By: Esther Liu, Humans of McMaster Staff Writer
Please introduce yourself.
Santee Smith, Tekaronhiáhkhwa iónkiats, Kahnyen’kehàka, niwakonhwentsio:ten, Wakeniáhten. Ohswekén nitewaké:non.
My name is Santee Smith, Tekaronhiáhkhwa, I’m from the Kahnyen’kehàka Nation, Turtle Clan from Ohswekén also known as Six Nations of the Grand River. I have a long connection to McMaster University, first as an undergraduate student in the faculty of physical education and psychology. [Now], I am the current chancellor of McMaster University.
Please give a brief description of what you do as the chancellor and at the Kaha:wi Dance Theatre.
I'm also the artistic director of the Kaha:wi Dance Theatre. Kaha:wi in the Mohawk language means to carry. We are a performing arts organization who is really focused on embodied storytelling and sharing Indigenous narratives that are often underrepresented or misrepresented in popular mainstream culture.
As chancellor, I have the honorary position of being the head of the university. I am responsible for convocation, my name is on every single student's diploma. I am also the chair of the honorary degree committee and I also am a speaker at events. For example, the upcoming Remembrance Day event, I'll be delivering a message and [am] responsible for any other messaging and connection to faculties that would like the chancellor there to connect with the students, staff and faculty.
What inspired you to go into this work?
It was an invitation. I have a very back-and-forth connection to academia. I have a professional artistic career but also my background is supported through two degrees at McMaster University and a master's degree from York University. One of the interesting things about being a chancellor at McMaster University is that you have to be a McMaster alumna, so I fit the hat.
Also, I had a connection over the years to the president's office and especially past president Patrick Deane, who visited Six Nations, who visited my family. I also have connections to the Indigenous studies department. Recently in 2018, [I was] a part of the Socrates project which brought in community artists and speakers to share their work with the McMaster campus. So I was in-residency through Socrates and the Indigenous studies department and that's really how I became even more present in McMaster.
The work that I was doing as part of that was called the Mush Hole. The Mush Hole is a performance that shares the history of Canada's first residential school called the Mohawk Institute Residential School. My job not only as a creative, but as an Indigenous artist, is to share that truth and to educate others. I was invited by Patrick Deane to consider being chancellor. That was a wonderful surprise and something that I didn't plan for or didn't know was coming down the road for me in my life. So I gave it some important thought because of what I can contribute, especially due to my very busy artistic career, but also the important parts of representing the Indigenous and representing the arts and experiences that I would bring forward as chancellor.
What inspired you to become involved with the Kaha:wi Dance Theatre?
I was a dance artist and my training is in classical ballet. Since I was little, I attended the National Ballet School for six years. And then really, when I was a teenager, thinking about identity and being away from my home community and family, I felt something was missing. And I returned home. Then I pursued academics, but nothing really filled that passion and drive for performing arts.
The first opportunity I had to be creative and create choreography based on stories that are within my culture, I put two things together: my love of performance and body storytelling and sharing about my culture and being an Ohswekén Indigenous woman. My first choreography was in 1996. Since that time, I have been dedicated to creating, introducing new work and sharing with audiences around the world. Collaborating is a big part of it, being able to share with Indigenous and non-Indigenous collaborators.
What are your goals as Chancellor and as a dancer?
My goal for both is Indigenous representation and visibility. It's nice to see even for myself, people in positions that are — I don't want to say powerful in a colonial hierarchical power way, but that they're in positions of prestige and influence in offering that different perspective, in offering Indigenous perspective. For example, when I was growing up and studying classical ballet, I didn't have any role models who were Indigenous, except for one: Maria Tallchief. She was from the United States and she was a prima ballerina dancer.
My parents showed me her and wanted me to have an Indigenous role model. So I think that representation is really important, that offering different perspectives and stories, narratives that come from this land, Turtle Island, is really important. I want to do that as Chancellor, as an artist, as a speaker and offer that out both for role modelling within Indigenous communities and for everyone.
Do you have a favourite memory as chancellor?
For being chancellor, it was my installation in November 2019. That was the first time I became officially chancellor. Being a part of that ceremony and putting on my robes for the first time, being in the presence of all the graduates and the faculty on the stage and being able to hear the singing of my Indigenous colleagues and being dressed in robes with students within the Indigenous faculty. I would have to say that was a major highlight — a major life highlight — it was a bit surreal and it has a very ceremonial feeling to it.
Do you have a favourite memory regarding dance?
I had so many dance memories. Because all of my experiences are quite different and all of my productions are quite different, it would be hard to choose one. I love performing and I love performing artists. I just feel like out of all of the times of performing, the experience of falling into performance and being able to share with audiences in an 100 per cent committed, talk-inspired and dedicated way is why I do what I do.
Do you have a big takeaway from your experiences or message to others?
I think the biggest takeaway, for myself personally, that I continue to hold, is lifelong learning. Learning is never-ending. It keeps you inspired. It keeps you curious. It keeps you asking questions and developing and transforming. So, I hope to continue to be a lifelong learner. And I encourage everybody else to find that for themselves as well.