MIKE PHILLIPS: THE SACHEM SPEAKS
Unlike other LOTM cast members, we knew little about Mike Phillips ... his background, his career, his life. We were interested in his experiences, opinions and reflections on LOTM. We decided to ask 'Sachem' if he'd allow us to interview him. Most graciously, he said yes. Prior to our interview of February 2, 1999, we spent several hours talking with him ... getting to know him. Not only did we gain a better idea of who he was, we were treated to the pleasant, humorous reminiscences of a very proud, kind, and reflective man. A truly nice man.
This interview is a bit different from our others in that we sought not only LOTM anecdotes and perspectives, but also Mike's stories about his life. It is, at times, a narrative ... offered by a man who, perhaps more than any other cast member, is extremely proud of LOTM. His pride goes beyond satisfaction of his work, beyond appreciation of the film. His pride is one of a personal nature, for Mike Phillips is first and foremost a Mohawk. For him, working on LOTM was an opportunity to experience another time; to step back and feel as though he was walking with his grandfathers. It is a sentiment he expressed throughout our conversations. As he himself said; "The Last Of The Mohicans ... is me!"
Mohican Press: Hi Mike.
Mike Phillips: Hello!
MP: Let's jump right in. Tell us about yourself. What's your Mohawk name?
Mike: My Mohawk name is Kanentakeron. If you can say "Ca-na-da-gay-ru", it would be just about the same. I was born here in Kahnawake, July 23, 1930. This was during the depression times. I grew up with my grandparents. Seems like there was a ruling, or a law, at one time that said that they [each family] had to have one male member on the Reserve at all times, so that my parents would not lose their membership. They had to leave one, one son behind, just to hold the membership.
MP: You were the oldest child?
Mike: I was the oldest one in my father's side, yes. I had another first cousin, my father's older brother had a son, too, staying here doing the same thing, holding the family's name. This was the belief. I don't know, really, for sure if it was the real truth, you know? So many different things that we had to follow. My father was never educated, so he believed whatever other people would tell him. Same as my father�s brother. My mother was educated. She had a little schooling. I believe, maybe, sixth to eighth grade, or something like that. They got along pretty good, and she done all the paper work and everything. We stayed in Detroit from 1936 to 1943. I had younger brothers and sisters that knew the Mohawk language ... understood it, but would not speak it. I was the only speaker. I wasn't very fluent because I was losing it. So, when we came back here to Kahnawake, I used to go visit my grandparents and have to bring an interpreter. Whatever I wanted to say, he would say it for me, you know? I could understand everything that was going on. It was a nice way, and at the same time I gradually picked up the language. Going to school, a lot of things that I didn�t know, a lot of things that I asked my father, would be some bad words I�d hear on the street in Detroit. I would ask him something and he would say, "Well, that�s a bad word and don�t repeat it." This is the way I went about it. I used to come back ... when I first come back to Kahnawake I was like the new kid on the block. Everybody picking on me and my kid brothers, everybody had to try me, you know?
MP: How old were you then?
Mike: About 13 years old. Going to school, they would all be speaking Mohawk and I would be ashamed to make any mistakes that ... they�d laugh at me. One time I was trapped at the school by three boys. Well, I thought I was going to be ganged up. The boys come up to me ... only one of them come up, and he told the others that, "I�m gonna fix Mike�s medicine!" He got in a boxing stance. Now, in Detroit I boxed a lot. I fooled around with a lot of friends. I could handle myself in a fight, just being a teenager at 13. Anyway, I listened to what they were saying, and he says he was gonna fix my medicine, so I waited and he come rushing at me, boxing stance, he had his hands covering his face, you know? I faked one left to his face. He brought up his hands. His belly was open so I hit him in the belly. He brought down his hands to hold his belly and I hit him in the nose. Come across with the other one, hit him in the chin. Down he went. And his two friends, they were shocked, they didn�t know what to do. They picked him up. He held up his one little finger and he says, "This Mike is lucky that I got a sore finger or he would have really got it." In the end, they�re speaking all Mohawk. They were shocked when I ... I was so mad, at that time now, that the Mohawk come out of me just like nothing. So, I told him, "Whenever that finger heals we can try it again!" I guess my word passed like wildfire through the school that they ... everybody thought that I grew up in Detroit, never spoke the language, and all of a sudden I come through like that. Anyway, it was weird. Gradually, I learned more and I was able to speak ... to this day, right now, I�d say my brothers and sisters do not talk it, but they understand it. I joined this group, right at the moment ... we have a language group in Kahnawake trying to teach the younger people the using of the Mohawk language in the right, proper way. There�s a lot to it, it�s ...
MP: You described it as a fun language.
Mike: Well, once we lose that, we are no longer the Mohawks that we think we are. It�s very hard, in a way, but they�re picking it up. They�re not using it properly, more like they�re reading from a book. They know exactly what they�re reading, they know what they�re talking about, but it doesn�t sound right. This is what we�re trying to teach them.
MP: Are you working with kids?
Mike: Kids and grown-ups. Anybody that wants to listen. Just to give you an idea, you say you are a New Yorker ... Do you know Lackawanna?
Mike: Alright, Lackawanna in Mohawk ... it means, if you mention size ... he�s an enormous man ... if you mention that name with food, then he�s an enormous eater. He has an enormous appetite. A lot of people say they become fluent just like nothing. Oh no! It�s very hard because people get stuck with different words. It�s nice, though. I�m able to speak a language in a way that my grandfathers, and the grandfathers before them spoke. I am able to do this. When I told you before that I speak the Iroquois language ... I can understand and speak, if I was speaking with an Onondaga, or Oneida, or Cayuga, or a Seneca ... I listen to him and then I would talk just like him. And we would be talking amongst each other just like normal persons. It just happened ... it�s nice, and that is exactly what happened when I was in the making of The Last of the Mohicans ... Going back to that, all the different people that were taking part in the movie, the extras, some were from Cattaraugas and Tonawanda, around Buffalo, New York. They had the Seneca people, and there were some from Six Nations ... and you have Oneida, New York and Oneida, Ontario ... and these people, they spoke the Iroquois language. They were Six Nations, except the Tuscaroras. They�re the ones that never spoke the Iroquois language ... they were adopted in the 1700�s.
MP: From North Carolina.
Mike: Yeah, from North Carolina. Half of them went south, and half of them came up north. They settled around Niagara Falls. Anyway, these people, when I was making the movie, they actually come up to me and say ... I was maybe extra friendly with everybody, you know? It�s nice being this way. You greet everybody. You�re not above anybody. We�re still the same people. So, I greet everybody the same, and everybody liked that. They speak freely with me. Usually, some big chief, you don�t go up and talk with him unless you�re asked. But, me? It was different. I was able to talk with anybody.
MP: Well, then, you make people feel comfortable.
Mike: Yeah, well that�s ... Yeah, in one way, yes. They come up and they say, "You speak our language good!" ... you know? "You speak damn good Seneca. You speak Oneida. You speak Onondoga." You know? I could speak with a lot of them ... You know, I viewed the words that I had to say ... that wasn�t in the book ... There�s a lot of words that I put in. The idea is that when I was interviewed for the first time, Bonnie Timmerman ... she was the casting person who came into Kahnawake ... when she hand me the script ... she chose me among maybe forty men ... she took me out of the group and she hand me the script and she says; "Here," she says, "can you learn these few lines? Come back and tell me in an hour�s time." So, I took it home and I looked ... I went through it. Whatever words were in that was impossible for any Indian to speak, you know? So, I brought it back and I spoke about the lines and everything, you know? I spoke whatever was talked about ... I spoke it, but, I�ll tell you one thing ... I said, "It ain�t exactly the way it�s written in the book ... because in this book it�s a white man trying to talk like an Indian and they can never do that." So, she looked at me and she says, "Mike, you�re just the man we�re looking for." You know?
