'Rappin' on the Reservation: Canadian Mohawk Youth's Hybrid Cultural Identities

by Robert Hollands
University of Newcastle

Sociological Research Online, Volume 9, Issue 3,

Received: 28 Apr 2004     Accepted: 20 Jul 2004    Published: 31 Aug 2004


This study of Canadian Mohawk youth examines the complex construction of hybrid identities, by looking at the interaction between their consumption of western media/ culture and local Native traditions and customs. The article poses the question, to what extent does western youth culture as expressed in TV, film, music and sport get taken up and moulded around a more contemporary Native youth identity? Utilising theoretical notions of hybridity and hegemony, and a mixed methodology of questionnaire data and focus group interviews, the study argues that young Mohawks actively consume global youth and popular media cultures strategically in ways that both reinforce and extend their Native and youthful identities. Particularly popular is the appropriation of a range of black cultural forms drawn from the Afro-American experience, such as the adoption of rap music for instance. At the same time, issues of power reflected through gender relations, inequality and racism, and the domination of American over Canadian culture, also impact on the formation of Mohawk youth identities and pose challenges to building bridges between traditional customs and the modern world.

Keywords: Canada; Culture; Hybridity; Identity; Leisure; Media; Mohawk; Native; Youth


1.1 The issue of identity in the modern globalised world has become a central concern in social analysis (Castells, 1997), and the case of First Nation peoples[1] in Canada is no exception. Unfortunately, the main focus of attention on many Canadian Aboriginal groups has often been skewed towards either legalistic arguments about land and rights, or in the direction of what might be called a 'social problem perspective' (Sutherland et al, 1992). As such, the question of Native identity in Canada has largely revolved around questions of citizenship or even nationhood, or has been restricted to the problems of 'culture assimilation', thereby ignoring important global, media-based and generational aspects of identity formation in the modern world (Nederveen Pieterse, 2001). This specific study of Canadian Mohawk youth examines the complex construction of hybrid identities, by looking at the interaction between their consumption of western media/ culture and local Native traditions and customs.

1.2 While an emphasis on Aboriginal social problems may draw attention to inequities and issues like racism, in terms of identity, it can also be turned towards a 'blame the victim' type of approach. Even well intentioned government reports outlining economic deprivation amongst First Nation peoples, however accurate, have a tendency to 'homogenize' the multitude of Aboriginal cultures in Canada, including Native groups experiencing very different life-words (i.e. Sigger, 1992; La Praire, 1994). Additionally, academic studies, which focus only on social problems, such as drug abuse, suicide and incarceration, can sometimes paint a very skewed portrait of Native life (see Gfellner, 1994and Jackson, 1988). Finally, while many reports mention the fact that the Native community is a very 'young' one, most studies do not look specifically at questions of identity from a generational point of view.

1.3 Ratner's (1996) study has highlighted the importance of identity for Canadian Aboriginal young people. He states that almost everyone interviewed in his study of Native youth living in downtown Vancouver, cited 'lack of identity' as one of the key factors affecting them. As one outreach worker aptly commented: 'They have no identity. They're not white - they're not Indian - they're nothing' (cited in Ratner, 1996:191). Motivated by this study, but also wanting to extend it, the main aim of this paper is to report on some original research on the cultural and leisure identities of Mohawk youth living on the Tyendinaga reservation in Southern Ontario, Canada. In particular, it specifically explores the role that cultural consumption of the media and participation in leisure/ sport activities play in creating a 'modern' Native identity.

1.4 As such, the article is fundamentally interested in the interaction between the popular media and traditional Native culture, and the implications this has for Mohawk youth identity. To what extent does western culture as expressed in TV, film, music and sport get taken up and molded around a more contemporary Native youth identity? How do young Mohawks see their traditional cultural practices in relation to this, and does their involvement in mainstream sports and leisure pursuits imply integration into Canadian society? In other words, is there a culture of conflict here or are First Nation Mohawk youth's actively constructing hybrid identities in an attempt to get 'the best of both worlds'?

The Context: Ethnicity, Culture and Hybridity in the Study of Native Canadian Youth

2.1 A central defining feature of Canada's social structure is its sheer ethnic diversity and variety of cultural traditions (Satzewich and Wong, 2003). Not only has this involved historical struggles between the countries indigenous native communities and later European settlers, but also conflicts between the Anglophone and Francophone populations (Richler, 1992) and the domination of much Canadian life by American culture (Crean, 1976). In this paper I use the incredibly complex term culture to refer to a dynamic and contested process of asserting a 'way of life' (Williams, 1977), involving the use of power and influence (attempts to assert a 'dominant culture'), as well as the creation of resistant minority cultures and more fragmented subcultures.

2.2 Unfortunately, theorising around identity, generation, culture and ethnicity simultaneously has been somewhat underdeveloped in Canada (although see Hollands, 2003; Dallaire, 2002 for two exceptions), and has led to some rather unhelpful thinking about Canadian youth culture in general. For example, work by Brake (1985) suggested that greater ethnic diversity in Canada has actually deterred the development of what he called an identifiable, rebellious, 'national' youth culture[2]. Furthermore, while he mentioned the potential for ethnic Canadian youth cultures to develop and challenge the status quo, Brake quickly went on to argue that many of their cultural forms were 'borrowed' rather than 'authentic'. For example, the use of hip-hop by black Canadian youth from Afro American culture, or the borrowing of punk style from England by white youth (also see Baron, 1989). For him, these forms are expressed only at a surface level - through the use of clothing or the consumption of particular commodities - rather than being substantively derived from indigenous or class-based experiences. The only significant ethnic youth cultural movement Brake mentioned in his work, was the Quebec student movement and ironically, he fails to include Canadian Aboriginal youth into his discussion at all.

