It was time, Waneek Horn-Miller decided, that she take control of her image, and celebrate beauty and strength on her own terms. The highest and lowest points of her life have all been captured by photographers. When she’s defended sacred land, represented Canada at the Olympics and sued her Mohawk council for its membership law, the media has been there. This time, she wanted a different kind of photo shoot.
In September 1990 at the age of 14, Horn-Miller’s image appeared in newspapers across the country. She was caught in a moment of agony, her mouth open in pain and terror, clutching her four-year-old sister, as she gripped the wrist of a Canadian Armed Forces soldier holding a rifle. She was bleeding from a gash in her chest, stabbed by a bayonet on the last day of the Oka Crisis, the stand-off between Quebec police and the Armed Forces with the Mohawk communities of Kanehsatà:ke and Kahnawake over plans to expand Oka’s golf course across a region known as The Pines, a sacred area with a cemetery. Horn-Miller and her sister had been tagging along with their activist mother, Kahntineta Horn.
Ten years later Horn-Miller was in the spotlight again, this time on the cover of the Canadian edition of Time magazine’s summer Olympics preview issue. At 24, she posed naked, with a water polo ball strategically placed in front of her, staring down the camera with an eagle feather in her hair. She was the co-captain of the water polo team, and the first Mohawk woman from Canada to compete in the 2000 Olympic games in Sydney.
Articles about Horn-Miller emerged once again in 2014, when she was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against her community’s Mohawk Council. After receiving an eviction notice, she was fighting the “marry out, stay out” Kahnawake residency policy, whereby only members with four Mohawk great-grandparents can live on the reserve. Family photos accompanied news stories about the launch of the lawsuit, and then again in May of 2018, when a Quebec court ruled the membership law as discriminatory. Horn-Miller and her non-Indigenous husband, Keith Morgan, moved to Ottawa to raise their family. She says that she looks forward to one day resolving things with her community, both for herself, and for her children.
Horn-Miller recently decided to go in front of the lens again, this time with only herself as the intended audience. “All of those roles [being an Olympian and an activist] was really meaningful to so many people, but sometimes I think that me as an individual would get lost in that,” she says. “The last 19 years I think I’ve been trying to get back to that place of lightness and happiness.”She wanted to celebrate her life experiences, defy expectations, and show the strength of Indigenous women. Nineteen years later after the Time cover, she has recreated the image with Anishinaabe photographer Nadya Kwandibens, and invited her three children, aged 8, 5 and 2, and mother into the photos.
Here, she talks about responsibility, strength, knowing yourself, and accepting change while still fighting for human rights.
What it’s like looking back at the Time cover?
I felt a lot of responsibility back then to show the world what I’m capable of, to change up the narrative of Indigenous women. Being one of the first native women, naked on a cover, what were people going to think? What were my own people going to say? I realize now that it said very little about me, personally. Looking back, I never really dealt with lots of things, whether it’s the Oka crisis, having an absent father [due to the trauma caused by] residential school, being the daughter of an activist, all of that compounding on this goal of trying to achieve my dream of being an Olympian.
The Time photographer was a white, American male, who had no clue about anything Indigenous. He was a top photographer, famous, and very much “I have to get this particular photo.” It was a bit of a fight to control my image at the time. My mom was there with me, she helped me battle the photographer, because he wanted to wrap me in flags. He wanted me to smile and my mom said don’t you dare smile. For so many years, our women have been portrayed as being submissive, hypersexualized and disposable. She said look directly in the camera, and look determined. She also told me that this is your chance to control your image. You didn’t have the chance last time, when that picture was taken of you in Oka.
Were you surprised at the reaction it got?
I got backlash. I got criticism from feminists, on how I was using my sexuality to sell my sport. It was shocking, not just in the Indigenous community but in Canadian consciousness. We’re just not a people who have naked people on the cover of our magazines. I cared a lot about what people in the Indigenous community thought, and a lot of them said, and have said since, that was a really important image of an Indigenous woman, that they felt empowered by it. That was important to me.
How has your body image changed over the years?
As an Olympic athlete and then as a mother, your body is a vehicle that brings forth your greatest dreams. My body took me to the Olympics and enabled me to be strong and powerful. My body then became even more powerful and brought forth my three children. It was a dream of mine to become a mother.
I’m 43 and gravity has done some funny stuff. And gaining 75 pounds per pregnancy, your skin can only rebound so many times. But when I feel self-critical about my body, I think that I’m so lucky to have a healthy body. I train at a minimum five days a week, and that includes weight-lifting and running—during my water polo season I also swim—it’s still the thing I do to relieve stress, it centres me.
The day came and I was like “oh my god, I’m not perfect!” I can honestly say I felt the same way before the original Time cover. I’m not ready, I’m not perfect!
Why did you want to recreate the TIME photo in 2019?
I always thought about re-doing it, and I had this really good opportunity to do it. I’m doing Indigenous Studies and Kineseology at UBC, and I had to do a project about knowledge translation, and this idea popped in my head to re-do the picture, and how the information I’m trying to translate is quite different now than what it was 19 years ago.
I feel that I always need to be able to stand up for and protect myself. But it’s also important to define our physicality and beauty of our bodies as Indigenous women.
This [new] shoot was a very decolonized shoot. The photographer, Nadya Kwandibens, is an Indigenous woman, and she’s all about photographing and capturing our resilience. She’s just so good, talented and chill.
This time, it was about just me: Waneek Horn-Miller. I’m good enough as an individual, and as a mother—I’m getting emotional thinking about this—I’m worthy enough to have that sovereignty over body and spirit and my choices, that’s what I tried to convey in that picture.
What did you want this new image to convey?
I’ve always been very self-possessed, but I feel that I always need to be able to stand up for and protect myself. But it’s also important to define our physicality and beauty of our bodies as Indigenous women.
I want my children to be good human beings, proud of who they are, with the soverignty and right to decide over themselves. When they look at me and my fight and hear about all these things, I want them to feel that they’re valued, that their little spirits are important, and they’re not half-important [by being half-Mohawk], that they’re a hundred percent important to our future.
This photograph was about clawing back a bit of that personal sovereignty, to do something just for me and my happiness. I want to uphold something that’s even bigger than Indigenous rights, which are really important to me. The International Declaration of Human Rights states that you can’t dictate who someone can love. I believe that if people want to support our rights as Indigenous people, then I have to support LGBQT rights, Muslim rights and freedom of religion. These are all human rights, and you can’t fight which ones you violate and which ones you hold up. They’re all together and if one falls, then the others are not far behind.
I had it in my head that the photo shoot would go a certain way, but it was so hard to take pictures of the kids, they were not interested in staying still. How dare they be kids, right? I had a couple different concepts I was going for, and one was just me, the updated TIME cover; another was me and my three kids; and then one of me, my mom and my baby in her diaper. There’s my mom—an Indigenous woman, born in 1940, and then me building on that, and then the happiest baby you’ll ever find. That’s what we’re working toward, fighting for that lightness. It’s a sacred space, that happiness. I wanted to visually show that.
My favourite shot was one of me and my mom, where I’m kissing the side of her head. I love her so much. Our relationship is really strong yet tumultuous. She was so adament about not marrying a non-native person, but the moment my kids came into being, she was able to adjust her world views to include them. I love her for that.
These quotes were edited and condensed for clarity.