MP: So she gave you the script to read from?
Mike: The script, yes. She gave me part of what I had to say ... and the idea of the words were not right. You know ... "your hair would look like the moon ... part of the moon and part of the skies" ... you know, the dark moon and all that. Now, there ain�t nobody�s hair like that! Either you�re black ... or you�re brown ... it�s nice, you know? The color of a tree or something, you know? We don�t mention the skies or different things like that. When we tell a girl she�s nice ... she�s NICE! [Laughs] She�s nice ... maybe she smells like a flower or whatever ... The idea is that we don�t soften. We act it out, you know? We do nice things. And it�s not the same thing as, you know, come out with a Valentine or a bunch of flowers ... like that. Sure, we buy candies and everything, you know?
MP: Sure. When we spoke the other day, you were talking about your family & the importance of language ... that it continues to be spoken. Could you talk about that?
Mike: Well, the idea is that my family is really one of the last ... one of the last that really has full blood, you know?
Mike: Like my grandfather ... his Indian name ... he only had two names ... his Christian name was Mike ... you know, St. Michael in the Church ... and his Indian name, Kanentakeron. So, when he traveled in the Medicine Shows ... he got hired by Buffalo Bill ... and everybody that he worked with always had problems spelling his name. So, this timekeeper that was working for Buffalo Bill ... he [grandfather] asked him "What is your name?" He said, "Phillips." "Well," he says, "can I use that name, Phillips? I�ll give you two dollars if I can use your name." Two dollars was a lot of money ... at that time, say, early 1900�s ... you can imagine ... or, even before 1900�s. Two dollars was a lot of money. So, he worked with this timekeeper and anytime he spelled his name, it was �Phillips.� It was just like having a Russian name ... or a Polish name ... [Laughs] It was hard to try and spell it! So, this was the way it was. He come back and he changed his name and he told his brothers and his cousins, "Alright, this is the way we�re gonna have our name." You know?
MP: So, you became the �Phillips�?
Mike: They changed to �Phillips.� So, we were one of the last families ... when my father was born in 1901, I believe it was, ... see, I got a younger sister that married a non-Indian and she had to move off the reservation, but in the United States she can get an education for her children if they could prove they were 1/4 blood, you know? But, she�s got to prove that she�s Indian so she went to a lot of different churches ... See, at a certain time, the time when my father was born, they had problems with the priest here ... that they done all their business with the Church across the river in Lachine ... so, when my sister had to look for his birth certificate ... they had to find the mother and father, plus the grandfathers, for her ... so, one day she come across my father�s. Well, my father�s was alright ... his name was �James� ... in French it would be �Jacques� ... same in Mohawk, they call it �Jacques.� James/Jacques Tihodachee ... and it�s got an "alias Phillips." Then, all of a sudden, HEY! Here was the proof of my grandfather�s stories. Here it is down in black and white. "Alias Phillips" ... [Laughs] ... It wasn�t a true name. It�s weird how different things worked out.
MP: And you have the same exact name as your grandfather.
Mike: I have the exact name as my grandfather. In the Screen Actors Guild I go as Mike Kanentakeron ... and even in ACTRA in Montreal, I have the same name. Mike Kanentakeron.
MP: Okay ... school? What grade did you go until?
Mike: Well, I had problems. I don�t know if it�s hearing problems that I had when I was young ... or if it was just the idea that I spoke Mohawk. I spoke only Mohawk when I left and when I started school I started in Detroit. I looked back at the papers that I have ... I went away in 1936 and I didn�t make my First Communion until 1938. Usually, the children, they make it in the first year, you know? Here I am ... I make it almost two years after. I must have been a very slow learner ... or I couldn�t hear properly ... Then after, I made my First Communion and Confirmation ... this I don�t know for sure, but it was advised that I change schools. They put me in a public school. They switched me to a different school and I picked it up fast. I didn�t have to learn prayers anymore. I was free and easy. No slap on the hands, you know? The nuns were known for that ... I started learning fast ... Then all of a sudden my father got hurt and he couldn�t go back to work. He took it easy for about six weeks or two months ... something like that. But the idea is he didn�t heal enough.
MP: Where was he working?
Mike: In Detroit. I couldn�t name a specific place where he worked. He was working all over. I would ask where he was working and he would name different places where he worked ... and he would also talk about the young boys he was working with ... he would mean �apprentice� ... well, for him ... he would call them �young boys.� Well, holy smokes! I was in a hurry for him to take me to work ... "I�m a young boy!" I said, "Why don�t you take me?" [Laughs] "No, these ones are a little bit bigger ... they have to carry in water ... and do a lot of things I do. They have to climb and they�re not scared to do that."
MP: Your father worked in iron works?
Mike: Yeah. Yeah, that�s how he got hurt. There was a hose connection that come undone from the riveting gun and it was whipping around loose in the air ... there was no way to shut it, so he just went to grab it, you know? As he went for the hose, he just happened to touch the tail end of it and the tail end whipped and hit him in the knee cap. Shattered his knee cap. And so ... he�s got six kids. How�s he, you know ... what�s he gonna do? Gotta get back to work ... can�t live on two dollars a week from compensation.
MP: How old were you?
Mike: I was thirteen. Or just gonna be thirteen. We had to come back to the reservation. That�s when I went back to school here. I think I was going in the fourth grade. Here, I tried to come back and ... here in Canada, proper grammar ... English, there�s lots of difference ... How do you analyze a sentence? A verb, a noun, a pronoun ... we weren�t learning that yet, you know? So ... I got up ... I�m lost! My spelling was something terrible. But, the only thing is, I was way past everybody when they�d start to counting. I could go around circles with them. To read ... even to read, I don�t think I was that good. I had a lot of problems. I asked my father when I was about fourteen and a half ... I says, "What do you say you sign this paper?" I says, "I�ll go to work someplace. Even if I don�t make much money, it�s money on the table ... than me having to go to school, no money or nothing." You know? "I ain�t learning nothing in school!" I said. Well, he looked at it and he signed it. I went to work on the farms. I went to work in the glass factories ... any place that would hire me. This was during war time ... I think I was working some place on the job ... in a glass factory in Montreal, or just on the outskirts of Montreal ... and my father�s friends passed. I was sitting down on the porch with my father and two men stopped. I knew both of them ... and, they come out and they start joking with my father, you know? And they says, "By the way, we�re looking for a man to help us ... maybe a young man ... just to catch the rivets and stick the rivets in. They�ll be no heavy work." So, he points to me and he says; "Do you think your son could do it?" I�m watching everything. I�m listening to everything but I got no word in anything, you know? And they asked my father, "You think he could do it?" He says, "Take him. His stones are big enough." In other words, his balls are big enough, see? So, that�s how I went to work ... And working with all the old-timers put me more in power to talk Mohawk. I was working with people my grandfather�s age and my father�s age ... and, just the way they talk, you know? ... that I picked up more on it. And so, it was a simple thing to name any kind of tool or any kind of wood ... trees ... birds ... fish ... name anything. The weather ... if it�s cold, if it�s mild, you know? ... Speaking about the weather ... a lot of times I hear people talk, "This man�s real cool," you know? ... I think in my Indian language, "I�ll be damned! It�s only hot and cold." So, that "cool" ... it means you�re not so hot! ... [Laughs] "He�s a cool worker." [Laughs] You�re not so hot! There�s a lot of things, you know? Direct ... there�s no going around it.