2.3 Any analysis, which attempts to readily subsume ethnicity under the concept of class, is problematic when it comes to analyzing Canadian youth in all its diversity. First, it ignores how the concept of class itself has an ethnic dimension in Canada (Clement, 1988). It also fails to accept that although racism may be closely connected to economic structures, ethnic discrimination has other 'cultural' dimensions. Finally, it inadvertently contributes to the construction of ethnic youth in Canada as 'the other', caught not only in the middle of a confusing age transition but, also in a 'culture gap'. As such, there has been a tendency to visualize First Nation youth in Canada largely through a social problem perspective.

2.4 For instance, the vast majority of contemporary sociological studies of Aboriginal youth in Canada, have tended to focus around social problems and identity crises. Emphasis has been placed on lack of achievement in education and work, difficulties of assimilation, and problems relating to welfare dependency, crime, drugs use, abuse, and suicide (Sutherland et al, 1992; Fisher and Jenetti, 1996; Gfellner, 1994; Minore, Boone, Katt and Kinch, 1991). Far rarer are studies of institutional racism, cultural genocide or how economic change has destroyed traditional employment opportunities for the Aboriginal population (however, see Condon, 1987). Furthermore, this problem perspective is reinforced through government agencies and documents, not to mention sensationalized through the mass media. Far less attention has also been given to the formation of Aboriginal youth organisations and empowerment projects designed to develop 'traditional skills' (see Young-Ing, 1989; McKenzie and Morrissette, 1993).

2.5 The polarisation of studies of Native youth in Canada into an unhelpful dichotomy of 'authentic culture' versus 'societal assimilation' ignores diversity within such groups, as well as overlooks the spaces whereby youth cultural forms overlap[3]. It also overlooks the degree to which youth generally are actively engaged as 'co-producers' of their own lifestyles and sub-cultures in relation to the dominant commercial culture (Miles, 2000). Some theorists have responded to this problem by emphasising the notion of hybrid cultures. As Nederveen Pieterse (2001:221) suggests: '...hybridity denotes a wide register of multiple identity, crossover, pick-'n'-mix, boundary-crossing experiences and styles', reflecting increased migration, mobility and global multiculturalism. While the concept has been critiqued on a number of fronts, including what Nederveen Pieterse (2001) calls an 'anti-hybridity backlash', it has been usefully employed in the analysis of Francophone youth identities in Canada (see Dallaire, 2002). Dallaire's (2002) work reveals the active construction of both Francophone and Canadian identities amongst young participants in the Francophone Games in Canada, thus paralleling some of the main identity issues facing Canadian Mohawk youth here, and young ethnic groups elsewhere in the world (Sanchez-Tranquilino, 1992; Jones, 1988).

2.6 One corrective to the general argument about cross-over cultures might be that that hybridity, rather than being completely new, has simply proliferated and soaked into the social fabric of peoples' lives, particularly the young, with the increased globalisation of western youth and popular media culture (see Skelton and Valentine, 1998). Additionally, any analysis of youth culture based on the concept needs to ensure that it retains a continuing concern with power relations, cultural hegemony and the extent of corporate branding in consumer society (see Klein, 2000). While all young people are involved in the production of their own culture/ subculture, they do so within a wider field of power relations (Chatterton and Hollands, 2003). The simple point that not all cultural mixing takes place on a level playing field, and issues of patriarchy, capitalism and western hegemonic cultural practice need to be seriously considered in any analysis of hybrid identities.

2.7 In this way, it might be argued that undertaking research concerned with the interaction and circulation of commercial and ethnic youth cultures is a taking off point, rather than an obstacle for the future development of Canadian youth studies (Hollands, 2003). The research which follows attempts to do just this, by studying a specific group of First Nation youngsters - Mohawk youth living on the Tyendinaga reservation in Southern Ontario. First, the article provides some brief background and methodological details to the case study. Second it examines some empirical data on the social backgrounds, and hybrid cultural preferences and leisure activities engaged in by Mohawk youth. Lastly, the paper provides a brief analysis of the findings in light of some of the main theoretical issues raised here.

Background Details to the Study

3.1 Tyendinaga is a First Nation Mohawk territory located in South-east Ontario, Canada, on the shore of the Bay of Quinte.[4] It is bordered on the west by the city of Belleville, on the east by the towns of Deseronto and Napanee, south by Prince Edward County and the North by the 401, the main highway between Toronto and Montreal (see Map 1). The reserve is approximately 18,000 acres in size and contains around 2,500 residents. It has a variety of parks, a recreation complex, library, numerous historic churches, a community centre, a primary school, governing offices and even its own airport.

