The Motivation of a Mohawk: Waneek Horn-Miller Inspires First Nations to Exercise and Eat right
Native rights activist Waneek Horn-Miller, co-captain of the 2000 Olympic Canadian women’s water polo team, is back in action—this time, to help indigenous people reclaim their health.
She and her husband, former Olympic judo competitor Keith Morgan, have teamed up with the Aboriginal Peoples’ Television Network (APTN), along with a group of health experts, to launch a multimedia, nationwide fitness and healthy-eating initiative. A six-part television series follows six Mohawks on their journeys to get healthy, while an interactive website encourages aboriginal youth and adults to make nutrition and exercise part of their daily lives.
Horn-Miller and her colleagues held casting calls to select six Mohawk people to star in the documentary series, called Working It Out Together, which aired September 6 to October 11 on APTN. With trainers and nutritionists, Horn-Miller coached and counseled the participants in exercise routines and eating right, as well as overcoming internal struggles that were holding them back from getting healthy, such as obesity, eating disorders, low self-esteem, busy schedules, substance abuse and lack of motivation.
The six-month journey of self-discovery revealed to participants, mentors and audiences how determination and dedication can lead to a total lifestyle transformation. “With a lot of issues such as obesity and lack of physical activity among aboriginal peoples, we are facing the symptom, not the core issue,” Horn-Miller said. “The symptoms are the external representation of stuff going on deep inside each person.”
The program was not only concerned with slimming down. “It was more about people understanding the underlying issues around weight gain, relationships with food, how they relate to their spouse, how they relate to the world around them, and how that impacts how they treat themselves and how they treat their bodies,” said Horn-Miller in a video response to the series on WorkingItOutTogether.com.
Full episodes of the series are available to watch at the website, which launched August 30. WorkingItOutTogether.com encourages visitors to create profiles, track their fitness progress and find inspiration in one another’s accomplishments. “There’s always that accountability factor, being part of a community,” Horn-Miller said.
In the first episode, finding personal motivation and channeling willpower emerged as keys issues when Horn-Miller worked with a young Mohawk woman named Kahnhehsentha. “She is at a tough time in her life because she is going from being a kid and being a teenager to being an adult,” Horn-Miller said. “That tough love isn’t always going to be coming from your mom and dad. That tough-love person has to come from inside of yourself.”
Horn-Miller’s personal courage and resilience were forged through early participation in sports and through her family of strong Mohawk women. Raised on the Kanesatake reservation in Oka, west of Montreal, Horn-Miller was the third of four successful sisters. Her mother, model and Native rights activist Kahn-Tineta Horn, made the decision to enroll all her daughters in sports. “My mom put me and my sisters into sports where we couldn’t be judged—more race-against-time type of sports like swimming and running,” Horn-Miller said.
That activity, Horn-Miller believes, played a central role in their great achievements. Her eldest sister, Ojistoh Horn, became the first female Mohawk medical doctor from Kahnawake. Her second eldest sister, Kahente Horn-Miller, earned a Ph.D. in anthropology from Concordia University. The youngest, Kaniehti:io Horn, is a Gemini Award–nominated actress.
Besides sports, Horn-Miller credits her dedication and perseverance to her mother’s involvement in Native rights movements. In that regard, a protest and a near-death experience—which occurred nearly in tandem—altered the course of her life.
In 1990, when she was 14, Horn-Miller joined her mother in speaking against the town of Oka’s proposal to expand a golf course into aboriginal Mohawk territory, which is dotted with pine trees and the tombstones of their ancestors. “Our community blocked the bridge connecting commuters to the city of Montreal,” she recalled.
At the end of the 78-day standoff, when the mayor of Oka cancelled the expansion of the golf course, the Mohawks agreed to retreat. In charge of the younger children, Horn-Miller led the exit, holding her 4-year-old sister. She directed the group to walk close to the media barricade for safety. While leaving, chaos erupted, and a Canadian soldier struck Horn-Miller across her chest with his bayonet, knocking her to the ground.