MP: Where were you working? Were you traveling around ... working in Montreal?
Mike: Yeah, I was working in Montreal.
MP: Do you speak French?
Mike: Oh, just a couple of words. I try and shy away from it ... In Last Of The Mohicans they had two teachers trying to show me how to speak French in the movie, because there�s some French language that I spoke in there ... Finally, this assistant director pulled me to the side and we start talking together over coffee and everything. All of a sudden, she says, "You know what I�m gonna do?" she says, "I�ll say the word ... one little word, and you say it back." Alright ... then, she starts saying one word at a time and she would write it down the way I say it, you know? And she shows me the paper, "Now! Now, you say these words that you talked about." Holy smokes! "The white man comes like dawning of day. ... Le-blanc-te-a-com-bluc-de-jour." Holy Smokes! [Laughs]... How easy it is! And these other people, they wanted me to speak Parisian French, you know? ... Holy Smokes! The way that come out ... and in front of Michael Mann. Holy smokes ... He says ... he slaps himself on the head and says, "That�s perfect!" He says, "That�s JUST the way I want you to talk." [Laughs] Us Indians can�t be talking Parisian French! ... Everything I done, you know ... it seemed to be right perfect. There�s a lot of little things that I put in, you know? Just listening to what�s going on and sitting right on the set. The cameras rolling and all of that, but they�re not rolling on to me. You know?
Mike: All of a sudden, Daniel Day-Lewis and Wes Studi ... they�re enemies. They�re sworn enemies. And they meet in front of me, you know? This got to me ... how can I tell them to stay quiet? That�s enough ... or what, you know? So, I�m beating my brains for a word. I�m the only one who really understands what I have to say ... so, all of a sudden ... I can�t tell them to stand or stop. It�s the same thing ... you stand, you stop. You don�t do anything, you just stop. It�s more like �stand� and they�re both standing. You can�t say that. Then, I can�t say "quiet" ... like little children. They�re not children ... So, I was pouring myself a drink of Pepsi in the hotel room and as I poured it, I said, "Damn! It�s right here in front of me." I poured a glass ... like pouring a bowl of soup or something ... you know when to stop. You say �when� or �that�s enough.� So, we have a word for that ... just a plain "toe." I told you that the last time ... "Toe!" The things I come across ...
MP: It was a powerfully well delivered line. Okay, Michael Mann gave you a script in English and he gave you the freedom to translate it into Mohawk?
Mike: Just about, yes. They gave it to two women in Kahnawake ... and I think they got credit for the Delaware speaking, but they didn�t get credit for the Mohawk speaking ... in the movie, you know? And they wrote all the words for Wes Studi to say ...
MP: In Mohawk?
Mike: Yes. And whatever I�m supposed to say ... I read part of it but I don�t really read Mohawk. I talk it but the idea is, I can�t read it. So, some of the words that were said ... I could change some words because it doesn�t sound right to say the words. I asked different ones what these words are for, you know? ... and they tried to explained it. I had to change it ... wrong.
MP: In earlier conversations you had told us that Michael Mann allowed you a lot of freedom to change the scripted dialogue to whatever you felt was more realistic and reasonable. He seems to have been more receptive to your input than he was to other people�s suggestions.
Mike: YEAH. Towards the last part of the movie ... the last day of the lease that we were shooting on ... where everybody was at the wigwam ... not wigwams, the longhouses ... and, when I passed judgment ... the lease was up ... I was walking back and forth and saying, "Alright, the book calls for me to" ... we were still trying to follow the book, too. James Fenimore Cooper, alright. He said "the chief nods", you know? Now ... I nod and it doesn�t do anything for the movie. So, the lease was up that day and we run short of light and he told me [Michael Mann], "Hey, hang around a couple of days." You know? He�ll think of something. By rights it was supposed to be finished but ... So, he got me back about four or five days later on the mountain ... on the opposite mountain. They put up a platform and everything. I walked back and forth about ten times, nodding my head, you know? He says, "Mike, that nod doesn�t do anything for you." He says, "What would you say if I said �Take that man�?" [Laughs] ... It sort of brought a smile to my face and I backed up two steps, I come back two steps and I look at the camera and I said, "Ya-tsi-soh-wah-ya-da-ha" ... meaning "to take the man ... take him." TAKE THAT MAN
MP: This was after the rest of the village scene was filmed?
Mike: Yeah! It was finished completely!
MP: Well, it came out perfectly. It was beautiful.
Mike: Yeah! And, just the way I looked and smiled at him, you know?
MP: It was perfect.
Mike: It come out perfect. And he says, "Mike, why the hell didn�t you do that five days ago? You would�ve saved me two million dollars!" [Laughs] That�s what he paid to rent the mountain.
MP: That nod didn�t do anything for you?
Mike: No, no! But when I said the words ... oy!
MP: They were VERY well delivered. That was a great scene.
Mike: Oh, I think so. People from different parts of Canada called me up and told me how proud they were to have an Indian play the role and talk the way I did. There�s a lot of power in the language.
MP: Yes. You said you were trying to use the book when you were recreating the scene ...
MP: While you were creating yourself as the "Sachem", were you using the script, the book, and your own common sense?
Mike: More of common sense.
MP: And Michael Mann gave you the freedom to do that?
Mike: Yeah, Michael Mann gave me free reign.
MP: Well, it was a smart move!
Mike: [Laughs] Well, you know ... "Do it again! Do it again!" I done that movie actually in three languages. I done it in French. I done it in Mohawk. Then after the shooting, we done it in English. Holy smokes! I said, "I didn�t even study." He said, "Well, you go and say what you can remember." And the cameras, you know, they�re right next to your face, you know? You can�t look for anything ... they tried to put a mike in my ear and they had a wire down my back. They tried a lot of things ... and they went and put in place boards and ... they put them up over their heads ... by geez, it didn�t work. It couldn�t work because the camera man would catch me and my eyes would move up to catch the message, you know? So, now I had to be on my own.
MP: Now, this scene, the whole village scene ... your thing in the movie. What was your impression of it as far as its realism? Were you pleased with it?
Mike: I was very pleased with it, yes. I was pleased with what I had done. I was pleased with what I was doing. I was pleased to be playing the part ... doing my thing. And the talk ... and to look at how everything was. It almost put me back, say ... for me to step back in time three hundred years ... and to talk the language of three hundred years ago. You know what I mean?
MP: Yes. Yes, we do.
Mike: That�s just the way I felt ... going back. And when I see myself ... holy smokes! I didn�t want to tell anybody but I was proud of myself.
MP: You seem proud. You should be. Were you pleased with the way Michael Mann set up that scene? The whole thing?
Mike: Yes! Yes! He double checked a lot of things. He asked me a lot of things about the war paints and everything, you know? Tattoos ... everything. I went through our library and all the books that I had and I took all the pictures ... if I couldn�t get the books with the pictures, I would get photostat copies. I took a lot of the papers ... how they were dressed and everything, you know? The way I was dressed ... they�d say, "Do you want beads? Do you want this on your neck?" ... you know? I told them, "No. A chief would usually give away anything he had to someone poor." He would always give it away. That�s why I had only a blanket ... a blanket and a bracelet. The blanket was elk skin, I believe ... elk hide. Elk hide, decorated and stained. It was a museum artifact. So, they had a guard special for ... as soon as I finished shooting a scene they would wrap it up and roll it up in plastic.
MP: It was borrowed from a museum?
Mike: Yes. I have no idea which one.
MP: Okay ... you were pleased with the film. It seems to us, based on what other people who had also been in the movie have said, that Michael Mann gave you far more freedom than he did others. You seem to have had MUCH more freedom.
