Filmmaker Tracey Deer by Tara Michelle Ziniuk
Tiffany Deer is giggling uncontrollably. Her sister, filmmaker Tracey Deer, is holding the camera and laughing along. The laughter is contagious, the intimacy compelling. This is the opening sequence from Club Native, which, during its 78-minute running time, entertains viewers even as it educates and often challenges them.
Born and raised on the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory on south shore of the St. Lawrence River, Tracey Deer is a prolific documentary filmmaker. Club Native, her most recent full-length solo effort, was released in 2008 to film festival and television audiences. For ClubNative, Deer won a Gemini Award, becoming the first Mohawk filmmaker to do so. The film is what Deer calls “an exploration of modern native identity and belonging.” This belonging, she explains, is multidimensional and is about “belonging to [our] families and communities and about who decides that, who has the right to say who is a native person in Canada.”
The controversial practice of assigning identities has been going on for over 150 years, beginning with the 1876 Indian Act. As Deer’s film shows, it is a practice that continues to divides communities.
“Our community is being torn apart by it,” says Deer, who studied film at Dartmouth College and currently lives in Montreal. Club Native is a follow-up to Deer’s 2005 release Mohawk Girls, a film about native identity that focuses on young women coming of age in Kahnawake.
Mohawk Girls packed houses and created a buzz upon its release, and it became a segue for parents and teens to engage their children in conversations about identity. Club Native explores native identity from a different angle—the intersecting of native and non-native peoples and cultures. It follows two women in relationships with non-native men and offers a candid look at the pain and frustration suffered by many First Nations people as they struggle for the right to belong.
It also includes the stories of two women who have non-native fathers and are attempting to attain band membership. Club Native received the award for Best Documentary at the Dreamspeakers Festival in Edmonton and the award for Best Canadian Film at the First Peoples’ Festival.
Deer paired her subjects according to their experiences in the hope they would support each other through the filming process. The closeness Deer shares with each of them is evident—a life-long friend is among her subjects, as is Deer’s bubbly and adventurous sister. Former Olympic water polo player Waneek Horn-Miller is another participant. Another subject, Lauren, was 20 at the time of filming, while the fourth, Sandra, was in her 40s. Each woman’s story is told through narrative, anecdote and interview, and each tale is deeply personal.
“I felt like a mom for a good portion of it,” Deer explains. “[I was] worried that they were getting into something they didn’t understand the full scope of, and that they were getting into it because they trusted me. Eventually, I broke down in front of all of them and they said to get back to work, that they knew what they were doing and that I would make a damn good film.”
According to Deer, the native community’s response to Club Native has so far been more subdued than the response to Mohawk Girls. “I understand it’s a lot to take in, but no one is talking,” she explains.
Festival screenings for Club Native have been well attended and audiences have been responsive. With the documentary now screened on television and available on DVD, her hope is that if people have the opportunity to take the matter in from their own homes, it will feel safe and they’ll feel less pressure to form an opinion right away.
Instead of telling people what to think, 33-year-old Deer wants people be their own experts and tell their own stories.
“I grew up feeling invisible, feeling like I didn’t have a voice and feeling like I had absolutely no purpose,” she recalls. “Growing up as an Aboriginal person in Canada, you just feel like you don’t matter.”
Deer is confident in her role as a documentarian, noting that she makes films to create change. “I wanted make films since I was a child, though I wanted to blow things up—make Indiana Jones 5. Once I grew up, I started to see the power filmmaking could have. It gave me a voice all of a sudden and I no longer felt powerless.”
Deer’s upcoming projects include a documentary on the residential school system’s effects today, the intergenerational trauma that has occurred and the healing that is still needed. She’s also working on a project tentatively called Tribal Quest, which she describes as “throwing 15 Blackfoot into the past and having them live like their ancestors did without modern conveniences.”
Her commitment to discussing issues close to her home and heart is clear. “When I come home, I always wonder, what is my place here, and what is my role and responsibility as a Mohawk person? I think it’s really important that we all contribute to the betterment of our communities, and filmmaking is what I know how to do.
“I try to raise questions with my films about things I think we should be thinking very actively about. I think people get so caught up in just living the day-today—work, bills, dinner—that we’re not spending enough time thinking about these bigger issues and how to solve them together as a community. I hope that my films zero in on some things and get people feeling and thinking.”
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