Get to Know a Warrior: Connor Crawn


Arron Wirik

Connor Crawn practicing his…cop face? or warrior face? or both?

Arron Wirik, Freelancer

Warrior Ink conducted a short interview with our current one and only (as far as he knows) Native/Indigenous student in a high school of over 800 people. Connor Crawn is a Senior at IRHS, and claims membership in the Mohawk tribe here in NY. Connor was profiled because of a series of short videos he has done on our televised (public access) morning announcements, for Native American Heritage month. He has also attempted to educate us on the MMIW cause, and is pursuing coursework in Criminal Justice. We talked about his experiences here and those topics generally.

WI: So our first question, do you identify as a member of a specific native tribe?
CC: Yes, I am Kanienkehaka, which means “people of the Flint.” We are now known as the Mohawk Nation.

WI: Ok. Do you think of yourself as more indigenous or more American?
CC: Definitely indigenous. I have a Native American father and a mother with Scandinavian and partially native roots. I’d be considered a half-breed by most people, but I mean in my heart [I’m] really devoted to being indigenous.

WI: How long have you been here at Indian River, in the district?
CC: I’ve actually been going to Indian River my whole life.

WI: Do you like the high school generally?
CC: Overall, yes, I enjoy the high school. I’m very appreciative of the opportunities I’ve been given to spread native awareness within my school.

WI: And that was through the History Club [advised by Mr. Thomaris]?
CC: Yes.

WI: So, kind of a sensitive question. The district has used a lot of Native American imagery over the years, decades really, including some stuff that would definitely not be accurate. The big headdress with the Plains Indian, right. How do you feel about that?
CC: Honestly, I think mascots as a whole are somewhat dehumanizing. If you think about it, do you see any other races [being used] as mascots like you do Native Americans? Typically, the only other mascots used are animals….going back to headdresses, everyone thinks that all natives had these big, large headdresses and in fact, those are based off the Plains natives, some native tribes don’t even have headdresses.

WI: Right. In fact, the Mohawk tribe is where we get the Mohawk hairstyle from, which would be a much more accurate depiction of a local tribe. So, this whole big “PRIDE” push, which is actually using the [stone] spear as a symbol. What do you think about that? Has it affected you at all personally? The “PRIDE” thing?
CC: I don’t really think it’s affected me at all in regard to the schools pride. I think the only thing that could be a little upsetting about it, is when people can get overzealous for school pride events, like painting their faces how they think an “Indian warrior” would. It’s kind of ridiculous honestly, because [something] like face painting is a big part of native culture. And it is quite significant to our religious beliefs.

WI: Have you witnessed anything that you would consider discrimination here?
CC: Honestly, I don’t think I have witnessed really any kind of discrimination [recently]. I guess that the closest to it [for me] was while growing up [The other kids] would never believe me when I told them I was Native American. And it got to the point where it so bad that nobody even believed that my father was my real father.

WI: We do have sort of a reputation in the area, the Southern Poverty Law Center says that northern New York, not counting just Jefferson County, but St. Lawrence County as well, where there are more actual reservations, for instance, is one of the worst places to live that way in terms of racial harmony in the Northeast.

WI: Have you been on any reservations?
CC: Yes. I typically go to the Akwesasne reservation with my father once or twice a month, typically. I [have] also attended the Oneida reservation, [and the Kahnawake Mohawk reservation].

WI: And what has been your experience that way in terms of life on the rez versus life off the rez?
CC: Well, I mean, in northern New York, the whole [of] northern New York is kind of impoverished, but reservation life is harder…Some reservations are better than others and some are more poor. But again, they’re not necessarily better.

WI: A little higher standard of living, maybe? Ok, the next thing I want to talk about was your campaign on the morning announcements. First of all, what inspired you to do that?
CC: Nothing other than the fact that I’m extremely proud of who I am. I’ve noticed that there’s always been a lack of native representation in the school. I attempted to do some things last year, but I didn’t really get anywhere. So this year, I wanted to make it bigger. It being my last year, I had to make sure I spread that awareness, which I could as a senior.
WI: You kind of saw it as your chance to educate people.
CC: Yeah.

WI: Where did you learn the native words and language that you used in your announcements or your videos?
CC: Thanks to technology [laughs]!  I found an app that teaches the Mohawk language, and I use it occasionally to try and increase my Mohawk vocabulary.
WI: Do you get a chance to practice any of that with like face to face on any of the trips you make to the rez, or do people mostly speak English?
CC: Yeah, for the most part people speak English on the rez.

