What Does it Mean to be a Modern Day Mohawk Woman?

Actress Brittany LeBorgne talks Sex and the City, Indigenous representation and having to explain her identity.

APTN’s hit series Mohawk Girls has spent five years trying to navigate the question: what does it means to be a Mohawk woman in the 21st century?

Brittany LeBorgne, who plays Zoe on the show, seems like a good person to answer that question. Because both on screen and off, Brittany is a strong, smart, kick-ass Mohawk woman, who isn’t shy to share her opinion. I met up with Brittany to chat about Mohawk Girls, and to have her speak on the importance of positive and varied Indigenous stories in mainstream media.

You’re going into your fifth and final season of Mohawk girls, how would you describe the show to those who haven’t seen it?

Mohawk Girls has really evolved over the five seasons, and the way we talk about it and describe it has also evolved. When the show was first premiering, we were selling it as Sex and the City but on the reserve. And that was a good tagline at the time, because it was a brand new show and everyone knows Sex and the City. But as the seasons went on it really has become it’s own beast — we have our own thing going on. So basically, it’s these four Mohawk women who are mid to late twenties, and they’re trying to find their way in the world; meaning in their community, and also in the bigger world outside the community. We ask the question: how do I live my own authentic life while trying to be try to who I am in terms of my culture?

Looking back now, do you think it’s reductive to call the show a Mohawk Sex and the City

I definitely think it is. Now everyone says: Mohawk Girls is so much more than that. What I think they mean, is that yes, there’s four women, and they go through things that are relatable. But then there’s this other level of issues that are so unique to native people in Canada; issues that are unique to the Indigenous community. And we really tap in and tackle those bigger issues. Mind you, we do it in a funny way. People find it more welcoming when you take on a serious topic through comedy. There are no fingers being pointed at anybody, there’s no blame.

It makes me think of the show Blackish on ABC, which attacks tough issues but in a way that’s totally hilarious. 

For so long it’s been white leads, and maybe there’s a minority mixed in. So a show like Blackish, or a show like ours, or a show like Kim’s Convenience — shows that have minorities as the main characters — it’s about damn time. I think it look so long to get there because networks thought people wouldn’t want to watch it. But why wouldn’t they? I grew up a Mohawk girl on a reserve, loving movies, loving TV, and knowing that I wanted to be an actor. Nobody was Indigenous in the movies I watched growing up, but did I relate? Of course. Because there’s a human spirit. It doesn’t matter what colour you are or where you’re from, if it’s an interesting story it’s an interesting story.

Obviously representation is important. But it’s not just representation: we need positive and varied Indigenous stories in media, right? Is that what Mohawk Girls is doing?

It’s important for Indigenous content and Indigenous characters to be included in mainstream media. We are a big part of this land, why shouldn’t we be as visible in all media? I think one of the things that our show does so well, is that we have three dimensional characters. These are real women who are strong and powerful. I play Zoe: she’s a lawyer, she’s educated, she’s smart, she’s strong, she really fights for what believes in. But at the same time, she has faults and she has short comings. We’re showing real women, and I think that is something that Indigenous representation in media has not done very well.

As a country, do you think we’re doing a better job? It often feels like Indigenous issues are more visible now than they ever have been before.

There’s definitely a movement. A movement of Indigenous people and also non-Indigenous Canadians, who are rallying to make sure that the true history of this country is known and taught. I still think there’s a long way to go, but it’s wonderful to go places and have people recognize the traditional territory they’re on. It’s nice to be recognized and acknowledged — it’s such a small thing, but it means so much. It’s just about opening up a dialogue, which is where I think we still have a lot of work to do.

Is there a question you get asked that makes you think that maybe we aren’t making progress? 

For me, the biggest one that gets under my skin, is when people find out I’m Mohawk and they ask, “so what percent are you?” Like who says that? What does that even mean? And why do you need to know what percent I am? I always need to explain myself, and it’s as if I owe them an explanation for why I look the way I do. It always has to do with my appearance, because my natural hair is dirty blonde –I was just born fairer, with fair skin and fair hair. So when people ask those questions, it’s hard not to let it chip away at my soul. I always have to explain my identity.

Being Indigenous is is complicated. No matter what point in time it’s always going to be complicated. It can be a tough burden to bear, but I try to look at it as an opportunity. An opportunity to educate people and open a dialogue. And hopefully, we’ll come to a point where nobody will ever be asked, “what percent are you?”