Welcome to My Story, a weekly series dedicated to creatives of colour and their paths to success. By championing these diverse stories and backgrounds, we hope that our cultural conversations will expand and that respect for our differences will flourish.
Born and raised in the Kanien’kehá:ka Mohawk Territory in Quebec, actress Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs has made a name for herself playing roles as wide-ranging as a teenager dealing with the repercussions of the residential school system in Rhymes For Young Ghouls and “a badass werewolf” on the Netflix show The Order. Currently based in Toronto, the 26-year-old actress has also written and directed some of her own projects, which reflect her experience and perspective as a queer Indigenous woman.
Now, during National Indigenous History Month, she has partnered up with Made Nous (a Canadian entertainment industry-wide initiative) to spotlight Indigenous artists—actors, writers, filmmakers and others. Here, she shares, in her own words, how she got her start, the kinds of projects she’s drawn to, and why it’s important for there to be more Indigenous representation in front of and behind the camera.
On growing up:
I always wanted to act, since before I even knew that it was a career. I would always make home videos, and force my sister to direct them and act in them with me. I also [participated] in the Turtle Island Theatre Company, which is a small community theatre on my reserve. It was through that that my mom saw how much I loved performing. She submitted me, without my knowledge, to an agency in Quebec. They accepted and then she sat me down and asked if it was something that I wanted to do and if it was, that she would support me. It was something I had always wanted, but then there was a writers’ strike, and I was a teenager and a Native kid who was Anglophone living in Quebec, so there weren’t really many opportunities and I didn’t think that it would ever be possible for me to have a career in the film industry. And so I actually went to school to be a counsellor and I was working at the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal when I was cast in my first leading role, Aila in Rhymes for Young Ghouls, which ended up being my breakout role. It was the first time I had worked with an Indigenous writer/director, and had a story that resonated so closely with my experience and my family’s experience.
On beginning her career:
I’m still trying to figure that out and carve that path. It’s not a typical job within my community. A lot of my friends in Toronto who are either refugees or immigrants, their parents put a lot of pressure on them to be doctors or lawyers, but that’s not really a pressure in my community. For us, basically through colonization and all of history, we’ve already lived through our own apocalypse and it’s more about rebuilding our nation and reclaiming our culture. So for my family I think the bigger deal wasn’t that I decided to be an actor, it was me deciding to move away from the reserve. Because for us, the measure of wealth is actually determined by how big your family is.
On the challenges she’s faced in the industry:
As a queer Mohawk woman I’ve been forced to create a defence mechanism and a protective barrier. I go to set open enough to be willing to work but I still have to go with enough protective layers in case somebody is making microaggressions toward me—because I’m so often the only queer person or the only Indigenous person, and sometimes both, on set. I have to go in knowing that, because there isn’t anybody who looks like me or has a similar cultural background, that I have to represent so much more than just myself.
On the work that she’s drawn to:
If I’m going to be specifically talking about my Indigeneity and talking about cultural issues, it’s important that there are Indigenous creatives behind the lens as well. But if you look at projects like The Order, where there’s no mention of cultural background, it’s just a fun escapist show where I get to go and be a badass werewolf. I like to have a good balance between both. But if we’re talking about representation then for me it’s really important to work with Indigenous collaborators and creatives—people who have tangible positions of power, not just in front of the camera so they can check off diversity boxes.
On celebrating National Indigenous History Month with Made Nous:
I was so sick of seeing this one idea of what Canadian film and TV looks like. There’s always a moose and a beaver, and it’s really lame. When I saw Made Nous’s initial campaigns and how they were taking credit for all of the talent that’s coming out of this territory, I thought that was exactly where we should be going because we have so many productions that shoot here and so much homegrown talent that we should celebrate. And so when they approached me, I was automatically interested in partnering with them. But also, they’re keen on hearing my perspective and voice in an unfiltered way. That is something that I really appreciate, and am excited to be a part of and to celebrate Indigenous film and television, because Canadian film is made of up all the different cultures. Toronto is 51% made up of BIPOC, so for me Canada’s a lot more colourful than it’s previously been represented as in past media.
On the Indigenous artists she’s spotlighting this month:
It’s a small Indigenous industry. Everyone kind of knows everyone and so for me it’s celebrating the talent that I’m on the ground with, who are my peers and whom I see working day in and day out to have our voices heard and get our stories out there. People like Jeff Barnaby, who I worked with on Rhymes for Young Ghouls and Blood Quantum; there’s Elle-Maija Tailfeathers, who just released The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open; Michelle Latimer, who’s working on the Trickster series; there’s Danis Goulet who’s working on the feature film Night Raiders; there’s Nyla Innuksuk who’s doing a film called Slash/Back, which is an Inuit alien movie. And emerging [artists] like Asia Youngman, and Alexandra Lazarowich whose short documentary Fast Horse won the Special Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2019. There’s people like Trevor Mack and Madison Thomas… such a range of talent that’s up and coming, some I’m working with and some I’m cheering from the sidelines.
On embracing her queer Indigenous identity:
For me, I only clued in to the fact that I was queer… I mean, I’m 26 so I can’t even say later in life but like, I wasn’t a 12-year-old knowing that I was queer. I was kind of operating in the world with blinders on and when I came into my queerness, there was a sense of an inferiority complex because I hadn’t had the lived experience that [others] have had so I felt like I wasn’t entitled to a place in the queer community. It was and still is a journey to stand in my place and understand that I am a part of the queer community. There’s so little Indigenous queer representation, let alone two-spirit, let alone trans, so for me I felt that it was important to be as gentle with myself as I am with other people.
On the challenges of getting Indigenous projects green-lit:
I feel like right now there’s a wave of diversity and inclusion and it’s almost being treated as a fad, which I deeply resent. And though there is this push for diversity and stories from people of different backgrounds, they’re typically projects that are funded at lower rates. And when filmmakers go to funding bodies for TV and are told ‘oh this would be better suited for APTN (Aboriginal Peoples Television Network)’, that tells us that our stories aren’t worthy of being universal. So there’s still a long way to go.
On the Black Lives Matter movement:
I grew up in the legacy of the 1990 Oka Crisis so I grew up inherently political and for my entire life I’ve been fighting for Indigenous rights. So seeing my community stand up for the first time ever in solidarity with the Black community and also Afro-Indigenous people was huge. It’s also addressing a lot of the anti-Blackness in my community and a lot of other Indigenous communities, which is really important. I think that this time has made me reflective but also proven to me that we can’t fight these fights alone. The Black community has never had the support of anyone else on this scale ever, globally. And in the midst of this to see that the Black community is also supporting Indigenous people in Canada who are suffering very similar things is just reaffirming that we need to stand together. But at this time I don’t want to take away from the Black community’s plight. I don’t want to be saying ‘what about Indigenous people?’ I think that conversation is a part of it and can be had but at this time we should keep focus on what’s in front of us.
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