Map 1

3.2 Mohawks landed here over 200 years ago and they are considered the eastern-most tribe within the Iroquois/ Six Nation Confederacy. As a consequence of their alliance with Britain in the American Revolution, displaced Natives from the Mohawk River Valley, New York State, were promised land in Canada as compensation. Approximately one-hundred individuals, led by Captain John Deserontyon, the recognised leader of the Fort Hunter Mohawks, arrived on the shores of the Bay of Quinte on May 22nd, 1784 and ten years later a tract of land approximately 92,700 acres was granted to the Six Nations people by the Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada. Since this time, the territory has been reduced to about one-fifth of its original size by various land alienations and surrenders.

3.3 There is little historical information about Tyendinaga between these early beginnings and the present day. However, a number of trends can be pieced together from the general literature. One obvious set of changes has been a gradual colonisation and assimilation of Aboriginal culture in Canada. Colonisation, has been defined as 'an intentional, long-term process and has involved replacing the traditional, self-determinant lifestyle of indigenous people with a dependent and subordinate status' (Yerbury and Griffiths, 1991:321). Assimilation, which was a formal policy of the Canadian government, sought to 'civilise' Aboriginal people 'specifically by introducing new values and beliefs as well as new skills such as farming and homemaking' (Fisher and Janetti, 1996:241-2). Central to this aim was the creation of the residential school, whereby many children were separated from their families and forbidden to speak their language or engage in traditional customs or practices (Ing, 1991).

3.4 At the local level, these processes were evident in the following comments made by two Native Education Counselors working in the area:

Native Education Counselors 1: I think a lot of our cultural traditions have really suffered and, in the past, there's been a lot of trade-offs given up, of our culture...to take on slightly different values (...) There is a real concern amongst a lot of people now, that we need to re-establish ourselves with a lot of the traditional values.
Native Education Counselors 2: I can remember my mother and father saying that they never spoke Mohawk. And they understood it very well. And one of the reasons why, and what they told me, was when they went to school they got the strap for speaking Mohawk. Whether it be in the school itself or out in the playground. (...). So the parents decided rather than have their children punished at school they wouldn't speak Mohawk either (...) And consequently, the language got lost.

3.5 As indicated here, colonisation and assimilation were so complete, that Mohawks in the area were in danger of losing their culture altogether. Inter-marriages with the local population, and the movement of people off from the reservation, have also served to blur any clear sense of cultural identity. At the same time, this integration meant that in an area of 'relatively' good economic prospects, Tyendinaga Mohawks were more likely to benefit from better job opportunities than that of some of their other Aboriginal counterparts living elsewhere in Canada. However, Mohawks in the area have probably given up far more culturally, than they have gained economically.

3.6 Gradually, over the past thirty years or so, Native people in general, have begun the slow process of trying to regain their cultural identity in Canada. In Tyendinaga, this process has been aided by the opening of Quinte Mohawk Primary School in 1973-4, which included a Mohawk Language and a traditional Arts and Crafts Programme as part of its curriculum. The early 70s also saw a tri-party agreement, which produced the first full-time Native Education Counsellor at a local high school off the reservation (the one studied here) - the first in Canada (Brant, Lewis and Maracle, 1999:17). The high school also provides Mohawk language courses, Native Studies courses and a four credit 'Roots to Routes' Native studies environmental co-op programme.


4.1 A combined method, including a questionnaire and focus group interviews, was adopted to over-come both time constraints and geographical distance. The explicit purpose of utilising a questionnaire here was not to produce a representative and statistically significant sample which could be generalised to other native Canadian youths (which, as has already been argued earlier, is virtually impossible considering the sheer diversity of native groups in the country, different strengths of local traditions, effect of locality, etc), but rather, first, to collect a broad range of data on social background, identity and leisure/ cultural pursuits of a sample of young Mohawks in a specific locality (something which has not been done previously). Second, it was a quick and efficient way to survey a wider cross-section of this population (25% of the entire sample size), than was offered through focus groups. Third, questionnaire data provided a useful context for, and produced some valuable take-off points, for the more interpretative focus group interviews that followed on from it.

4.2 The research sample of Mohawk youth was drawn from a local high school located eight miles from the reservation. The school had 130 Mohawk students out of a total school population of around 850, with 105 living on the reservation. The questionnaire was distributed through a Mohawk language course by a Native Education Counsellor and students were told about the aim of the project and completed the questionnaire in class time. The counsellor estimated that it would be possible to survey around one-third of the total Mohawk population in the school in the time frame available. Of the thirty-five questionnaires distributed, thirty-one were returned. This represented around a quarter of all Mohawk students at the school.

4.3 An hour-long taped interview was conducted with two Native Education Counsellors to gain some background information on the school and the life-worlds of Mohawk students. An hour-long taped focus group session with 6 Mohawk students was set up approximately two weeks after the questionnaires were filled out, to follow-up and clarify some of the main findings. A further focus group of 6 youths was arranged a few weeks later under similar conditions. The material presented below combines the presentation of some of the questionnaire data, and supplements it with some of the more qualitative data generated through the focus groups.

Mohawk Youth Cultural Identities: Questionnaire and Focus Group Results

5.1 Information collected on age, gender, domestic situation and economic background provides an important context to understanding these specific Mohawk youth's everyday lives. The average age of those sampled was 15, but covered the entire range of age groups at the school (13-18), and represented a fairly even gender spread. In terms of their domestic situation, nearly nine out of 10 Mohawk youths lived in an owner-occupied residence, compared with a Canadian average of 63% owning their own home.[5] However, nearly two and half times as many Mohawk youths currently lived in a one-parent family (90% headed by a female), compared to the Canadian population as a whole. Although the vast majority of mothers were in employment in these female-run households, single-parent families generally are more likely to have lower incomes and experience a higher degree of poverty than two parent households.