Mike: Oh! You better believe it! [Laughs] I mean ... he built me up, you know? He gave me self confidence. I�m a speaker for different groups ... I�m a drug and alcohol counselor ... I work with the drugs and with the alcoholics. I go to AA meetings ... I go to different places and I speak before groups ... schools and what, you know? So, I would say I was free and easy. I could have the camera come in right in close, you know? It didn�t bother me.
MP: You were comfortable before the cameras?
Mike: I was comfortable.
MP: Going back a bit ... you were not an actor before Last Of The Mohicans?
MP: What did you do?
Mike: Well, I went back to school in �79. I had lost my wife in �72.
Mike: Yes, Jeannine. And I started to drink so much that my friends here in Kahnawake, they wouldn�t hire me. They knew I would get drunk or be drunk in the morning ... or be sick in the morning. Sometimes I wouldn�t even bother showing up, so even the company started noticing ... I was a good man ... I was this and I was that ... but all of a sudden, nobody wanted me anymore. So, this was one way of getting out. I went to Detroit and started working my way back up. And people there, they started offering me jobs ... like a foreman again, you know? They were gonna give me a pick up truck and everything. Holy smokes! I started liking that. Agh! But the idea is, I tried drinking again. So, I was away and that first week ... I�d take maybe one or two drinks and it didn�t bother me, you know? Then, the next week, I�d take again ... two drinks or something. Finally, I hit parties ... with young girls and friends of mine. Holy smokes! You know, I passed my two drinks. Three drinks ... four drinks ... I lose count, you know? Saturday, I�m sick ... start drinking all over again. Sunday, the same thing. Could you imagine how I look on a Monday morning? I went to work and the foremen ... they liked me, you know? ... but the idea is that I didn�t feel like working. "Okay, take the rest of the day off." Then, as soon as I go around the corner I hit the first bar, you know? The next day I�m just as bad as I was the day before. So ... I said, "Wrap up my time. I do not want to get caught here on skid row in Detroit." So, I says, "I better go home." They were sorry to see me go but they knew where I was. By the time I got home, my son had smashed up my car ... ooh! Yi yi! ... I didn�t have a car anymore.
MP: You have four children?
Mike: Four children. I had three children with my wife and one two years after my wife died ... with a French Canadian girl ... a woman ... she was the same age as me. She thought it would change her life ... and so I got a daughter who is twenty-five. She�s married in Detroit.
MP: Do you have grandchildren?
Mike: Grandchildren ... I have seven. With my two sons ... one son�s got two daughters and a son. His oldest son�s named Kanentakeron, like me.
MP: Before your wife died, did you drink like this or were these problems all following her death?
Mike: Social drinks, you know? I�d go out for a couple of beers ... "Alright, I�ll see you in a little while." ... "You�re cooking supper, I�ll go have a beer." You know? On weekends we�d go out sometimes. We used to go to the nightclubs before we were married. You know, I�d come back from the states with a lot of money ... I took her to a lot places ... a lot of places where I was working. Buffalo ... New Jersey ... New York City ... Brooklyn ...
MP: You worked in ironworks in NY?
Mike: Yeah ... I was always doing ironwork.
MP: So, you left Detroit and went back home. Was this �79?
Mike: Yeah. And I went to a treatment center ... I spent six weeks in a treatment center and they gave me the idea, you know ... They said, "Is there anybody like you at home?" I says, "No." They says, "Well, you should try to help. Get a group going or something." And right away I started thinking about it ... since I�m not going to be doing ironwork anymore.
MP: For counseling?
Mike: For counseling, yeah. Alright, I got the priest, the ministers, the chiefs, the social workers ... the social worker director told me about this school that he wanted to send me to, because I had to have some type of certificate to prove I�ve got some backing, you know? So, I went to school at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. It was very hard. Here ... if I tell you that I went to school at the fifth grade level and I quit all that time ... just sign a check ... that�s about all I can do. So, here I was in school ... when the professor starts writing on the blackboard ... writing sentences ... Holy smokes! ... using damn big long words! I had problems with the �u�, the �w�, the �i�, the �c�, the �a� sometimes if he didn�t close it. So, all this writing and I was trying to correct everything as I was going, but I was too slow. Can you imagine ... maybe I got three sentences and he picks up the eraser and says, "Has everybody got this?" I wasn�t gonna raise my hand ... I didn�t want to be a �dumb Indian� ... so he erased it. You know, I could honestly feel the tears come down my face ... NOT on the outside ... on the inside. That�s how bad I felt. Then, he starts using flip charts. Flip charts, well ... flip charts were something different. He used these big flip charts and he paste them against the wall so we can go back on it, you know? If we start talking too much on certain things he didn�t want to have it erased, so he�d go back to these flip charts. So, I told myself it�d be nice if I could make a photostat copy, you know? By this time, I was getting disgusted enough to say "go home and stay home," you know? ... But here, alright. Now, I started taking pictures of these flip charts. When I got home ... I used to go to school one week out of every month for a little more than two years ... And, when I used to get home with these pictures, I used to use a magnifying glass and a dictionary so I would know exactly how it was written and what it means. And I�d put it on nice clean sheets ... by the time we graduated, I come out in first place! Determination ... Holy smokes ... I couldn�t believe it.
MP: You came out with a degree as a counselor?
Mike: As a counselor, yes. Drug and Alcohol counselor. Then, when I come out the following year, our group got larger all of a sudden ... The counselors started working together and we all had to go back to school again. But, instead of going to the east coast, they sent the professors to Montreal. At Montreal, we had people from Oka, Maniwaki, Sainte-Ambroise, Ristigouche, Ouareau ... different places that the Indians came from. They weren�t all Mohawks ... Mic-Macs, Algonquins, Hurons ... anyway, they start teaching us in Montreal and people start asking me not to be too smart about it, because I had just finished it. "Oh no!" I said, "No, no. I�ll keep my place." Can you imagine seeing a movie and now you have a chance to see it back again? And so, this is how much enjoyment I got ... and of all the things I was studying, I was studying myself ... that I could talk about it, you know? I knew myself ... how I felt and what I was doing. Going to school, we role played. And that was one of the roles I ... now, being a counselor you gotta change your hat at a given notice, you know? The next person coming in the door will be different. There�s no two the same. In other words, you gotta have a hat on to suit that person, so, you gotta learn how to talk. So, I wrote a script and I played it out ... and I think if they were giving out Academy Awards, I would�ve took it! [Laughs] ... But, the idea is, people told me, "You know, we watch a lot of soaps ... and TV and all that. But when we see you come up like that! Holy smokes! You shame the whole goddamn bunch!" ... So, I had that in mind. I never gave it any thought, you know? They sent me a copy a couple of years later ... But, the second time we were going they tried to do the same, and I start writing a script ... I told them how I�m a drunken husband ... how I�m going to behave ... and I told them I had a sister-in-law that I says, "I�m gonna slap against the wall," I says, "Don�t get shocked. This is no fooling." The way the wrestlers ... the way they do, they hit the canvas with their feet and their hands ... so, when I grab her I�m gonna hit my arm before I have her. I�m supporting her with my arm ... but I�m gonna "Bang!" ... I�m gonna have a hell of a bang on my arm. So ... I�m supposed to be drunk and getting ... had enough of my wife�s nagging and all of a sudden I get mad and we�re on camera ... [Laughs] The director of our office ... oh, he ... when I grabbed hold of her and I slapped her, he was in such disbelief that he give a yell, you know? He was SHOCKED! ... And, now, I try to get the same results but it wouldn�t do anything anymore. So, we had rested a couple days and we tried different angles ... different things, but it never worked out. Although I never got any papers or any notices ... but I still got one paper from the director at that time ... he said, "Anytime you want to go, maybe we can get together and we can do something." I guess he knew I could act. It come natural to me, I guess.
