Diane Peters

Voice of a Nation

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Pained by media coverage of Oka, Mohawk Kenneth Deer launched his own paper. Someone had to tell the truth

Heading south from Montreal, the slick and stylish downtown core gives way to a swirl of highway and then to the Mercier Bridge. It’s a long, concrete, well-trafficked link from the island of Montreal to the south shore of the St. Lawrence. The bridge passes over the river, a strip of land, then the deep blue of the artificial canal. On the right sits a village of small clapboard houses, a visual contrast to the texture and size of the city, not to mention a cultural one. The village is a reserve called Kahnawake. Historians know it as the oldest Mohawk territory in Canada. Journalists have characterized it as one of the most militaristic reserves in the country. Most people know it as a community of Mohawk Warriors who blockaded the Mercier Bridge during the summer of 1990 in support of the protest against the expansion of a golf course onto native land in nearby Oka.

On Highway 207, the road that leads into Kahnawake, there is a dark red shack with an arrete sign out front. A concrete barrier beside the shed and a Warrior Society flag painted on the wall, red with a traditionally garbed Mohawk against a large, yellow sun, are the only reminders that this was once a checkpoint to keep police out and control who came in.

Through the unnamed streets of the village, into the physical centre of the community, in a garage beside an unnumbered house, is the office of a small native newspaper. The paper, which was four years old in January, is called The Eastern Door, so named by its 48-year-old editor and founder, Kenneth Deer, because in the Longhouse of the Iroquois Confederacy, the Mohawks are the keepers of the eastern door, and Kahnawake is the easternmost Mohawk territory in Canada. The name and the editor are both traditional; Deer is a member of the Longhouse, with strong ideas about what it means to be Mohawk. The paper’s strength lies in Deer’s keeping his own opinions from dominating the paper while retaining traditional Mohawk values that all in Kahnawake can relate to. The result has been a strong paper that has encouraged unity in a changing community and attracted the attention and admiration of journalists, native people and experts from beyond the small reserve.

Deer has only been a journalist as long as he’s been editor of The Eastern Door. He spent most of his working life in education as a principal and a high-school counsellor. His wife, Glenda, continues to work as a Mohawk-language teacher, but Deer left education in 1987 to work as a coordinator between the Longhouse and the Mohawk Nation Office. By 1990, however, the politics there changed, and Deer quit to devote his time to a deckbuilding business.

That summer, a group of Mohawks from Kanehsatake set up a camp to protect an ancestral pine forest from the town of Oka, which wanted to cut it down for the expansion of a golf course. On July 11, police advanced on the barricades and a Surete du Quebec corporal was killed in the gunfire between police and Mohawks. As soon as news of the raid made it to nearby Kahnawake, Warriors in the community barricaded the Mercier Bridge in solidarity. It was an effective but costly move, generating attention but also anger, especially from the neighbouring suburb of Chateauguay. It also created economic problems for businesses, including Deer’s, whose supply lines were cut off. The barricades were lifted in the fall, but soon after, his deck business folded.

As Deer looked for work, it became clear to him that the community needed a quality source of information. “After the crisis, there was a lot of tension, a lot of anxiety, and people were getting all their information from the mainstream press,” he says. “The community was living on gossip and hearsay, and people didn’t know what to believe and were believing all kinds of things.” Eventually, Deer got together with a group of people who were interested in volunteering on a newspaper, provided it was unbiased and not just a Warrior newsletter. The director of the Kanienkehaka Raotitiohkwa Cultural Center in Kahnawake, Wendall Beauvais-who goes by the Mohawk name Kanatakta-was there at the paper’s conception and felt Deer was the best person to be editor. “I’ve always found that he’s been a very fair person, and we knew the paper was something we would be judged on in the community.”

The people of Kahnawake have seen their share of newspapers over the years. Most were more like partisan fliers, and none of them ever lasted long. The Eastern Door has not only outlived them all but has gone on to win awards from organizations like the Quebec Community Newspapers Association. Allan Davis, executive director of the association, gives most of the credit for the paper’s success to Deer: “Ken is particularly gifted as a publishing editor and has struck exactly the right balance between daily bread and butter and national bread and butter’ “

Most people who know Deer agree that, besides running the paper virtually on his own and being articulate and well informed, he is also quite simply a nice guy. He speaks softly and laughs easily. Around the office he wears jeans, a plaid shirt and an Eastern Door baseball cap over his long, grey ponytail. Enn Raudsepp, the director of the journalism department at Concordia University, who did a study of native publications in 1985, notes that while the political beliefs of an editor often bias a newspaper and alienate parts of the community, Deer’s ideals of responsibility and family, along with his knowledge of native history and language, are just what Kahnawake needs in its paper. “These are the kind of values that the whole community can coalesce under. Factions don’t develop under this kind of traditionalism.”