5.2 Young Mohawk's economic position here is further illustrated by referring to data collected on parental occupations. Contrary to both general statistical information on unemployment rates for the Aboriginal population in Canada as a whole, parents of this sample where highly 'economical active' - albeit in certain occupational categories. Nearly 70% of both parents were economical active, compared to a Canadian average of 58.9% (60.2% in Ontario), with mothers being nearly as active as fathers. High levels of economic activity, like high home ownership rates, however, should not imply that these families are somehow 'well off'. While Mohawks on this reserve have obviously benefited from living in close proximity to a fairly robust local economy, they continue to be under-represented in high status occupational categories. For example, less than one in ten of parents were engaged in professional/ managerial/ technical occupations compared to almost 30% involved in these same occupations for the Canadian workforce as a whole. The vast majority of Native parents were engaged in manual/ factory work (around 40%), with 20% working in lower level service jobs. In summary then, while Mohawk families in this region may be better off than their Native counterparts in northern Canada, or those living in cities, youth here are more likely to be a member of a one-parent family, and have a higher percentage of parents working in lower paid manual and service work, than their non-Native counterparts.

5.3 Regarding the question of identity, as previously mentioned, much of the literature on Aboriginal youth in Canada has focused on social problems like suicide (Bobet, 1994), delinquency (Fisher and Jennetti, 1996), drug and sexual abuse (York, 1990) and unemployment. Even literature which has been fairly critical of how Canada has treated its Native people, emphasises how this may lead Aboriginal youth to have low levels of self-confidence and self-esteem (Martens, Daily and Hodgson, 1988). Some evidence of this negative and unfair treatment, particularly at high school, came out in the focus group discussions:

John (18): It just feels like they just (the school generally) centre us (First Nation students) out a lot more. It seemed they picked on you (...) The principals know that you are from the reserve, and it seems they pick on you more.

5.4 Yet, when asked to describe themselves in three words, an overwhelming majority of Mohawk youth used terms that were positive in orientation, with no real gender difference. The most popular expressions used were 'fun', 'smart', 'honest', 'friendly', 'outgoing' and 'cool'. A small number mentioned their traditional roots positively in this context, saying that they were 'involved in their culture, proud of whom I am'.

5.5 When asked to similarly describe Mohawk culture, again there was an overwhelmingly positive response. Mohawk youth were nine times as likely to describe their culture positively as negatively. Examples of positive comments were 'interesting', 'good traditions' and 'fun', followed by 'honourable', 'respectful', 'community oriented', 'important', 'bold' and 'caring'. A small number of comments referred to the culture as 'disappearing', while others used terms like 'old' and 'small' in negative ways.

5.6 This ambivalence surrounding a respect for their traditional culture on the one hand, and a recognition that it was disappearing or becoming less popular on the other, was reflected in one of the focus group discussions:

Mary (14): Personally I'd rather have my, our own culture, more traditional culture happen on the reserve, than we do. So we don't lose our traditions. And um, really more things...ah, such as...(...)

Cathy (16): Yea, but people can say all they want, but nobody will show up.

John (18): Yea, like I go to socials and there's about ten people there. No one is really interested in going. Yea like two singers and two dances and a bunch of people watching. Can't really have a good social life there.
Ann (14): The only good socials are down in the States. I was down there for the long house. That was a really nice setting I would have liked to have brought it back with me. I didn't want to leave (...) They acted like they knew me (...). Everybody treated you like family.

5.7 Perhaps surprisingly, the majority of Mohawk youth were also prone to describe Canada, as a country, in a positive light, although the positive/ negative ratio was not as high as for their own culture. Still, they were five times as likely to describe Canada in positive terms than negative, and it is clear that respect for their own culture did not mean that they thought negatively about the country they lived in. Positive words like 'beautiful', 'good place to live', 'fun' and 'clean' were used to describe the country, while examples of negative views were elicited were comments like 'expensive', 'boring', and 'polluted'. Two strong minority comments were that Canada was 'a joke' and a more serious allegation was that it was 'racist'.

5.8 This rather positive appraisal of both their own culture and the country they inhabit, perhaps helps to explain some of the ambivalence felt when they were force to choose how to best describe themselves - Mohawk first, Canadian first or Mohawk-Canadian equally. In fact, the sample was equally split between defining themselves as either Mohawk first, or Mohawk and Canadian equally. This identity split was represented in some sense in the focus group comments about the difficulty of distinguishing Native from non-Native kids at school:

Marc (15): On the reserve, our culture is pretty much the same as the rest of Canada. We just come from a different background.
Cathy (16): There's not really a big difference in terms of resemblance, so people can't just say you're a Native so I'm going to be mean to you. So there isn't a lot of discrimination anymore because of that.

5.9 Only one individual in the sample defined them-self as Canadian first. Perhaps part of the difficulty here is the existence of a more general identity crisis in Canada represented by its contrary French and English roots, not to mention a long history of immigration (Satzewich and Wong, 2003). When a young woman involved in the research was asked whether or not she felt Canadian, she responded:

Linda (16): I know what being Mohawk is, but I don't know what being Canadian is. It doesn't mean anything to me really.

