Mohawk artist and cartoonist Walter Kaheró:ton Scott moves around a lot. For a while, he was living in Montreal’s St-Henri neighbourhood, playing in punk bands. Last year he was in Vancouver before crossing the Pacific for an artist residency in Japan. Next month he’ll be in New York City. He has plans to move to Toronto for work.
But right now he’s back home in his brother’s basement in Kahnawake, in the middle of teaching a six-week course at the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Centre, where he passes on his cartooning skills to the youth of the community.
“I wanted to have a place where kids could go and feel safe being who they are and having the interests that they do,” he told the Nation.
When Scott was younger, he frequented a Kahnawake drop-in centre where youths were taught to make movies. He said it was instrumental in teaching him to have enough faith in himself to try new projects and express himself.
“In our community if you have a place you can go and meet other people like you – and really feel like your point-of-view is valid – it’s something you carry with you, and it can shape your confidence and the way that you represent yourself in the rest of your life,” he said.
Today, Scott is best known for his underground comic-book Wendy, a hugely successful and widely loved parody of Montreal’s artistic community that has gained him a strong following across the country and around the world. Scott knows the art community well: after high school in Lachine and CEGEP in Montreal, he studied Fine Arts at Concordia University – one of the places Wendy pokes the most fun at. But part of what makes Wendy so funny is that the humour is tempered with the affection of making fun of a place he feels he belongs.
Poking fun at places that felt like home didn’t always come easily to Scott. Growing up, he was shy and bookish, far more interested in reading than in playing lacrosse. That meant he didn’t always feel like he belonged on his rez.
“I learned that if I wanted to survive, I had to seek out the communities I wanted to be in,” he said. “I realized that I can be in every community a little bit if I want – I have the choice.”
But having lived away from Kahnawake and experienced the life of an artist and a musician, Scott said he no longer feels he has to be one thing or another. He doesn’t believe that his passions cancel one another out.
“Art and music open you up to the fact that you have multitudes,” he stressed. “You can be in any community you choose at the same time. We make our own mark on contemporary life – in my experience, there’s a Mohawk way to do everything.”
If they’re nurtured, individual interests make people stronger and more interesting and feed the health of the community at large, he said.
“If you’re a Mohawk from Kahnawake and you’re interested in comics or something not so common, so long as it feeds your spirit and makes you happy, that makes you a better person, and that makes you a better person in your community. The more you explore what your interests are, and are open to different kinds of ideas, the more it solidifies who you are and makes you happier and stronger.”
These are values that Scott is proud to share with the young people in his course, who range in age from 11 to 21. The participants are, he said, impressive: “They do and say things that make me think differently. I have a lot to learn from them.”
It isn’t easy growing up with a set of nerdy interests that the rest of society – both Native and settler society – teases you about. But Scott is intent to transmit to his students the power of using comics to reflect real experience. He recently gave them a chapter from Iranian-French graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi’s masterpiece Persepolis, about growing up in Iran during the Islamic revolution. In one chapter, Satrapi recalls as a teenage girl, her parents smuggled her punk and heavy metal cassettes from outside Iran, and she walked around the streets wearing a jean jacket upon which she’d written “Punk’s Not Dead.” It doesn’t take long before she received vicious harassment from her radical Muslim neighbours for not wearing the veil.
Anywhere you grow up, Scott noted, people feel suspicious of and hostile to kids who like different or nerdy stuff, and Satrapi’s portrait of an Iranian girl experiencing that same feeling of being an outcast shows how hard it is to be a shy, artistic kid the world over.
“For me, it’s an allegory for how I felt in Kahnawake – there’s a strong tradition of how you’re supposed to behave, and if you have unique interests, people don’t really understand what art and music can do for you. I Xeroxed that chapter specifically for [the students], so I can talk to them about whether they have feelings like that.”
Those feelings, Scott underlined, are related to an internalized colonialism, inspiring some to adhere to limited ideas of acceptable behaviour that have nothing to do with Mohawk and Haudenosaunee tradition.
“I want [students] to know that if they’re feeling different in Kahnawake for having interests outside of the norm, this kind of xenophobia is everywhere in the world. There are other cultures where that fear is what stops people from expressing themselves – I thought it would make them feel less alone.”
Reflecting on his own adolescence with a non-traditional set of interests for a kid on the rez, he sees a lot of himself in his students and his heart goes out to them – and the parents who have left their kids under his instruction.
“When you’re a parent and you have a child who’s strange and intelligent and creative, it must be really scary,” he said. “Maybe you don’t know what to do – you want your child to succeed, but you don’t know the first thing about how to support someone like that, if you’re not an artist yourself.”
The cartooning course he teaches is expansive: it covers all the basics, like designing a character, exploring different visual ways of moving the action forward, and creating emotion and distance and time. But the course also extends into an extremely practical set of instructions about making the comics into real books that participants can Xerox and unleash into the world. Scott teaches a class on how to put a book together without a computer, using glue and scissors and staples and formatting the original for the photocopier. And there’s another class on how to distribute comics, using online portals like Etsy or Tumblr to give a comic a worldwide audience.
“It’s a starter kit for them to get going if this is something they want to do,” he said. “Here are the basic tools: go ahead and do what thou wilt!”
Scott underlined that finding a way to get your comics out into the public is a critically important step for a developing creative person.
“It helps to develop your confidence if you can show people and get feedback,” Scott said. “It also helps to connect you to communities of other people who are doing the same thing, because then they hear about your work and you can make friends that way. That’s what I did when I was in high school.”
Long past his own graduation, Scott has noticed that the Canadian art world is full of people like him: Native kids who grew up trying to balance their identities between their ancestries and their interests. Wendy features a central recurring character like that –Winonuk (Winona), Wendy’s best friend, who lives the glamorous (and ridiculous) life of art openings, conferences and parties, but also returns home to her mom’s house on the rez, hooks up with a high-school boyfriend, and gets side-eyed in the local bar by the mean girls she went to high school with.
“I’m trying to develop a philosophy where [the different parts of your life] all melt into one another,” said Scott. “When I introduced the Native character of Winona with no warning, [it was because] people are used to there being a context for these kinds of stories to appear. Either it’s on APTN, or it’s starring Adam Beach. But my experience was that I was a Native person [who didn’t look stereotypically Native], taken out of my community and placed in this environment. I realized that I’m just a part of the world. That’s why I wanted Winona to plop down into the story.”
After all, he underlined, Canada’s contemporary art scene is loaded with Indigenous people who are central to its functioning.
“It’s not something that you talk about, necessarily, but Indigenous people in Canada are sitting on artist-run-centre boards, are making work not necessarily about Indigenous identity – they’re there! They’re part of the narrative and the framework of contemporary art. That’s why I made Winona – I thought it’d be funny to throw her in there, and people would just have to deal with it. Her being Native is a part of the story, but it’s not the whole story. That reflected how I felt about my own life.”
Straddling the worlds of art and the rez is something Scott hopes to continue, even though he plans to move to Toronto, where opportunities for artists to get paid are better. Leaving Kahnawake will be difficult, however, especially after the connections he’s developed with his students.
“They’re intelligent, awesome, creative people living in Kahnawake. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.”