MP: You�re a natural born actor then?
Mike: Yeah. I guess I WAS, yeah.
MP: Well, it paid off.
MP: When you were doing the role playing ... obviously, you were learning what you needed to help other people ...
Mike: To be a counselor, right.
MP: Did you learn anything about yourself?
Mike: Yeah, actually, deep inside, I was learning about my problems ... my drinking problems. How to work with it. So, these people I talked with ... a lot of times I said, "Don�t say I don�t know. I was there! I know what the hell I�m talking about." ... you know? A lot of things that I done already these people are only talking about. And these guys in the university ... they�re only studying about me ... I know about me. I guess this is how much more I knew about different answers. HOW to give answers. WHEN to give answers. [Laughs] ... It�s weird, you know?
MP: Hmm-hmm. After you had gone back the second time, were you able to implement a program at home?
Mike: Uh, yeah. Well ... the first time I had a design, you know? We had a plan for different things at the university. Alright, the plan was for me to start a half-way house. We have a hunting ground between one reserve to another. Oka and Kahnawake. We have a hunting ground and I was gonna ask them to get the chiefs together to say we�re gonna build it ... and I had it down exactly how long it�s gonna take. A plan. Everything ... the plan and the work. How we�re gonna go at it ... And I go to my director and my director, he rub my name off ... he put his name. Then he put it before the board of directors that he had ... to see his proposal. Now, the board of directors ... and the director ... he erased the name and then he put HIS name on and he put it through and got nothing! [Laughs] They got a treatment center over at Oka called Onontugoh [SP?] and they work on the same principles that I started. But the idea is, I didn�t want to start a treatment center. I wanted a halfway-house. People out of de-tox would go to this halfway-house and they would help themselves ... maybe with the help of a counselor coming in once in a while ... or maybe have a counselor in there at all times so they can talk with somebody. You know? And these people at the halfway-house, they could go outside and have a job, you know? And come back at night. So they�d be on their own ... at least they�d be trustworthy.
Mike: Here ... you lock them up in a treatment center ... you let them go ... Holy smokes! Where they gonna go? They have no idea what to do on the outside. So, if they were let go once in a while, then they would have a feeling of what it is to be free ... and be back, you know? The bottle�s always gonna have that hold on them. So ... this was my idea. I had so many different plans ... so many different ways to work with it.
MP: It didn�t become a halfway-house? It became a treatment center after all?
Mike: I started with a halfway-house, they put a treatment center.
Mike: The treatment center�s going right now.
MP: It is ... Well, they must have liked your plan since everyone was in a rush to put their name on it.
MP: When Bonnie Timmerman came looking for people to be in the film ... how did that come about? Did she put out the word for people to show up?
Mike: She went around choosing ... went around choosing. We still had to go and get interviewed and fitted by Michael Mann, you know? They had to ... you know, for a costume or what. But I told them, "What the hell. I don�t need a shirt or anything. Just give me a blanket." He asked me why ... well, the chief, he would give the shirt off his back to someone that needed it. Because a chief ... he would become a chief because he was so good ... But now, I�m an ancient man. I don�t have nothing but this blanket. And ain�t nobody gonna take the blanket off me! [Laughs] I know one thing ... as I�m coming out of the longhouse to give the talk he told me to walk feeble, you know? And he had the cameras on me. So, I start walking feeble ... "Hey, hey hey! Mike!" he said, "Mike, not that feeble!" [Laughs] So, I had to do it over and make it a little faster. And there was five cameras going at all times. It wasn�t just one camera.
MP: What did you think of Michael Mann?
Mike: Michael Mann ... I found him, uh ... happy go lucky. Ah, there was a few times, a couple times, people were going "Shut the hell up!" He quiet them down. They were getting rowdy ... He was nice. I was treated with ... with dignity.
MP: If he gave you so much freedom to have input into your dialogue and that scene then he must have respected you.
Mike: Yeah. He asked me how did I like Wes Studi ... when he was talking. Alright, I told him. "Wes," I said ... he was talking Mohawk and the way he was talking Mohawk, he was too slow, you know? This ... that ... these ... and that ... you know? There�s no word to ... "Kah-na-teh, kah-na-teh. Do this, instead of saying ..." Go at it slow. ... Kah-na! Kah-na! Then, I asked him, I says, "Well, this is three hundred years ago. Three hundred years ago we were close with all the Indian people ... the Iroquois language was known all over. The Chippewa would be able to understand one another ... we�d understand whatever he�s saying. Anyway, he was supposed to be Huron, but the idea is I want him to be fluent as he�s coming out. I didn�t want ... I didn�t want no screw ups, you know? [In a prior conversation Mike had explained that he "gave Wes a break!" Since Wes� language is the Iroquoian Cherokee, it was easier for him to speak it with fluency and realism while still being true to an Iroquoian dialogue.] So this is a way of speeding it up ... and when he finished talking his part, he [Mann] didn�t ask me what I think about it ... "Well, how do you FEEL about it?" Michael Mann asked this. I said, "Alright." ... "Good. Alright, it�s a wrap." [Mann] That�s it. But if Michael Mann was an Iroquois, or Mohawk speaking man, he would have knew where I stood. You know what I mean?
MP: Yes, sure do. Wes Studi is Cherokee ... so, in the end he was speaking in Cherokee ... not in Mohawk.
Mike: Yes. Because there were some words that he was saying in French and in ... he had three different languages ... "tut-tugo-tu" ... And he was doing a damn good job and I says, "Do you speak your language?" "Yeah." I says, "Use it." And then, I thought about it later and ... it surprised Cherokee speaking people that they hear their language ... given an opportunity to be able to speak that. So, you can imagine the way I was looking at it. I wasn�t meaning to screw up anybody ... play up to anybody. With good reasons, what I done.
MP: I could understand that. It would certainly be easier for Wes Studi to play his role that way. Be angry, be upset ...
Mike: Yeah. Yeah, sure! I could have actually said, "No. No. Let him go over and over." You know? It would have been just a goddamn waste of time.
MP: That was your suggestion ... not Michael Mann�s?
Mike: No, it was just between me and Wes.
MP: He must have appreciated that. So, how did you like him?
Mike: Wes Studi? Ah ... give or take. No, he�s got a boat to travel in, by himself, you know? We had to do our own thing and at the same time, we�re different ages. So ... we were friendly with each other ... that�s about it, you know? ... [Laughs] I�ll tell you one thing, we met in Tecumseh. I met him in Hollywood ... we were at the premiere show in Hollywood. And I met so many different Indians, Holy Christ! My hand was ... I don�t know ... how many times they shook it ... And he was with Floyd Westerman. So, a chance for Wes to come around ... Christ! I was pulling my hair on the side, you know, and he looked ... he says, "What the heck! What are you doing?" He says, "Mike! You, son of a bitch! Did you get a face lift?" I said, "What the hell do you mean?" [Laughs] He says, "Christ!" he says, "You�re good looking." [Laughs] ... I says, "Well, I washed my face." [Laughs] ... " I don�t have make-up on! Don�t forget," I says, "I was made up to look like a ninety year old man." ... I tell you, when I wash up and ... shave and everything, you know? ... it makes me look young, you know. [Laughs] He was really SHOCKED! ... That was some movie.
MP: Last Of the Mohicans?
MP: Yes. That was a great movie ... looking back on it now, what impact do you think it had? Positive or negative ... Did it make its mark upon the audience?