5.10 Questionnaire data revealed that young men were more likely to see themselves as Mohawk first, while young women were more prone to define themselves as Mohawk and Canadian equally. However, when this finding was discussed qualitatively in the focus groups, it quickly became apparent that there were 'traditionalists', 'modernists' and 'in-betweeners' across both genders. This in itself, implies that Mohawk youth have at least a degree of choice in how they approach making their own culture. Traditionalists refer to those who were overtly proud of their Native heritage, modernists tended to view Native culture as 'old' and 'not for young people', while 'in-betweeners' held rather contradictory views. It was however, suggested in the discussion that the activities in which young men expressed their identity were perhaps more 'public' ones, especially in terms of being observed by the non-Native population performing activities like hunting and fishing/spearing, while female involvement in things like powwows and traditional dance and music, were more restricted to the 'private' realm of the reserve.

5.11 The tension between these identities - Native, Canadian, gender - were evident in how young people responded to a range of questions posed around cultural and leisure preferences. Identity was also complicated by the fact that many of the activities and popular cultural forms they consumed were in fact American in origin. For example, almost all of the Mohawk youth's favourite TV programmes watched were American in production and content, ranging from cartoons, prime time dramas, to soap operas. Not surprisingly perhaps, The Simpsons was by far and away the most popular programme, followed by comedies like The Drew Carey Show, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and the cartoon South Park. Other well-known prime time US shows like Friends, ER, Law and Order, and Dawson's Creek, were also listed more than once. Curiously, the only programmes mentioned with any Canadian content at all were Molson's Hockey Night in Canada and possibly South Park, which often maintains a humorous theme about the country.

5.12 American domination of Canadian television airwaves has a long history and, with minor exceptions involving the intervention of the Canadian Regulatory Television Commission (CRTC) concerning minimal Canadian content on some stations (primarily cable), these findings may come as little surprise. TV programmes involving Canadian Native characters and issues have been even more rare. With the exception of Canadian born Jay Silverheels, as the Lone Ranger's stoic sidekick Tonto, most depictions of Natives in 1950 and 60s U.S. westerns were as blood-thirsty savages needlessly attacking wagon-trains. More 'credible' Native characters began to emerge in the 1990s, notably in programmes like Northern Exposure and North of 60, yet neither of these programmes was mentioned as favourites.

5.13 In 1999 the launch of the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) occurred in Canada. While the APTN channel received the support of 85% of Native people in a survey before its launch, it immediately faced difficulties concerning programming and distribution (Brioux, 1999). However, less than one in ten of the sample of Mohawk youth here claimed to have watched the station. While one of the problems may have been access, nearly six out ten stated they did not watch it, presumably by choice. Despite the networks promise to provide a youth slot, in the focus group there were critical comments regarding the appropriateness of the content of APTN for young people:

Cathy (16): It wasn't very exciting and it was just people talking like this and like it was old people talking and you could hardly understand them. It didn't really teach us anything. It was worse than the news (...) There was nothing to keep your attention there (...) If they talked about more things that related to us now...like the interviewer was an old man talking about when he was a kid. It wasn't really a Native thing.

5.14 Unsurprisingly, it was the U.S. media again which dominated movie favourites amongst Mohawk youth. Hollywood films released at the time of interviews such as The Sixth Sense, The Matrix and Austin Power's The Spy Who Shagged Me dominated the list. Other favourites were American 'youth movie' imports such as Mall Rats, She's All That, American Pie, Ten Things I Hate About You, as well as numerous US sci-fi and horror films. While there were a few films mentioned that tentatively touched on Native themes, like Walt Disney's Pocahontas, Last of the Mohicians and the independent production Smoke Signals, in the focus groups Mohawk youth said that most were either a caricature of Aboriginal life, or had nothing to do with them. Even the film Smoke Signals, which focuses on a young Native boy, was described by Mike (aged 17) in the focus group, as 'a good film, but is nothing like growing up around here'. Two other films mentioned both in the questionnaire and in the focus groups, Belly and Black and White, might also be seen as relevant to Native issues in the sense that both raise similar issues of identity in relation to the Afro-American experience in the U.S.

5.15 Favourite movie stars paralleled young Mohawks' avid consumption of Hollywood films. While a huge number of actors were mentioned, most were established white stars like Bruce Wills, Drew Barrymore, Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock. Not surprisingly, young men had a tendency to mention female 'pinups' like Carma Electric and Heather Graham, male comedians like Chris Rock and Chris Tucker and action heroes like Jackie Chan and Jean Claude Van Dam, while young women also had a tendency to list 'heart throbs' like Ryan Philippe and James Van Der Beek. The one Canadian actor mentioned was Jim Carey, although he too is clearly a Hollywood star, largely undistinguished from his American counterparts.

5.16 The only Native actor mentioned amongst the favourites was Adam Beach (from films like Smoke Signals and Dance Me Outside). Again this lack of Native role models may not come as much as a surprise considering the paucity of Aboriginal people working in film and TV. Only one-third of the Mohawk youth sample could actually name a Native film star. The most known Native actor was the Six Nation born star Graham Greene (of Dances with Wolves fame), followed closely by Adam Beach and Tina Lousie Bomberry from the TV series North of 60.