Deer’s even-handed approach and benign nature don’t just work well on the small reserve but travel successfully to Geneva, where he’s been working with the UN’s Working Group of Indigenous Populations for about 10 years, creating a draft declaration on indigenous rights. Besides yearly trips to Geneva, he’s been to Australia, France and would have gone to Peru if the country hadn’t rejected his Iroquois passport. “It makes it a bit more difficult to travel,” he admits, “but it’s my way of expressing my nationalism.” He expresses his ideas in the community as well, through active membership in the Longhouse-he has served as a chief, worked at the Nation Office and acted as a negotiator in the first days of Oka.

By the end of 1991, Deer had a house, two sons and an ill mother-in-law but no job to help support them. “I was desperate now. I had to think of a way to make a living. So I did it, I calculated costs, found a printer, got access to a computer and got people who said they’d write for free.” In two months he sold enough advertising for five issues, and he launched the first paper on January 31, 1992. That began a difficult year: Deer had few staff, little money and only minimal acceptance from the community. He only sold about 600 copies per issue to a wary Kahnawake, which believed, thanks to Deer’s past, that The Eastern Door was a traditional paper. But Deer kept the promise he prints in each issue’s masthead, that The Eastern Door serves “the Mohawks of Kahnawake regardless of birth, sex, age, language, politics or religion. The paper strives to be a factual, balanced, authoritative source of information with access to all segments of the community.”

By the beginning of the next year, Deer had moved the paper out of his dining room (“When it spilled out into the kitchen, my wife said,’Time to get out”‘) and into his renovated garage, and he was selling 1,000 copies an issue. His circulation peaked in 1994 at 1,500 copies. The Eastern Door switched from biweekly to weekly in February 1995 and the circulation settled at 1,350, an impressive total for a community of only 1,600 homes. The paper sells for $1 in shops on the reserve and is shipped to Kanehsatake, the territory at Oka, and to Akwesasne, a Mohawk territory near Cornwall that bridges Ontario, Quebec and New York state. And every week, copies of The Eastern Door are sent out to 162 mailboxes in Canada, 78 in the U.S. and eight overseas.

The current office hardly looks like a newsroom at the heart of native politics. It smells of wood and has an unfinished wall here and an absent doorknob there. But to Deer and his staff, who are always short on time and money, the finishing touches on the week’s paper are far more important than the building’s. One fall afternoon, Charleen Schurman, the office manager (who currently is away on maternity leave), is discussing story ideas with Kim Delormier, the layout editor. While Schurman’s job is supposed to be running the office-looking after staff, answering the phone, balancing the books-she usually spends a lot of her time assigning stories, editing and helping with layout. “We’re pretty heavy on administration,” says Deer. “But we’re pretty light on the reporting end, and that scares me.” Before Tom Dearhouse joined the paper last fall, The Eastern Door had trouble keeping a full-time reporter; most either couldn’t handle the work or had other commitments. While the paper is now fully staffed, with Deer, Dearhouse and freelancers doing the writing, it is still up to the small office staff to take care of the rest. While Schurman and Delormier make sure the paper won’t have any blank spaces this week, Deer is heading out to a meeting. “That’s him, in and out, in and out, all the time,” says Schurman. If he’s not off to Geneva for a UN conference then he’s attending a community meeting or doing an interview or delivering the papers around Kahnawake on Fridays, a task that takes him several hours because, according to Schurman, he stops to gab along the way.

Almost everyone in Kahnawake loves The Eastern Door and rushes out every Friday to pick up a copy in town. It’s a clean, attractive little paper, with no advertisements on the first three pages, something Deer has insisted upon from the start. The flag, printed in a different colour each week, is topped by a drawing of eagle’s wings, giving the paper a distinctly native look.

The most popular sections inside are those that can be found in almost any community paper: local news, local history, police reports and announcements. Joseph Montour, chief of the Kahnawake Peacekeepers, says that people often read the “Police Blotter” column, both to make sure they’re not mentioned in it and to clear up the half-right information that weaves its way through town each week. “Oftentimes an incident will happen, and what you hear on the street or in the coffee shop is only a version of what happened. The Eastern Door presents the facts.” On the lighter side, readers love seeing their neighbours in the “Nosy Newsbabe” section. Reaghan Tarbell, the paper’s intrepid student reporter, corners local people willing-and many are not-to be photographed and answer a question that relates to the news, like “Do you agree with using images of Indians as mascots?”