WI: Digging a little deeper on [what you said earlier about representation]. Your education here in terms of like social studies and things like that. Do you feel that it’s been lacking in terms of acknowledging Native Americans and their contributions to culture and history?
CC: Absolutely. I mean, the only time we really talk about native culture history is, you know, with 11th grade history, maybe fourth grade when you talk about New York State, but there’s always such a lack there. So I want to try and increase that discussion in classrooms.

WI: Have you gotten any feedback from students about the videos that you’ve done on the announcements?
CC: I’ve got a little bit from people telling me that I’ve done a good job and such… That’s really all.

WI: Do you see yourself as a minority here?
CC: Yes, in fact, I do. I’m one of Indian River’s only Indians.
WI: It’s a good way to put it.
CC: I don’t really have that ability to connect to anyone [else] on a cultural level. So, yes, I do see myself as a minority here.

WI: You’ve had that experience then of sometimes being the only indigenous person in a classroom where they’re discussing Native American history and social studies.
CC:That’s correct.
WI: Was that uncomfortable?
CC: A little bit. At times I would speak up at times to try to increase [the scope of] what was being talked about. Again, just try to push [back] a little.

WI: Have you found your teachers to be mostly receptive to expanding that conversation?
CC: Yes, actually. For example, my history teacher last year, I noticed he took some indigenous history and discussed it more throughout the class.

WI: Yeah, I mean, this time of year, especially that season between like Columbus Day and Thanksgiving, there has been a push in education to, well, there are entire cities and states now that are pushing to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. What do you think about that?
CC: Honestly, I think that that’s a better way to go. Because what you don’t talk about or what history doesn’t teach you in classes is that Columbus was a slaver. He was lost trying to find his way to India. And he enslaved the native people or he killed them. He [just] wasn’t a great man.

WI: So I think that yeah, that’s a pretty big understatement there. He was personally responsible for a bunch of murders [of Taino people], we understand that now. But it’s the kind of thing that it’s difficult to discuss with fourth graders, for instance, like you were talking about, like how do you tell, you know, 10 year olds that?
CC: I don’t know…
WI: So is there a point where you think that that sort of conversation should happen? I mean, is waiting until the 11th grade history too late for that?
CC: I’d say really ease into it, if that makes sense, to discuss it, but not necessarily in fourth grade. If they did do that, changed to Indigenous People’s Day, they could just talk about indigenous cultures and people, keep it positive.

WI:So, currently you are taking Criminal Justice courses out at BOCES.
CC: Yes.
WI: Can you explain what made you choose that?
CC: I mean, honestly, I’ve always had an interest in law enforcement, even since a young age. My grandfather was a state trooper for a [short period of time] in the 1960s. But I’ve always felt like law enforcement is my calling.

WI: I mean, without being too blunt. Native people have a pretty complicated history with law enforcement. Native men in particular are more likely to be killed by the police than pretty much any subgroup you can name. And while we don’t see too many high profile cases like [the Black Lives Matter movement], it’s been sort of a slow and steady destruction. That doesn’t generally make the news. Have you talked much in your family about that?
CC: I really haven’t talked [too] much to my family about it. But, I have mentioned it, of course… That’s a very clear statistic that’s often overlooked. Not to really get to race issues, but a lot of people believe that African-Americans that are killed the most by police officers when in fact it’s American-Indians. And that never makes the news like it does with any other racial group.
WI: So [a] follow up on that. Why do you think that is?
CC: I mean, honestly, the only thing I can think of, [is that it] could go with the substantial levels of mental illness within American Indians… and the substance drug abuse and alcoholism.

WI: Okay. So that being some of the reasons why native people might have negative experiences with law enforcement, they’re too often getting negative attention from the police.
CC: Yes. Yes, I do believe so.
WI: At the end of your campaign, you started to talk about [a lack of attention to] another issue, the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women issue. That’s something that’s just barely on my radar as a teacher, as a reasonably well-informed adult. And it’s only because of guys like Vincent Schilling at Indian Country today who have brought that to my attention. It doesn’t normally make the mainstream news at all. And yet the problem seems very large. When did you first become aware of it?
CC: I first became aware of the issue sometime during my junior year. I realized how bad the issue really was. So I started doing more and more research on it and I discovered how bad it really is.
WI: Can you give us any numbers on that?
CC: Oh, yes, actually, Native American women are killed [at a rate] 10 times higher than the national average despite making up such a small demographic within the United States. Also, one in three Native American women will be raped in their lifetime. I mean, that’s one of my cousins. That’s a scary thought. It’s sick, honestly.
WI: One in three, you said. Yes. That’s like…33 percent. That’s pretty harrowing numbers. Part of that, though, someone in law enforcement might say part of that is due to tribal sovereignty. Can you talk a little bit about what the problem is there?
CC: Yeah, there’s a lot of complications within jurisdictions. Tribal sovereignty is the basis. [Basically,] Native American reservations are their own little countries within the United States.
WI: That means that the states lack control over a tribe’s governing and decisions.
CC: Right, so tribal reservations can make their own laws, courts, police forces. But it gets really complicated when it’s a non-Indian offender on tribal land and the crime that is committed. It becomes a federal issue then. And the FBI has to be sent in or the Bureau of Indian Affairs has to be sent in to investigate and prosecute. And it gets very complicated with that. A lot of people know that they can get away with these crimes committed on Indian land. So it’s a big thicket, big jurisdictional thicket.