5.17 In addition to TV and movies, music is also a highly significant aspect of youth cultural identity throughout all western societies (Frith, 1978). The most popular type of music preferred by Mohawk youth by far was rap music, chosen by nearly 60% of the sample. This was followed by 'alternative' music, pop, rock, dance, and metal. Only one in ten of the sample included traditional Native music amongst their favourites. Although, young men were twice as likely to include rap as one of their three choices as young women, it was still the joint top choice for the latter group. Dance music, for example 'techno' and 'house', were the exclusive preserve of young women.

5.18 It is perhaps unsurprising that rap is the favoured music form amongst Mohawk youth, particularly as their own cultural subordination parallels that of Afro-American youth in the U.S.A. (Foreman 2002). The favoured rapper, Dr. Dre, could be further categorised as a 'gangsta rapper'. The titles of his songs - for example, 'Bitch Niggas', 'Murder Inc', 'Bitches Ain't Shit', and 'Natural Born Killaz' - suggest lyrics steeped in the negative consequences of black oppression, but also reflect self-blame, violence and indeed misogyny. The popularity of such songs amongst male Native youth, is explicable through the lens of what hooks (1994) has called a 'subordinate masculinity', but perhaps more astounding, considering the portrayal of females in this music, is why gangsta rap is almost as equally popular amongst young Native women.

5.19 A host of Canadian singers and bands were mentioned by the general sample - amongst them, Celine Dion, Shania Twain, Our Lady Peace, Tragically Hip and Sara McLaughlin. The reference to a range of Canadian talent in the music field contrasts with the virtual absence of Canadian content on TV or in film. Yet, only two Native bands made it into the list of favourites - the Six Nation Women Singers and the Red Hawk Singers and traditional Native music came relatively far down the list of favourite types of music (7th most popular overall). Yet when asked specifically if they enjoyed this types of music nearly three-quarters answered in the affirmative. Somewhat surprisingly, considered the supposedly 'stronger' Mohawk identity held by young men, this positive evaluation was largely the result of the responses of young women.

5.20 It was suggested earlier that Mohawk identity might be expressed in different ways by young men than by women. There was evidence in the questionnaire data to suggest that traditional activities like hunting and fishing were participated in more by males than females, and were also more highly valued. Males were nearly five times as likely to say that they hunted than young women and they were also more likely to rank the importance of the activity to them higher. Fishing however was a much more popular activity with the entire sample, with young men again rating the importance of the activity in terms of their identity appreciably higher than that of women. The following 'fishing story', by one of the young men, demonstrates the importance of the activity not only to his identity as a Native, but also hints at how one might see it as an act of defiance against the white adult world of authority:

Marc (15): I was fishing up at Belleville once (off the reservation), I was fishing up at the bridges and stuff, and the cops came by and stopped me (...) And I was still fishing...I wasn't paying attention or nothing and they stopped me and they were hollering at me. Then I turned around and asked them what's wrong and they said you're illegally fishing, cos it's not the season for fishing now. And then I showed them my band card, and then they left and they didn't look too happy.

5.21 The most contentious traditional Native activity undertaken in the area by Mohawks is the annual pickerel spearing in April. While there is a long history of spearing fish on the Tyendinaga reserve, it was not until 1990 that the Supreme Court of Canada granted Natives 'new' rights to harvest fish anywhere and anytime, during the spawning season. As such, Mohawk Natives were allowed to venture off the reserve to spear in spawning grounds in the nearby towns, a development which initially angered many local non-Native residents. In the mid-nineties, up to a thousand people turned up in Springside Park in Napanee to witness the Native exercise their new rights and although there was little violence, there were clearly conflicts of interest over this activity. Local people's objections have centred largely on the issue of over-fishing and that Natives appear to have 'special' rights not enjoyed by the white population.

5.22 From the Mohawk point of view, they see the legislation as simply granting them the rights they have always had. Additionally, they point out that they practice time-honoured methods of conservation, including fertilising the eggs and returning them to the river. While some Natives admit that certain individuals may sometimes take more than they need the majority, it is argued, follow band regulations on numbers of fish caught. Furthermore, they also point out how both the commercial fish trade and numerous fishing derbies by the local white community have more of a damaging effect on fish stocks, than the exercise of their traditional rights. Finally, a number of comments echoed in the local paper, the Napanee Beaver, during the spearing season, suggest that the non-Native response might be fuelled more by racist attitudes, rather than any genuine concern for conservation.

5.23 What much of the debate over spearing ignores is how such a practice may be tied up with the issue of identity. As mentioned, the vast majority of young people sampled here fished, and the activity was rated highly in terms of how they saw themselves as Mohawks. A significant number involved in the focus groups mentioned that they had engaged at least once in the act of spearing and the topic generated a strong set of opinions, when I asked them why they thought the local population reacted negatively to the practice:

John (18): It's because they like to fish too and they don't think we should have any special rights. And that they should be able to fish the same way and not wait until opening day to get a pickerel.

Cathy (16): I don't really think it's all that. I think its what they hear on the news that somebody's got caught with two tons of fish.

John (18): Yes, but I don't, Native people on the reserve don't like to see some other band come in and take away tons of fish. We need fish too for our people.

5.24 If the fishing issue could be seen to both confirm traditional Native identities, not to mention produce an uneasy sense of conflict between them and the local non-Native population, one might think that their engagement in organised sports might serve to integrate them into the wider white society. Sports leagues in Canada occur generally through schools or through the local community. This sample appeared to be quite active in sport with just over 60% saying that they played in an organised league.