By far the easiest and most profitable part of The Eastern Door is the birthday section. Deer printed a birthday photo for a reader once and, according to Schurman, “It caught on like wildfire. It’s our most popular feature in the paper only because everybody knows everybody here.” Now the paper charges to print birthday and memorial photos, and the section, which can take up over two full pages, generates enough revenue to pay one person’s salary in the office.

However, not all of The Eastern Door is just for fun and profit. Deer has higher goals for the paper: “We try to produce a newspaper that is a mirror of the community-if you look at The Eastern Door, you see Kahnawake.” The most literal example of this is the “Golden Eras” column, where Johnny Beauvais writes about the history of Kahnawake and old photographs show the community as it was. Many of these stories had never been written down before. Selma Delisle, a prominent member of Kahnawake, says: “The young people love it. They’re getting to know what it used to be like.” Perhaps not as popular, but equally important to Deer, was the Mohawk-language story and game page. It appeared for two years, but after running through most of the school curriculum and tiring out volunteers, it had to be discontinued. At the office, the only person with any previous newspaper experience is Schurman, who was a secretary for six years at the New York Post. When she arrived at the new office in November 1992, there were no books, files were in cardboard boxes and invoices had yet to be sent out. The paper had been surviving, just barely, on advertisers who paid without being invoiced, a local donation at the start-up and a series of grants. With self-sufficiency as a goal, Schurman got the books in order, a few more grants came along and the paper joined the Quebec Community Newspapers Association and changed to a weekly to increase advertising revenues. These efforts have paid off, and now Schurman says, “The last six months I can say we’ve been totally self-supporting.”

Unlike many native papers and the majority of radio stations on reserves, The Eastern Door has received grants with no strings attached. Enn Raudsepp says that of the 30 native and Inuit publications he studied 11 years ago, few are still running because most “never did establish a sound financial foundation.” The Eastern Door, Raudsepp says, is special because it is “not beholden to anybody-that’s a remarkable thing for a native newspaper.”

Many native publications that do survive are tied to a benefactor, and that can affect editorial content. Before 1970, three-quarters of publications were produced by non-natives or the government. Today, many papers and magazines are owned and published by native people, but only a handful are as financially independent or as journalistically objective as The Eastern Door. Since funding often comes from the local band council, papers have trouble covering their council’s activities. The Tekawennake, from the Six Nations territory in southern Ontario, covers life on the reserve as if it revolves around council. Traditionalists who used to find their viewpoints unrepresented now turn to the Turtle Island News, launched in 1994.

Those native papers that have been able to retain editorial control still suffer, as The Eastern Door does, from a tendency to report the news on a superficial level. Analysis, context and criticism of current issues and events are virtually absent in even the best native papers. Windspeaker, a highly respected newspaper out of Edmonton, covers national native news and politics with a focus on Western Canada. However, when it was discovered that there were pot fields growing in Kanehsatake last summer, Windspeaker ran a front-page story that made no mention of the dramatic internal conflicts in the community or the fact that many people, including band council members, knew about the pot long before the media found out. Wawatay News from Sioux Lookout in northern Ontario also does an excellent job of covering not only politics, but the social issues of the area. But its report on funding for a solvent abuse centre focused on the political debates and mentioned some details about treatment but offered no analysis of why such abuse exists in the community.

Akwesasne Notes, which had its heyday in the 1970s and early eighties, used to provide high-quality investigative journalism. It began as a cut-and-paste of native stories from mainstream papers across North America and developed into an idealistic paper with volunteer writers submitting hard-hitting native-issue pieces. By the late eighties, though, Akwesasne Notes had become one-sided and got so heavily involved in the politics of the reserve that the paper’s office was actually set on fire twice. It eventually closed in 1992, but in early 1995 it was resurrected, this time in a glossy magazine format as slick as it is safe, featuring articles about the good deeds of band council chiefs and the perseverance of native people.

What the old Akwesasne Notes had-and The Eastern Door does not-is a comfortable distance from readers. Gerald Alfred, a political scientist at Concordia and a resident of Kahnawake, says he thinks it may not be the role of The Eastern Door to provide a tougher kind of journalism: “People want harder stories but not from a local paper. They want it from an anonymous paper.” Writers at the paper have often wanted anonymity. Reporters in the past have asked to be taken off sensitive stories, and occasionally they have not wanted to sign their name. “ED Staff” was frequently used as a byline in the first years of publication, especially in the trial coverage of Mohawks involved in the 1990 Oka crisis. Often it is Deer who writes the paper’s front-page stories, and he always signs his work. “I don’t shrink away from it,” he says, admitting that certain stories are easier for him to write, thanks to his extensive knowledge of the issues in the community and his little black book full of contacts.

