Tsyotsyate Margaret Claus

I met Margaret on Valentine's Day of 2010. I was working on a project about grandparents who are raising their grandchildren and was at a support group meeting for grandparent caregivers. Nervous to talk to a group for the first time about potentially participating in a project, I had prepared a few words about the idea, and started by describing a previous project I had shot about women who had become mothers at a younger age than they had planned. Before I finished, Margaret interjected with her usual vigor and assertion: "So now she wants to photograph the old ones!" Everyone laughed. My talk was derailed, and I was so embarrassed. Soon it became crystal clear that this is just Margaret's way, and that behind an at times intimidating exterior is an equally strong kindness. I grew close with her and her great-granddaughter, Ellie, whom she has raised from birth, and they introduced me to countless friends and family members over the following years. It's because of my relationship with Margaret that this project came to be.

"My father was a fluent speaker, but would not use his language," Margaret told me. Growing up in Hamilton, Ontario, when her Mohawk identity was heavily stigmatized due to the results of long-standing assimilation policies, Margaret was not able to learn from her father, and says she rarely heard him speak in the language. After moving to Tyendinaga, Margaret enrolled in a two-year Mohawk immersion program at the age of 75. She has strongly encouraged Ellie to study Mohawk, and hopes she has opportunities to explore her culture to a larger degree than Margaret ever could herself. "She's grounded," says Margaret, "and knows who she is."