5.25 The most popular sports taken up were baseball (usually known as softball or fastball in Canada), followed by basketball (the latter usually a school sport). Young women were more likely to be involved in baseball and an equal number to boys played basketball. This was followed by volleyball (all female), ice hockey and Canadian football/ gridiron (all boys). Lacrosse, a traditional Native leisure activity and Canada's national sport, was played by only 3 youths.

5.26 In order to get a sense of integration between cultures, the questionnaire asked young people to indicate whether each sport they played was engaged in by Mohawk youth only, mixed, or mostly non-Mohawk. Less than one in ten played sports that were only made up of Mohawk youth only and these were limited to lacrosse and one all Mohawk baseball team. The vast majority of sports engaged in were relatively evenly mixed or were made up of mostly non-Mohawk youth. Part of the explanation for this pattern was that the majority of school sports teams they were involved with were either mixed or made up of mostly non-Native students. However, these statistics say little about integration and the acceptance of Mohawk youth by their white peers. Focus group discussions on this topic revealed a somewhat segregated situation, when Mohawk youth were asked if they were always accepted as equals:

Mary (14): Some do and some don't. It all depends on the way they treat you. Like they're not really going to accept someone they haven't known for all their lives, like they have they're friends. You're not accepted in the same way as everyone else.
John (18): I was playing hockey outside school. And where we played, there was a team in Deseronto, that's where we had to play because we didn't have a reserve team. There'd be about four or five from the reserve and the rest would be from Deseronto or Napanee. And I just found that we'd always stick together. Like we'd come into the dressing room together, all five of us together and sit on the same bench like beside one another. And during the practice we'd always be chitchatting with other people from the reserve. We'd talk to the other guys as well, but not as much. So it was kind of like a segregation thing, but not really like. We didn't hate each other, but we never talked as much.

5.27 Identification with certain sports is also clearly influenced by the media. The questionnaire revealed that the most popular televised sport by far was ice hockey - a Canadian institution, now heavily influenced by American consumerism (Gruneau and Whitson, 1993). This was followed closely by basketball, American football and American baseball and lacrosse, despite comments that it did not receive nearly enough television coverage.

5.28 When asked whether or not the sports they listed as a TV favourite had any Native players, nearly twice as many said they did not than those that said they did. With minor exceptions most sports watched were perceived as 'non-Native' in terms of participation. While basketball was particularly notable in having no Native players (at this time), its popularity might have to do with identification by Mohawk youth with the high number of Afro-Americans playing - in much the same way as they identified with rap music. Finally, there was no apparent link between young Mohawks participation rates in sport, the popularity of that sport on TV and the perceived presence of Native players in particular professional sports, hence questioning conventional wisdom that ethnic role models are always essential for increasing participation.

5.29 In sum, it is obvious that while there were certain interesting trends in the quantitative data, various contradictions and conflicts were abound in the more qualitative discussions. For instance, while Native Mohawk youth are largely positive about themselves, they appear to identity mostly with a type of music that focuses heavily on the negative and often violent consequences of oppression. Furthermore, while many youngster do not see a contradiction between being Mohawk and Canadian, the vast majority consume an imported western culture from the USA. And while they appear proud of their own culture, they often choose to prioritise the white dominated media, and pick non-Native celebrities and sports as their favourites. The conclusion discusses some of these paradoxes, and suggests some ways of rethinking the link between traditional Native identity and western popular culture.

Discussion/ Conclusion

6.1 Central to this paper's argument is the conundrum of how to square young Mohawk's active co-production of a hybrid and modern native youth culture out of a mixture of declining traditions and contemporary media products, within a wider context of cultural domination and hegemony. The crux of the matter here is the issue of how to begin to build 'cultural bridges' between ancestral knowledge and Native traditions, and young Mohawks' obvious interest in forms of westernised youth culture. The extreme end of the debate is reflected in the idea of Aboriginal youth being in a kind of 'cultural limbo'. Unsure of the relevance traditional Native culture could be put to, yet held back and discriminated against because of their ethnicity, young Natives' could be seen to fall into a kind of 'no (white) man's land'.

6.2 One response to this situation has been the creation of a number of initiatives and programmes designed to reintroduce young Aboriginal people back to their traditional culture. As Ratner (1996:192) explains, 'Many agency personnel now believe the focus must turn to strengthening Aboriginal heritage and identity (...), an approach that calls for new options aimed at the creation of a core Native identity.'

6.3 These initiatives include, amongst other things, role model programmes, rediscovery camps, healing circles, powwows, potlatches, sweatlodges, youth justice committees, Native education counsellors, setting up special Native learning and media centres and cultural/ language/ skill development. While some of these programmes have developed in relation to education and training and the media (i.e. APTN), many have been linked to numerous agency responses to issue like juvenile justice, drug and alcohol abuse and other social problems experienced by Native youth. For example, the Youth Support Program in Winnipeg whose aim is to '(...) reintroduce troubled Aboriginal youth to their ancestral culture as a means to heal them and give them a sense of identity(...)' (McKenzie and Morrisette, 1993: 117) . Additionally, with regard to more general programmes for Native youth, there have been initiatives like the role model programme set up in Kahnawake, Quebec designed to promote 'positive lifestyles' through use of Native role models (Fisher and Jenetti, 1996:249-50).

