Honoring Her Culture As She Follows Her Dreams, Student Is a ‘Role Model’

While growing up in Kahnawake Mohawk Territory, a reservation in Canada, Yale senior Skawenniio Barnes felt the pull of a cultural past that sometimes seemed at odds with the future she envisioned for herself.

Her mother encouraged her to follow her passions wherever they might take her, but some members of her close-knit Native community near Montreal feared that she would sacrifice her cultural traditions and values if she strayed too far from home. She was the first in her community to be accepted to Yale, and many were suspicious of the way it might impact her.

Winning Canada’s National Aboriginal Achievement Award this year, therefore, was a particularly special honor for Barnes because it recognizes her commitment to the Native community that some had worried she would forget.

Barnes received her Special Youth award — citing her as a “valuable role model for Aboriginal youth” — at a ceremony in March. The ceremony was televised nationally in Canada on May 1. It features a four-minute vignette about Barnes that includes footage of her at Yale.

Barnes recently spoke with the Yale Bulletin & Calendar about her upbringing, her time on campus and her hopes for the future. Here is what we learned.

‘Do it yourself’: Barnes first found herself in the national spotlight at age 13, when she began a campaign to establish a library in her community.

By then, she had already caused a bit of a family stir because she wanted to attend a Catholic high school outside of the reservation, rather than the Mohawk high school where her older sisters were educated. Her parents worried that she would “forget who she was” at the Catholic school, and their apprehension was fueled by a hostile land dispute between Mohawk tribes and the Canadian government in 1990 that led to tensions between Native and non-Native peoples.

“Before high school, I had hardly interacted with non-Native people,” explains Barnes. “We would leave the reservation to go shopping, but all of my social connections were with Native people. Still, I wasn’t afraid I would forget who I was by going to school across the river. I felt I knew who I was.”

At the Catholic school, Barnes was assigned a project that required her to do library research. But there was no library on the reservation, and if she stayed late to use the school’s, she needed a ride back home, creating an inconvenience for her mother.

“While my mother could have picked me up, my thought was that this problem shouldn’t exist in the first place,” says Barnes. “To me, a library is an integral public service. It shouldn’t be a privilege to have one in your own community.”

Barnes’s mother — who had always emphasized the importance of self-reliance — told her, “If you want something done, do it yourself.” So Barnes wrote a letter to the Mohawk Council, the reservation’s local government, which simply replied with a note of thanks for her concern.

“When I got that letter, I felt pushed to the side, as if they were saying, ‘She’s just a child.’ Even at that age, I wasn’t the sort of person to be pushed aside. So I wrote a ­letter to the community newspaper, and they published it in the main editorial spot,” she says.

Fruits of her labor: Her letter drew a quick response. A feasibility study was conducted, and book drives were held throughout the region. After the national media picked up the story, books and monetary donations began to arrive from throughout Canada and even beyond.

It took just a year-and-a-half for a temporary library to be up and running. It was named the Skawenniio Tsi Iewennahnotakhwa Kahnawake Library (“Skawenniio’s place to read”) in tribute to Barnes.

Her advocacy won Barnes the title of CosmoGIRL! of the Year in 2002, but she says she was sometimes bullied and threatened by her peers on the reservation, who reacted to her achievements with anger.

“I think with all of the media attention I was getting, some people in my community were thinking ‘she thinks she’s better than us,’” she says.

Barnes graduated as the valedictorian at her high school and was accepted to several Ivy League universities. While many on the reservation were joyful, others were skeptical.

“Growing up, there was almost a stigma attached to education in my community,” the Yale student says. “It’s a complicated issue involving a difficult history with boarding schools and assimilation policies, but essentially, some people equate the pursuit of education with a desire to be white.”

Making connections: When first at Yale, Barnes was hesitant to align herself with the small Native population on campus, as she was eager to grow by meeting people unlike herself. However, fellow Native students sought her out, and she eventually found a job doing programming and cleanup at the Native American Cultural Center.

She admits that her new environment was a culture shock, even with the company of other Native students.

“Before coming here, I had always kept my Native and non-Native friends very separate,” says Barnes, “and it was a shock to see these two groups mixing together on campus. I also realized how being ‘Native’ for someone doesn’t mean that they have the same experience as yours — that everyone is coming from very diverse tribal histories and cultural backgrounds. Native Americans sometimes have less in common with each other than with non-indigenous peoples.”

In addition to serving on the center’s advisory board, the Yale student has also been treasurer of the Association of Native Americans at Yale; president of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society; co-chair of the All Ivy Native Council; and a student member of the board of directors for the National Indian Education Association.

Giving more: Barnes has remained interested in the reservation’s library, continuously serving on its board. Last year, the library moved to a permanent space, and Barnes is happy to see the younger people from her community enjoying the resources and reading groups there.

“I think it’s a very positive marker for education,” she says. “It means a lot to me that people know it is there as a resource.”

Barnes is majoring in political science and international studies and next fall will pursue a joint J.D./M.P.P. at Harvard Law School and the John F. Kennedy School of Government. This summer, she will assist with special projects for Harvard’s Native American Program.

Barnes says that even if she never again lives on the Kahnawake reservation, she will find ways to contribute to improving the lives of those at home, in a community she has loved.

“A lot of people have a negative impression of life on a reservation, but for me, growing up where I did was kind of an ideal experience,” she says. “Having a close network of people around you and your family is a blessing.”

Barnes hopes to inspire younger indigenous people to attend college without being anxious that they will lose their cultural link.

“I am a firm believer in doing what you are passionate about,” she says. “You need to take care of yourself before you can take care of other people. I think it is possible to do both and still fully embrace your cultural identity.”

— Susan Gonzalez