“I gave my little sister to my mother and saw I was covered in blood,” Horn-Miller said. “That’s when I realized I had been stabbed.”
The weapon struck her sternum just inches above her heart. “The doctor said I was very lucky to be alive,” Horn-Miller said. “I was grown up instantly after that happened. I understood how easy it is to die.”
But the incident inspired her. “I left there with this feeling: I got places to go, mountains to climb. I come from people who have gone through horrific things in history—war, death, famine, genocide—and I thought: How many times did my ancestors want to give up, lay down and die? But they didn’t; they fought to continue. You have to keep going forward.”
That’s what she did, pursuing her studies, graduating from Carleton University in Ottawa with a degree in political science in 2000, and competing in water polo. In 1999, Horn-Miller’s team took home the gold at the Pan American games. In 2000, the first year water polo was added to the Olympic games, Horn-Miller, then 23, was elected co-captain of the Canadian Olympic water polo team to compete in Sydney. “Being in the Olympics is wonderful,” she said. “You look behind and see where you came from and all you went through to get there, and the person you’ve become along the way.”
Horn-Miller went on to host APTN’s Olympic coverage during the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games. While the Olympic ceremonies embraced indigenous art and culture, Horn-Miller noticed that very few indigenous athletes were competing. To promote access to athletics among First Nations, she decided to join the Assembly of First Nations as the IndigenACTION Ambassador to develop a national indigenous sport, fitness and wellness strategy. Horn-Miller is currently creating a list of best practices to present to the AFN Chiefs to determine how to build the IndigenACTION program.
While health and wellness is Horn-Miller’s passion, the Olympian also firmly believes in finding balance, especially when it comes to sports and education. From summer 2005 to 2010, when Horn-Miller took maternity leave, she served as the coordinator of the First Peoples’ House at McGill University. In that capacity, she developed the Eagle Spirit High Performance Camp to attract aboriginal youth to higher education, according to Horn-Miller and her profile on Nike N7, the athletic footwear and apparel company’s initiative to make sport more accessible to Native and aboriginal youth.
Horn-Miller also tours North America, speaking to aboriginal and non-aboriginal youth on issues such as pursuing secondary education, self-esteem and suicide, reported the Sherbrooke Record in Quebec. Most recently, on September 27, she addressed her largest audience ever: 18,000 students from more than 1,000 schools across North America at WE Day in Toronto, announced a WE Day press release and The Province. There she joined such social activists as Mary Robinson, the first female president of Ireland and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Dr. Patch Adams, the clownsuit-wearing humanitarian and physician. Entertainers were also present, including Joe Jonas and Nina Dobrev of The Vampire Diaries.
Each had stories to tell; Horn-Miller spoke of overcoming obstacles, while urging youth to promote positive social change. She raised awareness of serious issues that many indigenous communities face throughout Canada, such as lack of access to education, clean water and safe homes.
“We have to fix our own backyard,” she said. “I encourage all Canadian youth to look beyond color and borders and work as a team to solve issues together. It’s that team mentality—you’re only as strong as every single member of your team. We have to work together.”
When Horn-Miller is not working to improve the lives of First Nations and all youth, she cherishes her time with her 17-month-old daughter. “My greatest accomplishment ever is my daughter. She has humbled me. Her name is Skawennahawi, and it means ‘she carries the message.’ Whatever that is, she’ll fulfill that message.”
The name is fitting for the daughter of a proud Mohawk and crusader for indigenous rights and health and wellness. Horn-Miller’s passion to succeed and help others is all rooted in one message—motivation.
“Motivation is the biggest thing and the key to your success,” Horn-Miller reflected. “You have to figure out what it is that’s the trigger for your motivation and recruit people into helping you, and, as well, get tough with yourself. Look in the mirror and say, ‘I’ve had it with all the excuses. I want to make my dreams my reality, and I want to start today.’?”