6.4 There is a strong argument in favour of the need to re-aquatint Native youth with its past traditions. Without knowledge of these traditional values, young people will be unable to begin to build bridges between the past and the present. There is evidence to suggest that Native youth who do gain such knowledge, develop higher self-esteem, increase their general competencies and are more capable of coping with the modern (urban) world (Henley, 1989; Ratner, 1996:194). At the same time, it might be suggested that, on their own, such approaches are going to be limited - in both appeal and scope.

6.5 For example, many of these programmes are aimed at a minority of 'troubled' Native youth, while the majority get ignored. Second, looking at the content of some of these programmes, it might be suggested that western culture is only talked about, if at all, primarily in terms of its destructive aspects. Popular culture, as a means of exploring modern identity, is virtually ignored. It is clear from this research that the majority of Native Mohawk youth have positively embraced many aspects of western youth culture (both Canadian and US), developing 'hybrid' identities. This concept might serve as a platform for exploring how they work to make sense of these cultural forms in light of their own culture (and vice-versa). For example, it was obvious from the comments made about APTN, that many young Mohawks seem to be suggesting that 'tradition', if it is too survive at all, has to be up-dated into contemporary forms.

6.6 The two extremes of the argument are perhaps too sharply drawn in the literature then. Either one attempts to resurrect an 'authentic' traditional ancestral culture, which very few Native youth appear to be interested in, or one adopts a rather pessimistic approach which argues that the younger generation have been effectively 'lost to' the seductive power of the western capitalist popular culture media machine. According to the perspective and data presented here, both would appear to be a little too overstated and deterministic. It has already been suggested that Mohawk youth's preference for certain black cultural forms in music and sport might be usefully paralleled with Afro-American struggles for identity (with all of its attendant problems, i.e. see hooks, 1994). Similarly, who is to say that Native youth cannot learn something about the contradictions of modern family values from a programme like The Simpsons? Their consumption of western youth cultural forms in the media shouldn't be viewed automatically as uncritical support for the status quo. Rather one might suggest that Mohawk youngster here use the media strategically in ways that both reinforce and extend their Native and youthful identities.

6.7 Mohawk youth in the area seem to be in need of more opportunities to learn about their history and traditions, by combining them with new media technologies, not to mention contrasting them with their own popular cultural preferences. There are some exemplary programmes already in existence in this regard. For example, the First Nation Technical Institute (FNTI) on the reservation currently runs an Aboriginal Media Program, where youth combine the development of modern technical media skills, with content which emphasises the language and history of the Mohawk nation. To quote from the co-ordinator, Monique Manatch, 'This project will help bring our youth back to their heritage and develop their life skills in a manner consistent with our Aboriginal culture'(source: e-mail communication).

6.8 This kind of work needs to be supported and even expanded. Yet some of the main obstacles in the development of a modern Aboriginal identity are not simply resource based, but have fundamentally to do with issues of power and hegemony. For instance, examples of blatant racism in neighbouring towns bordering the reserve clearly still exist, and there is a general disregard for what has happened to Native culture historically. Even more liberal notions about Natives having too many 'special rights' need to be challenged with reference to the historical context, basic economic facts, and a more appreciative understanding of the need to preserve what is left of Native culture and tradition. Finally, in terms of coping with the sheer domination of the US western media, Mohawk youth will need to develop and sharpen the skills needed to decode and appropriate what they can positively borrow and combine with their more traditional identities.

6.9 Native Mohawk youth will need the support and respect of their elders, their own community, and the local non-Native population in order for them to successfully re-invent themselves as a modern indigenous people. At the moment, the exact manner in which they will do this is unclear, as is expressed in this final quote:

John (18): It's really hard to say we miss our culture (...) Cos we lost a lot compared to other reserves eh? Like a lot of tradition, we don't have (...) You just get used to being where you are. So you learn to live with it. You don't really want nothing to change I guess. You want some things to change, but...I don't know.

6.10 Of course no one is able to say with absolute certainty, what is the right way forward and what the future will hold for these young people. The only thing that is clear is that there has to be a delicate balance between them maintaining a sense of who they are through tradition and custom, combined with opportunities to excel in and engage with the modern world.


1'First Nation' or 'Aboriginal' ('original') peoples is the preferred term used to refer generally to all 'Native' peoples of Canada (and hence all three are used inter-changeably here and captialised like Canadian). To distinguish between groups, I refer to the group or tribe by name (Mohawk, Inuit etc), rather than invoke terms like 'Native Indian'.

2 The notion that Canada lacks an identifiable a national youth culture (or cultures), is often derived from comparisons with England which appears on the surface at least to have developed a range of rebellious cultures such as punks, skinhead cultures, mods and rockers etc (see Brake, 1985).

3 One of the few attempts to address this issue with respect to Native youth, in an art form, can be found in the Bruce MacDonald film 'Dance Me Outside'.

4 All the background information/ facts and figures used in this section are from the Tynendinaga web-site (http://www.tynendinaga.net/history/index.html).

5 All Canadian statistics referred to here are from the Statistics Canada web-site in 1996 (1995 data).


I would like to thank the Canadian High Commission for funding this research, the work of the editorial team at Sociological Research On-Line and the insightful comments of three anonymous referees.


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