WI: Would you say that the tribes would definitely prefer to have their own law enforcement for the most part?
CC: Yes. So they don’t, again, have to be subject to a state’s laws. I mean, that is written into some of the actual treaties that make some of the reservations legal or possible. For example, the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua [here in NY]. Which was between the Haudenosaunee and the government. And it says how [the government] recognize their government to government relationship with the Haudenosaunee, allowing them to be sovereign.

WI: That’s not something that a lot of people really understand. Is it something that you have ever had any experience with traveling to various reservations? Do they have their own police?
CC: Oh, yes, For example, you can see that at Akwesasne. They have the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Police. And the other reservations like Kahnawake up in Quebec. They have their own police force, and the Oneida Indian Nation of New York. They have their own police force.
WI: These are some of these things are news not just to myself, but probably to other people who never maybe spent much time thinking about these issues.
CC: Oh, definitely.

WI: The culture in America as a whole; it seems to be getting more divided that way. I don’t know if that has been your personal experience. Do people shy away from talking about these things because they don’t want to talk about politics or things that they consider political? Or do you find that people are more willing to talk about them than maybe they have been before?
CC: I’d say people are more willing now, especially when you see these activist movements. You can’t ignore that. Most people have to say something about that. They have to address it. So I say it’s but it’s more talked about than before.
WI: I mean, I know personally my interest really got sparked by some of the big protests at Standing Rock against the Keystone Pipeline.
CC: Yes…
WI: And the ability of native people to bring in others through the use of social media and those sorts of non official channels. It wasn’t happening in the mainstream media at all. The media wasn’t covering it. It was all social media that was was really amplifying those things. Have you found social media in particular to be beneficial [to native causes] that way?
CC: Oh, absolutely. I mean, most people have social media and it’s possible that they could see these things on social media. I think it’s really beneficial in spreading awareness.

WI: There’s been some criticism recently of some of the big social media companies like Facebook of promoting political ads or misinformation, allowing people to use their sites for things like, you know, white supremacy groups. Have you run into any of that online?
CC: As in white supremacy groups or anything? Really not that I know of? But I did see [a presentation] at BOCES, discussing white nationalists ideals and white supremacy as a whole. I think it’s very interesting…. Interesting how common it really is.
WI: Indeed. I mean, the SPLC [Southern Poverty Law Center] does keep track of groups like that. Sometimes their classification of them is kind of interesting, but it does seem like social media does make some of that negative stuff easier to spread. Also, the same time that like, for instance, it does help activists spread stuff like the protests that [occurred] at Standing Rock.
CC: Yeah, it does seem also to allow people with negative information to spread easier access that way, too.

WI: Teenagers in particular are very susceptible to social media. Many of them might even say that they don’t pay any attention to mainstream media at all, that they get all their news through social media. Can you comment on what’s your experience that way? Do you pay any attention to the regular news?
CC: Honestly, typically, no, because they are right. There’s a lot of news that is spread throughout social media. You can find a lot of information through social media. It becomes a problem when it’s falsified [or] it’s incorrect. But I think social media is quite beneficial, but it also does have those negative factors as well.

WI: We were talking about Sherman Alexie, before I started recording. He has been a really strong force in [modern] native culture in terms of telling stories and making sure that they get out to a wider audience and the storytelling tradition that he sees himself as a part of. So [your story] you know, sometimes being the only indigenous person in a classroom. Are you gonna carry that into a career in law enforcement? That sense of ‘I know what it’s like to be the only minority in the room.’ Do you think that’s going to impact you in the way that you pursue your career?
CC: I would definitely. It’s going to affect my career. I would personally like to go to tribal law enforcement or the Bureau of Indian Affairs and work with native communities and help native people as much as I can. And I guess [as] for information being spread, I like to just spread that, you know, native people are people, too. We have our own cultures and beliefs. Maybe explain that more. For example, a lot of people don’t understand why we have long hair or tattoos and piercings. Those are big cultural things to us.