Mohawk Olympian battles trauma of Oka standoff
After surviving a bayonet stab to the chest during the last hours of the Oka Crisis in 1990, Waneek Horn-Miller went on to become an Olympian.
March 23, 2006: Volume 33 #6
It was a 16-year journey getting there, but she did it.
And she was one of the fortunate ones.
Horn-Miller has seen a lot of misery in her Mohawk community following the nationally publicized dispute over the placement of a golf course on Mohawk burial grounds.
“People have committed slow suicide by doing drugs and drinking after the trauma that took place there,” she said, telling her life story to youth at the Embrace Life conference in Thunder Bay. “There were many who came out of it suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders and they turned to drinking and drugs to cope.”
And she has her mom to thank for it.
“When we were young, my mom, a single parent, made the decision not to allow alcohol into her home and she put us (four daughters) into sports instead,” Horn-Miller, a second-last child, said. “That decision really impacted my life.”
In kindergarten, Horn-Miller was more than a handful and was always getting into trouble with her teachers at school. She was a hyper child and methylphenidate, commonly called Ritalin, was recommended as an option to curb Horn-Miller’s hyperactivity. Ritalin is a medication commonly prescribed for people (usually children) who have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Not accepting this, Horn-Miller’s mom got a second opinion.
Another doctor advised her mother to put Horn-Miller into swimming so she wouldn’t hurt herself.
Her mom went one step further and also put her into cross-country running.
“My mom scrimped and saved to make sure we had everything,” Horn-Miller said.
They were poor. Everything was handed down as the older girls grew out of their clothes.
Horn-Miller didn’t have proper running shoes to wear to practice on her cross-country running team.
“I had big old Cougar boots that I had no business running in,” she said, pointing down at her feet during her presentation.
Her older sister agreed to lend her brand new shoes to the little girl. Horn-Miller headed to her first track meet with the big sisterly threat of ‘if you wreck them, I’ll kill you’ still ringing in her ears.
The shoes were two inches too big for Horn-Miller’s feet.
“I stuffed toilet paper into the ends and made my way to the starting block for the two-kilometre race,” she said. “I didn’t win. There was no way you could run in shoes that big, but I did finish that race.”
The race exhilarated her.
“I got the bug as I was running,” she confessed. “I knew then that I was hooked on sports.”
Horn-Miller clearly remembers the day she decided to become an Olympian.
She was eight years old.
It was during the 84 Olympics and fellow Mohawk community member Alwyn Morris was representing Canada as a gold medal contender in the sport of kayaking, she said.
“My mom got out an old TV, antennas and little balls of aluminum.
“As she was tinkering with those rabbit ears, suddenly, through the snow, I saw Alwyn Morris competing in the 1,000 metre race.”
Horn-Miller watched as Morris cried tears of joy after he won.
“He got on the podium, bent down, got his gold medal draped around his neck and as he straightened back up, he pulled an eagle feather out from behind himself and raised it up,” she said, her smile widening. “In my eight-year-old mind I had somehow managed to convince myself that he was doing it only for me. Seeing a guy from my community doing that made me realize that I can be the best in the world.”
Horn-Miller said she then turned to her mom and declared that she too wanted to go to the Olympics.
“Rather than laughing it off as a child’s fantasy, my mother very seriously told me ‘if that is what you want, I will do everything in my power to make that happen.’”
With the support of her mother, Horn-Miller began training.
Six years later, sports saved her life.
When Horn-Miller turned 14, she was stabbed in the chest by a soldier wielding a bayonet. She had been protecting her four-year-old sister while in the fray of a 78-day standoff between Mohawks and the Canadian military.
“A doctor later told me, ‘had it been one millimetre each way, the bayonet would have sunk through your heart,’” Horn-Miller said. “Many of the people that went through the Oka Crisis are now dead having self-medicated themselves with drugs and alcohol. My form of self-medication became my sport. It consumed me.”
Horn-Miller said she also became her little sister’s mom in the wake of the crisis.
“I remember going to parent/teacher interviews at 15,” she said. “At 18, I made the national (water polo) team and made the senior national (water polo) team at 19.”
After coming home from practice one day, Horn-Miller’s history buff mother informed her more than 100,000 Iroquois warriors were killed in the Ohio valley in 1676.
“I went to bed that night wondering what to do with that information,” she said. “It was then that I decided that, according to the laws of natural selection, that I’m descended from one great warrior – one of the few who survived – and that I too am strong as a result.”
Horn-Miller turned to the gathered youth at the presentation and said “See. You can choose to cry over those fallen warriors or recognize those who lived on.
“How I honour him(the one who lived on and who I am descended from) is to be the best that I can be,” she said. “I want my ancestors to do the same of me. I want them to say ‘She was tough. She never gave up.’”
Horn-Miller said it’s time for this generation to move forward.
“We have got to thrive,” she said. “In my life time, I want to see a Native prime minister. Our people are tough. We don’t quit after one failure. We don’t back down. We’ve proven that again and again.”
And when she faces personal battles each day, Horn-Miller said incentive is close by.
“When I need inspiration I look to you and am inspired,” she said, pointing around the room at the young faces looking back at her. “You humble me because I see a lot of natural talent in you. I know what you are capable of.”
Her final remarks were greeted with a hearty round of applause.
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