Mike: Oh yes. It made its mark. I can imagine ... even me, even me ... to look at it and say ... I look at it and say "Son of a bitch." Can I imagine my great-great grandchildren will be looking at that someday and they�ll say, "This is my grandfather."
MP: And you were proud of it?
Mike: And I was proud.
MP: Okay. You met Wes Studi again after LOTM. How about Eric Schweig? Didn�t you work with him again?
Mike: Yeah. Red River ... Follow The River ...
MP: Have you gotten to know him at all?
Mike: Well ... He had a problem on Red River. I told him to his face ... he had a traveling companion and as soon as I started talking with him, the traveling companion got up and left the trailer. And I laid it down. I didn�t hold no punches. He�s a lot bigger than me. A lot younger ... But, the only thing is I told him, I says; "Look. You�re gonna have to travel your road by yourself. I don�t wanna have to keep telling you this, I�m only gonna tell you once." [Note: Mike related a heart to heart conversation between he and Eric where he had offered advice as an elder. We have edited this out to respect the privacy of both men.]
... It�s not much! It�s not much but it means a hell of a lot. There�s a lot of things that I talk about ... and I use the shortest way possible. I don�t beat around the bush on anything, you know? So, I try to explain to people what I mean. I make up, maybe little stories about certain things, and to make the stories come out ... it ends up, it�s about me or about certain people.
MP: I see. Alright, you look at this role as the Sachem and your other roles, since you�ve been in several films since The Last Of The Mohicans ... are you able to combine your culture with the films you are in?
Mike: Yes. A lot of them. There�s lots ... Tecumseh. I had ... the director wanted me to stay extra. He was gonna write more parts to say to make it more interesting. So he asked me ... actually, in Tecumseh, I�m burying the person and he had no idea how to go about it. And I just mentioned ... they wanted something like "have God" or something, you know? Even down to tying the platform that they lowered ... I took four pieces of 1/2 inch rope and I tied a [inaudible] on each end. He says, "What are we gonna do?" I said, "You just throw it in before you bury him." And I mentioned, "Alright. We put our brother�s body back into Mother Earth. Raise him back with Mother Earth and have his spirit go to our Creator." So, you know ... I could sound original ... nobody writing this down.
MP: Hmm-hmm. And have it true.
Mike: Yeah. The same with the wedding ceremony. The wedding ceremony ... when they�re getting married I am the one who performs the marriage ceremony. I says, I don�t know how I�m gonna say that but I�m gonna try to keep it simple as possible and write it down. So, I don�t remember the names but I say the names and how he�s gonna cover her with this blanket ... or deerskin. He�s gonna cover her and keep her away from the cold, the hunger, and protect. And I says ... "I make them as one. May the Great Spirit grant you a lot of love ... and children." That�s it. Holy smokes, you know? The things I was saying, it sort of matches just right, then all of a sudden, by Jesus, I had to leave because I had a commitment in Montreal. I could have took a plane out to Montreal and back. I didn�t think of it that way. I had my car with me and all ... uh, it�s hard, you know? He felt bad that I had to leave cause he said, "We could write more parts about you." You know? But the idea is he actually wanted people for three days and stayed for four. And he wanted me some more ... because I was adding on more than he expected.
MP: So, you were developing his character for him?
Mike: Yeah. See, I have a certain thing about me that other people will see ... will all of a sudden come across it. "This man has extra powers or something ... something�s wrong. Something about this man." You know, I�m the old fashioned way ... and at the same time ... you asked me if I was Catholic ... if I told you I received all the Sacraments of the Church except Holy Orders you'd be doubtful. Extreme Unction ... the last rites ... I received that about 13 times. Double pneumonia. That was almost fifty years ago. Anyway, there's a lot of things ... I carry a medicine pouch with me at all times. Now, in the medicine pouch that I have is the tobacco that I smoke ... the meat that I eat ... the corn that I eat ... the medicines that I use ... hair from my loved ones ... my children ... piece of birch bark ... roots of medicine ... pebble ... even flint ... dirt from my reservation ... grass from my reservation ... All these things. I even have the kernel of corn ... two types of corn ... Even these things ... roots and berries ... apple seed ... All these little things I carry. I can hold it in my hand and say, you know, I tell you and explain to you ... alright, what I have here in my medicine bag, my medicine pouch, is what the sun shines ... the moon ... the stars ... the whole universe. Suppose if I was to take in my fist and raise it in to the universe and say "Here, I carry the universe in my hand." How does that sound to you?
MP: Well, it sounds right. You have every little piece of your life with you, it seems.
Mike: Yeah. You can imagine, some people ... you know they ... like I stop them from breathing, you know? All of a sudden they say, "You got something!" [Laughs] It seems hard to believe and it�s hard to say in certain ways. And yet, for me, it�s easy ... Can you imagine, I can cross and be almost a White Man and step a couple steps back and I can be an Indian from three hundred years ago. The things ... how they hunt ... how they snared ... how the, the animals ... the medicines they used ... the trees they used ... how they used it.
MP: You sound as if your gift ... you�re able to communicate with everybody.
Mike: Yeah! I communicate with everybody!
MP: Would you describe yourself as a traditionalist? Or, as you said earlier, old fashioned.
Mike: I would call myself a traditionalist first.
MP: Is the key for you the language?
Mike: My language is Mohawk ... of the Iroquois people. I am not a Canadian. I am a North American Mohawk.
MP: First and foremost.
Mike: This way I don�t cross no lines. I didn�t make them lines. I didn�t make these borders. There�s only one law I look up to at times. I�m sort of a role model in one of the posters ... I hold a two row wampum in my hand and hold up two fingers pointing to the two row wampum ... and try to explain that this two row wampum, meaning the first treaty we made with the Dutch ... �You, in your way of life, will travel in your own vessel. And us, in our Indian ways, will travel in another vessel. At no place do we communicate. Your beliefs, your language ... we leave in your boat. Our beliefs, our language, our customs ... you leave in our boat.� That is the two row wampum. And it just happened that I posed for that in Montreal at the three hundred fifty year celebration. I still have a couple of posters.
MP: What year was that?
Mike: It goes back about six years ago.
MP: Okay. What you just explained is the meaning of the two row wampum?
MP: That would be about 1643 ...
Mike: It was one of the first years when they started communicating. See, the Iroquois people, or the Mohawk people, were one of the first ones really to communicate back and forth with the White Man. We were ... well known. Our strength ... the Iroquois people. Can you imagine? We kept the British and the French on opposite sides. We were so strong ... we were able to do that ... and the Founding Fathers ... they adopted the Iroquois Confederacy to the Declaration Of Independence.
MP: Yes, the Iroquois were very powerful and influential.
Mike: Well, your American dollar bill ... your seal of the United States ... the eagle has a peace branch, maybe an olive branch, I believe, in his claw. And in the other claw he has thirteen arrows and when they spoke with the Iroquois people and say, "Alright, where do we draw our strength?" We showed them ... we picked one arrow ... "Here, you break this arrow." He broke it and what does that prove? Pick up five arrows. "Now here. Break them." And when he got the five arrows he couldn�t even bend them. So ... this is where you draw your strength ... in unity. And they do not need a fire keeper ... like we do keep a fire keeper, which is the heart of the Iroquois people at Onondaga. We call them the firekeepers. But ... with thirteen fires going ... don�t forget the Iroquois people knew exactly how they were going about different things. Where ... the thirteen fires you could have been having ... would never have the fires going out ... will never lose its flame. There�s a lot of things that are taught and we kind of passed it on the way we learned it. It wasn�t written down anyplace ... but we keep talking about it and how everything came in its proper place. And to say, alright, if we start going ... making up stories then it�s not the true thing anymore. So, we got to talk of it being a true story. A story told by our grandparents and their grandparents. How everything came to be. And this is how the traditionalists kept everything going at all times.
