Rez after the death of their mentally unstable mother. They are reunited with their younger sister, supportive Auntie, violent father, old friends, love interests, and community at large. Their homecoming makes the girls confront their tumultuous shared path and the things they have done to hurt each other as they sought to escape the shadow of an abusive household. The film offered an at times wrenching glimpse into the fallout caused by unstable families, and the tragic choices many have to make in order to carry on with their lives, at the expense of their families and community.

The 12th annual ImagineNative came to an end with the closing awards ceremony. The host for the second year in a row was the flamboyant Billy Merasty, who proved that you can be a star and still be down to earth. The awards show brought the who’s who of the aboriginal arts scene, including Tantoo Cardinal and Alanis Obomsawin, just to name a few. Seeing the performances this past week, I can assure you that the already excellent ImagineNative is only going to get better!

Irkar Beljaars can be heard on Native Solidarity News every Tuesday starting at 6pm on 90.3fm or

Mohawk_Voice (Twitter)


Native sons!

Family and community -– that’s what the Cree band CerAmony is all about, and it has become their mantra in their personal and professional lives.

Matthew A. Iserhoff and Pakesso Mukash took different roads to get where they are today. Iserhoff picked up music at a very early age (three years old), while Mukash learned through his spirituality how to keep himself grounded. Both men can boast a strong and healthy family life, which is why they feel they are successful.

On a cold rainy November 10, the brothers-in-law and Juno award winners performed at the Théâtre Plaza in Montreal and managed to attract 150 people. “We were stoked that it was our first official featured performance in Montreal. The crowd was rocking and on board from start to finish. We thank all those who attended,” said Iserhoff.

And the loyal fan base just keeps growing: there isn’t a Cree youth up north who hasn’t heard of CerAmony. The album was 10 years in the making and was originally released independently, but thanks to a deal with Disques BG who are distributed by Universal World things are growing for the band.

“All those years of work are finally coming together at the right time, so it’s very exciting. What’s important is that it is a realization of this family, we managed to pull together some great guys and now have a full band and have folks from up north coming down to hang with us. It’s pretty awesome!” said Iserhoff

CerAmony has been slowly creating a following in all nine communities up north. They recently played a concert in Nemaska to a rousing crowd, but what was more meaningful was how they were received. And that’s what brings the most joy to the band – seeing the smiles on the faces of their communities.

The album itself is filled with music from different genres. One song, You Belong Down Here With Us, is essentially a conversation with God but not in the conventional sense. “It’s wanting to know what God, Creator, Jesus thinks about what has been going in the world, ” said Mukash. The song addresses the connection the bandmates have to their own spirituality and the importance of keeping that close to their hearts.

If You Belong Down Here With Us is about spirituality, then Last Great Men is the honour song for those who have gone before. It reminds us all about where we came from, that the Elders’ teachings are still relevant, and that our youth need to keep that in mind wherever they go in life. The song has particular relevance in some Cree communities where the traditional way of life is being eroded either by the Paix des Braves or the upcoming Plan Nord.

“Everyone should have open concerns about it, be they First Nations or Québécois. There are so many cultures that are in danger of losing their culture – the Innu, Cree and Inuit just to name a few. The root of the issue is the land and there are so many great voices who need to be heard if Plan Nord is going to happen responsibly,” said Mukash

Iserhoff and Mukash are concerned about the Plan Nord because of the ramifications it has to the traditional way of life for all First Nations. For example, is it going to protect the herds of caribou? “They’re going to put 150,000 people up there in six years. What is that going to do to our traditions? That’s what Last Great Men is all about.

“It’s all about hanging onto who we are! As mentioned this album covers many genres, like reggae, and an ode to the 1980s pop hair bands. The album was written for Bell Centre fans because that’s where our heart is,” said Iserhoff

The goal for the album was to bring people together, and it has. I’m reminded of the old Cree saying, a family doesn’t just raise a child a community does and that’s what Iserhoff and Mukash hope to achieve with this album. They want to bring folks together, like Kashtin and Buffy Sainte-Marie did.

“Simon and Garfunkel and Guns N’ Roses inspired us on this album, why be stuck in just one genre?” asked Mukash.

To them, music is just another business and they want to be more meat and potatoes, with a little dessert. Thankfully they went through the right avenues and now the album is in stores and on iTunes. And that’s important for the youth up north who look up to bands like CerAmony and see that success can happen if you work hard.

“If you have a passion for what you do and you work hard, you can accomplish anything,” said Iserhoff.

For Iserhoff and Mukash, the most important thing is that they represent their communities with honour and respect which means living a clean and healthy lifestyle and leading by example.

Irkar Beljaars can be heard on Native Solidarity News every Tuesday starting at 6pm on 90.3fm or

Mohawk_Voice (Twitter)