These in-their-own-words pieces are told to Patricia Lane and co-edited with input from the interviewee for the purpose of brevity.
For Serena Mendizabal, defending her Haudenosaunee culture and land are one and the same.
This 24-year-old Wolf Clan member of the Cayuga Nation in Six Nations is ensuring any development on the area known as the Haldimand Tract, comprising six miles on each side of the Grand River, occurs only with the consent of Haudenosaunee chiefs and clan mothers.
Tell us about your project.
Before the creation of so-called Canada, my people lived on both sides of what is now the U.S.-Canada border. After the Haudenosaunee allied with the British during the American Revolution, American forces retaliated by burning our homes and villages to the ground. In exchange for our support, the British Crown agreed we would have exclusive rights through the Haldimand Tract to part of our traditional lands we call the Beaver Hunting Territory.
While we have been on the Grand River, colonial governments have not enforced this agreement against development and extractive industry, and as a result, only five per cent of the original agreed-upon area remains. We need to preserve what remains because our culture, governance systems and identities are inextricably linked to our lands and waters.
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There have been repeated attempts to encroach upon even the remaining land. My people have put our bodies on the line during occupations as recently as 2019. The resulting police and settler violence means our people have paid too high a price for these defensive measures. I am part of a group within the community that will protect our land with those measures if necessary but who are also trying other strategies through a Haudenosaunee-led project: Protect the Tract.
We are building awareness with our community and surrounding settler communities. We attend events, go into schools and universities, provide education at farmers' markets, offer opportunities to be allies, talk to the media and hold different forums of public education, such as podcasts, books and speaking events. Our focus is community engagement, public education, research and policy development and community partnerships along the Haldimand Tract.
At the same time, we are building our people’s confidence in the traditional ways of governance, culture, and interacting with the land and waters and health so they experience life with care, support and culture. Our people were harmed by residential schools and other colonial incursions. Now we are consciously strengthening our traditional systems and ways of knowing so our people can live in a way of being together.
We hold hide tanning workshops on the land, host fish camps, learn from elders teaching traditional harvest and stewardship techniques, engage youth in Haudenosaunee raised beadwork, sew regalia, publish children’s books and hold inclusive gatherings. In 2022, thousands of people came to a three-day “Wampum Gathering” to better understand the treaties we live under and assess whether they are being respected.
Once people see they have a voice, our support grows. Our intention is to unite our people behind a shared confidence in our traditional governance to allow us to speak with one voice informed by our Haudenosaunee ways of knowing.
This is of crucial importance for the settler communities around us to understand for many reasons, but one of the most obvious is the impacts of climate change. Flooding, excessive heat and soil degradation are worrying to everyone. If we are able to protect our land and waters through our traditional governance, everyone will benefit.
What makes your work hard?
Racism and intolerance are real and people question our integrity. There is never enough money to make fast enough progress, and too much money is constrained by colonial granting processes and Canada Revenue Agency regulations.
What gives you hope?
Seeing the sparks light in the eyes of young people learning our traditional ways of knowing, and understanding what a revolutionary act it is to practise our culture. We are still here and we are getting stronger every day. This is good for everyone.
What is your dream?
To truly live by the Two Row Wampum, an agreement made by the Mohawk and Dutch that saw a future for our two societies co-existing but not interfering. We are working to get back to that.
How did the way you were raised shape your path?
My mom left the territory and met my dad, who was an immigrant from Panama, in a homeless shelter. They decided the best gift they could give me and my siblings was to bring us home to her people. I grew up knowing my kin and learning my history. My family, like all of us, was damaged by colonialism, but being raised to know who I am and where I belong gave me the seeds to thrive. I want to make sure the next generations which we call “the coming faces” also know this. If you do, you can heal.
What advice would you give other young people?
Last summer, an elder told me, “Your passion is a gift.” Find and nourish your gifts and find a community that will support you to honour your gift.
What about older readers?
It all comes down to listening. Support young people to nourish their gifts and respect their ways of knowing.