MP: The bundle of arrows you were speaking about, had that anything to do with the beginning of the Confederacy?
Mike: Well, Hiawatha was different. He was supposed to be the peace maker ... come with the peace maker to make peace with the Iroquois Indians ... to stop fighting amongst ourselves. And to bring us together as a nation. The Iroquois. So he bring us the Mohawk, the Cayuga, the Seneca, the Onondaga, Oneida, and later on, the adopted Tuscarora. So, that brings us six nations ... but at that time we were talking about was only five. So, we�re talking of five arrows. And when they seen the strength of five arrows, they put the thirteen arrows in that seal of the United States. If you take out a dollar bill ... you look at it, you see the eagle�s got an olive branch on one side and the thirteen arrows. Nobody really looks at it ... and gives this kind of lesson that you�re getting tonight. [Laughs]
MP: Hmm hmm. Okay, the other thing about strength ... the way it�s passed on to child to grandchild ... who are you passing it on to? And how?
Mike: To my grandchildren?
Mike: My grandchildren ... they�re starting to bring this back up in schools. See, when I was going to school it wasn�t brought up. We were reading about the savages. And how they attacked the Jesuits ... they martyred them. This is what they done ... and we couldn�t even speak our own language. After school, well, alright ... but to talk in school ... it wasn�t allowed. If we were caught speaking it in school we�d get a strap. And, I mean ... the history was written by white people ... and they named us savages and that�s the way the books were that I learned on.
MP: Your grandchildren are learning the oral histories in school?
Mike: Yeah. They�re learning the Mohawk language. I can name a lot of things and they can name animals down from the chipmunks and squirrels ... the beavers and all that, you know? It�s nice listening to them.
MP: And the traditions, or things that they�re not going to learn in a book ... do they learn them from you?
Mike: No, I don�t have the opportunity. They live on one far end of town.
MP: What about other children? Or just young people? Are you finding that the young people are learning these traditions?
Mike: Oh, they�re giving the language back to them. They�re giving it back. Lots of talk ... just the way I�ve been talking ... telling you stories ... telling you oral history ... family histories ... family stories. �This is what your grandpa used to do ... this is what he done� ... and all that. Well ... these stories that they�re talking about are things ... things that I done! Not about what my grandfather done ... or my father done ... because there�s hardly any of us left older than me. You know? It becomes hard. See ... I�m thinking almost like a little child ... thinking of my grandfather. And my father ... when I was fifteen and all that. A lot of things I had to learn yet. How to live and all that. Oh ... it saddens me, a lot of things. Like the seaway that passed a lot of rivers ... I remember when I just came back from Detroit ... the first winter we passed I used to ... anyway I could make money. I started to smoke and I needed ... I couldn�t get any money from my father, he didn�t have no money. We barely made off with any ... we lived on welfare. What money I could make ... I had to make it myself ... so, I�d go and carry water for different people, using a 5 gallon, two 5 gallon, pails with a yoke. Maybe get water at the river. The river water ... lot of times that�s what the people drink. They drank, they swam, they washed ... washed with it. I remember carrying water for old people, depending ... I used to even judge people at that time ... to say, good judgment of people. If those old people had no money I wouldn�t charge them anything. Give me what you want! Ten cents? I�d be happy with ten cents ... with a quarter. Alright, if people have money, I charge them fifty cents. Even then, they�d give me sixty cents, 75 cents, you know? A tip because of the money they had. At that time, that�s the way I went. A pack of tobacco, cigarette paper, and all that, would cost twenty cents. Thirty cents? I�d have me a nice pack of cigarettes. And so, I got by with it. And, at the same time, when my father was short money I�d pass him a dollar, two dollars, a week. And to some people I work with, a dollar a week. Any time I had the opportunity to work at some factory, or do something, work with some farmer, alright, I�d come back. I remember one time, I worked on one farm several months - I must�ve been 14, it was during war time - and the farmer was selling potatoes at $7 a bag, 100 pound bags. That was a helluva lot of money, you know? The idea here was that it was tight. I come in and fifteen dollars was my pay. Working six days, ten hours a day, at 25 cents an hour. I give my father that fifteen dollars. He says, "I gotta buy potatoes." I says, "Go ahead and buy it!" And he give me back one dollar. He says, "Here�s your tobacco money." "Thank you!" [laughs] Never said anything about it. That�s just the way it was.
MP: It seems like you�re talking about a time when there was much more respect for people, particularly elders. What about today?
Mike: Today, I notice the respect is changing, to me. I notice that people who do not speak Mohawk, greet me in Mohawk and say "thank you" and "good-bye" in Mohawk. Any time I walk in a restaurant - well, I eat every morning in a restaurant - I sit with different people and right away they recognize me and they ... everybody seems to turn around and greet me, and people point to me and say, "Well, there�s the movie star!"
MP: Do you get a lot of feedback on The Last of the Mohicans?
Mike: Oh yeah, I still get feedback. I still get a lot of feedback. Oh, a lot of people still remember me. You know, and I�ll tell you, from off the reservation, different reservations call me up at times. They tell me, "I�m so proud." I make them proud to be an Indian. I says, "Yes. It does. This is what I think about, too." I�m seeing myself, and at the same time, 50 years from now my grandchildren will be seeing me. Hey, I had a movie that they were showing in here, and there�s a magazine I had ... it was my grandfather ... was in one of the first movies they ever made in Canada.
MP: Oh really!
Mike: Yeah, he was dancing by the church grounds. My brother come across that picture. He says, "Hey! I know that!" He says, "There�s my grandfather and the church!" Then nobody thought about it, but he noticed that the eves changed a little bit. They put two; there was only one at that time. This is over 100 years old, the movie. There�s no words in it. Just an idea ... Old newsreels ... did you ever come across it? And see them, the way they�re moving? Well, it�s the same thing.
MP: Oh boy! Where was this filmed?
Mike: It was here. Done in Kahnawake. It was shown in Montreal a long time ... I forgot the name of the store, I mean the show, but I went, and everybody�s caught in their own glory there. I didn�t hang around much to find out. Everybody�s speaking French and all that. I back away.
MP: The feedback you get, on a personal level, is great. What about on The Last of the Mohicans? What�s the review? Is it positive?
Mike: Oh yeah, very positive.
MP: And if you could make any changes to the movie, what would they be?
Mike: Oh, I don�t know. I would like to hear the people be able to speak Mohawk more ... yeah, Mohawk, because a lot of them speak English. I know there were Lakota Indians that were speaking. The idea is to have more input by Mohawk speaking people, because there weren�t that many speakers. The had the lines written down. It was supposed to be Mohawk, but they say it was Delaware dialogue.
MP: Do you mean between Daniel Day-Lewis and Russell Means ...
Mike: Dennis Banks.
MP: Yeah, Delaware.
Mike: They were Sioux from ... out west ... [long pause]
MP: You mean Pine Ridge?
Mike: Pine Ridge, yeah. They had AIM, the American Indian Movement.
MP: Did you meet Russell Means and Dennis Banks?
Mike: Yeah. I was in a couple of movies with Russell Means. He spoke at the blockade. He spoke at Oka.
MP: So, you had met him before Last of the Mohicans?
Mike: Yeah, I met him at traditional meetings and I met him once at the ... what do you call ... in Oka. We were trying to get support to the Oka people.
MP: Are you friendly with him? Have you seen him?