It is rare that there’s a story in Kahnawake that is too hot to handle, but there are many in nearby Kanehsatake: the pot fields, legal problems with the size of last summer’s Super Bingo jackpot and the alleged corruption behind a proposed casino. Susan Oke, a young writer from Kanehsatake who freelances for Deer, covers town meetings and certain political stories, but didn’t write about the pot fields, even though she knew about them. “It would have been, I think, dangerous to write about it,” she says. People who have spoken out against the band council there say they have been threatened, and one woman says her car was blown up. When the existence of the pot fields was revealed to the media at a press conference last August, The Eastern Door’s cover story-written by Tarbell, not Oke-focused on how some women in the community had organized the press event, rather than on the pot fields.

Selma Delisle is a big supporter of The Eastern Door and a friend of Kenneth Deer. “I love the paper,” she says. “I think it’s the greatest thing that ever happened to this community.” Her family often makes a few trips into town on Fridays, waiting for the paper to arrive. But Delisle thinks the paper’s coverage of social issues in the community is poor. Stories about substance abuse and violence are written almost exclusively by social workers. The Eastern Door doesn’t carry journalistic pieces about, for example, the effects of alcohol in the community, or the discovery of abuse in a local family or the faults of a popular treatment for drug abuse-stories that people like Delisle feel are important for the community to read, despite how difficult they are for local reporters to write.

Along with community news, Deer’s paper focuses on national news and native politics. But like many other native newspapers, The Eastern Door rarely provides analysis in its stories. For instance, the paper’s coverage of the Mohawk Roundtable negotiations between the chiefs of Kahnawake, Kanehsatake and Akwesasne explained the meetings and their purpose but neglected to question the motives of the people involved or note the larger impact of the Roundtable on native self-government initiatives.

Lately, however, Deer has been making the paper progressively tougher. One of the biggest stories in Kahnawake last year was the policing agreement between the Mohawk Peacekeepers and external police forces. Initially, the paper’s reporter at the time, E.J. Diabo, wrote stories that basically followed the public-relations statements of the Peacekeepers and the government.

But Deer took over the coverage after September 11, when the agreement was signed amid protests and vandalism. His cover story attempted to put it all in perspective. “The impact of the agreement, the vandalism and the images of violence in the media, have caused the community to take a hard look at itself,” he wrote. “Those opposed to the agreement say … that it erodes the jurisdiction and authority of the Mohawk People…. The Mohawk Council of Kahnawake say that the agreement only recognizes what is already in place.”

The article is not only the kind of clear, in-depth story that The Eastern Door needs more of, it also shows how Deer’s writing has matured. The editorial on the next page bluntly begins: “All the justification and rationalization in the community just doesn’t wash…. Violence is insidious.” This is a major shift from Deer’s very first editorial, where he took a safe middle line on the tradition shooting guns off to celebrate New Year’s Eve, suggesting that blanks be used instead. In other recent editorials, Deer has taken a stronger stand on such topics as the mainstream media and the image of native people outside the reserve.

While the effectiveness of The Eastern Door and other native publications may be up for discussion, their necessity is not. Both native and non-native critics of the mainstream media say that not enough coverage of native issues, but what is printed and broadcast usually portrays native people as violent, unlawful and dependent on government. Gerald Alfred thinks most coverage is implicitly negative, and while “the important things are development in our capacity to govern ourselves, resolution of land claims and peaceful accommodations made between whites and Indians, these things are never heard about unless- they go wrong, unless they cost people money.” Susan Oke has watched non native journalists at work in Kanehsatake and noticed that “they don’t know what the real issue is, they don’t know what questions to ask and whom to ask, and that’s why their coverage is not really accurate.”

Covering world, national, provincial and local news for Kahnawake has always been Deer’s goal, but with his limited resources, it has never been easy. The paper has fallen short of critical expectacations from both inside and outside the reserve. Deer and his staff also think the paper could be better. “I’d like to see more news,” Deer says. “I want to carry more news from the Internet, network more with other the outside.” He thinks of TheEaster Door should get connected to native papers and cover more stories in Kanehsatake and Akwesasne. But he is also very proud of his paper.” The Eastern Door is special because the Mohawks are special. Because Kahnawake is unique, the newspaper has to be unique. Kahnawake is on the cutting edge of a lot of issues. People look at it to see what Mohawk people are all about.”

Deer’s leisurely drive around Kahnawake on Friday mornings creates a weekly tide of excitement. “Did you see what was in The Eastern Door?” is echoed across the reserve. The delivery of the paper marks the end of a week of rumours about who was responsible for the car crash in the middle of town, what the chief thought about a local conflict or how federal legislation will affect native people. Deer has tried to make the paper a mirror of the community, and has succeeded also in reflecting his own ideas not those of an opinionated activist-but of the fatherly, traditional peacemaker that is the best of Kahnawake and the best part of himself.


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