Mike: No, I haven�t seen him since ... [pauses due to distraction] It�s just my stump pump we all hear, that big noise ... it�s raining, and melting snow, it�s going into the cellar, and that stump pump works! ... Dennis Banks, Russell Means ... I played a movie with him. A lot of times we don�t get to see each other, you know? We play in the same movie, but it�s shot different places. He played in Song of Hiawatha, where it�s shot someplace in the mountains in the snow. I didn�t get a chance to see him. I met Gordon Tootoosis, I met Litefoot, Adam Beach. Irene Bedard was my daughter. Mishe-Mokwa, I think, was my name. I was exchanging arrow heads, you know ...
MP: Daniel Day-Lewis. Did you get to know him at all?
Mike: Oh yes! He was the first one to ever ask me for my autograph.
MP: Oh really?
Mike: Yeah. [Laughs.]
MP: Is he a nice guy?
Mike: Yeah, yeah! A real nice guy. I mean ... if I was a drinking man I�d buy him a beer. You know, "Here, let�s have a beer together."
MP: Was there anyone you met during the filming of LOTM that you had developed a friendship with that you�ve kept or wanted to have kept?
Mike: Well, this one guy ... he come from Otatsa. He calls me often. We share different views and different meanings. He got me in contact with a girl that worked in the office ... she tried to make a go of it with casting. A casting agent. She worked in one of the offices as a secretary. Well, she tried to make a go of it. She had the contacts but she didn�t have enough on the ball for me. I went to work for her ... two movies. But, that�s about it. Then this guy I met from Bradford ... different guys that all of a sudden would come up, "Hey! We worked together in this movie." You know? I don�t really place them good, you know? Their hair grows back and ... they change, you know?
MP: Was anyone that you worked with on LOTM "Hollywood" or was everyone open & friendly?
Mike: Open & friendly. There was no talk about Hollywood and all that.
MP: You sound like you were very comfortable on that set.
Mike: Oh yeah.
MP: If you were going to advise a young aspiring actor today, what would you tell them?
Mike: Know your resources, I guess. Know your resources. Get to know the people. Get to know yourself better. Look at yourself from all angles. You know ... when I say �angles� ... can you put a cup in front of you?
Mike: Put the cup at your left hand side with the handle ... I�m sitting opposite you ... the cup handle is on my right, it�s on your left.
Mike: Alright. To the person at your left ... he�s looking at the cup and the handle�s pointing to him. To me, it�s the right. What about the guy on my left looking at the same cup? No handle! We�re all crazy ... See, til we learn how to look at this cup properly ... then you�d find your place. Even, I�ll say, the psychiatrists, psychologists ... even them people I talk with and I set them straight. [Laughs] It�s amazing! They say, "Where you coming from anyway?" Sit back and talk with anybody, you know?
MP: Yep. Well, that�s good. You�ve made an impression on a couple of people we had talked about who really, really like you.
MP: In everything you�ve done, what was your favorite role?
Mike: My favorite role ... [Long pause] I guess Last Of The Mohicans! ... Although, I�m thinking about Tecumseh. Song Of Hiawatha. ... Tecumseh ... Last Of The Mohicans is ... is me! It�s me. But the idea is, a more powerful field, you know? My thinking and his thinking are the same. I�m thinking for all the people when I�m saying different things that leave my mouth. I don�t want to have the Mohawk people later on tell me, "Hey, how come you didn�t say it this way? How come you said this word or that bad word?" I never want to have somebody come and say, "This is not right. This is not right." [Laughs] How come they choose me instead of you is all I can say.
MP: You seem very proud of that role.
Mike: Oh yes. Now, I want to know who was saying they found me very friendly?
MP: Oh ... [Brief private conversation.] You�re a nice guy and people listen to you.
Mike: Well, I think you�ve listened long enough. [Laughs]
MP: Yeah ... well, there�s a couple of questions I want to get in here before we stop. What do you think of the way sweat lodges are depicted in films? Or do you have an opinion on that?
Mike: Well, I think that some times the cameras are not right. The cameras should not be focusing on the people, but through the smoke itself. Through the steam. It should not focus on anybody. They can be saying whatever they want to say ... each one says something and whatever is said in there, it stays in there.
MP: Do you think there�s a great difference between Canadian & American productions, or the film industry in general - between Canada & the US?
Mike: Hmmm ... the Canadians are taking second steps. And they put themselves in that step. They don�t step forward enough. And I have to take whatever they give me ... whatever scraps. If I could do all my work in the United States, that�s where I�d do it. They pay better. And at the same time, they give residuals. Over here, over here they give you ... they buy you out. They give you 130%.
MP: And that�s it.
Mike: That�s it. They could show it a thousand times and that�s all you�re getting. That 130% ... of your total pay, you know?
MP: Uhmmm-hmmm. You like acting?
Mike: Yes. I like acting.
MP: Do you want to keep doing it?
Mike: I would like to. I would like to very much. But the idea is, as I told you, my legs are giving me a hard time. More people ... you know, for my part, it�d be nice to get ... what I want for my part is where I walk in, sit down, say whatever I want to say and walk off. None of this business of over and over and over and over and over. That gets to me. I know the extras have to do it. I played enough extras to say I hate that part ... over and over again. There�s somebody that has to make a mistake and the whole gang suffers.
MP: Okay. You�ve told us about your health and we really hope you start feeling better. We really want to wish you well & hope that roles that are good for you, that you�re happy with, come your way.
Mike: Well, there�s two roles that I turned down. I don�t know exactly what they were. One was in Toronto ... CBC. The other one was in Montreal. The idea is that the agency that wanted me was kind of flaky. This is what you got to watch. You can�t jump at every thing, you know?
MP: How many films did you make in North Carolina ... three?
Mike: Three of them. Last Of The Mohicans, Follow The River, & Tecumseh.
MP: Could we ever get you down here for a visit?
Mike: I would like to.
MP: We have to wrap this up now because we have very little tape left. We loved speaking with you.
Mike: That�s what everybody tells me! [Laughs]
MP: It�s true. We thank you so much.
Mike: Okey doke!
MP: We know a lot of people will enjoy reading this so on their behalf we thank you. After this is transcribed we'll send you a copy. We'd like to stay in touch.
Mike: Alright! Why don't you send a little note or card and write down your address? Maybe I'll send you some pictures.
MP: Sure. Thanks so much & you take care.
Mike: Okay. Bye!
We were glad we had the opportunity to speak with Mike Kanentakeron Phillips. He shared so many anecdotes, not only from LOTM, but from his life. He was interesting, humorous, perceptive, and very friendly. He is a man with many gifts; story telling among them. In all the stories Mike shared with us, one theme appeared over and over. He is compassionate ... he is determined ... he is proud. But more than anything else, he is Mohawk. His sense of his roots, his people's history & their well being was what we heard in him above all else. We thank him for showing us that.
Prior to the actual interview we had spent several hours talking with Mike. During these conversations he shared a lot of other stories that were not in this interview. His recollections of his childhood, his grandfather's stint with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, and much more. This is an interesting man with a fascinating life! We do hope all who read this come away with a sense of 'knowing' what kind of man Sachem is.
Our thanks to Rebecca for the contact! Thanks to Mike Phillips & Rebecca for the photos!
He will be missed.
From The Eastern Door, Mohawk Nation Newspaper:
Respected Elder Passes Away
Courtesy of Kenneth Deer, Editor
"Oh, a lot of people still remember me. You know, and I�ll tell you, from off the reservation, different reservations call me up at times. They tell me, 'I�m so proud.' I make them proud to be an Indian. I says, 'Yes. It does. This is what I think about, too.' I�m seeing myself, and at the same time, 50 years from now my grandchildren will be seeing me."
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