Last week, Kahhori, a new Kanien’kehá:ka superhero, took her first steps in Marvel’s multiverse when the entertainment company announced her role in season two of their animated anthology series, What If…?.
The show explores alternative possibilities to the storylines that comprise Marvel’s cinematic universe (MCU). In this season, it will ask what would happen if the Tesseract – a crystal cube employing portals to travel through time and space – had landed in the Haudenosaunee Confederacy prior to colonization.
“The Tesseract takes on a new life and a new mythology, transforming a lake into a gateway to the stars and leading Kahhori, a young Mohawk woman, on a quest to discover her power,” reads a statement from Marvel.
Kahhori means “she stirs the forest” in Kanien’kehá.
“In her debut adventure, Kahhori will have to live up to her name to recruit powerful allies into the fight to save her people and change the course of history forever,” said What If…? writer and producer Ryan Little in a press release.
Little worked closely with two Ahkhwesahsró:non – language expert Cecelia King and historian and consultant Doug George-Kanentiio – to ensure the representation and portrayal of Kanien’kehá:ka culture is as accurate and authentic as possible.
The episode takes place in Kanien’kéha and is informed by the history of the land in Akwesasne. It represents the Kanien’kehá:ka of the early 1500s.
“In accordance with our teachings that women are the centre of our universe, or life-givers, we said the hero should not be a male, but a female, a young woman,” said George-Kanentiioto.
As the father of young daughters, the significance of Kahhori’s gender was not lost on James Day, who is a lifelong comic-book collector and the organizer of Kahnawake’s premiere Comic-Con event.
“She’s a woman, and in our culture, with Mother Earth and everything… we all have a mom that we come from, so we all know they are superheroes,” said Day.
He’s excited for his youngest daughter to have a new on-screen role model to look up to.
“It’s very empowering for women…. They play a big role, and they’re just as strong as the men. So when they get showcased like that – because I find the guys get showcased for a lot of things that we do – for the women to get into that realm like that, that’s a big step,” said Day.
According to George-Kanentiio, the team worked for months on Kahhori’s appearance, agonizing over the details of her adornments, her clothing, her build – which George-Kanentiio likens to that of a lacrosse player.
“We wanted to make sure that she looked like somebody that if you walked down to Kahnawake today, or Akwesasne, you would see her and our women that look like her,” said George-Kanentiio.
Beyond her appearance, George-Kanentiio said they wanted to capture something he believes is essential to Kanien’kehá:ka culture: resilience.
“With every effort to stomp us out, either through residential schools, or through indoctrination or physically eliminating us, we’re still here,” said George-Kanentiio.
Day echoed this sentiment, saying, “People felt like we don’t exist anymore. But we’re still here and we still carry our language and we still have our social gatherings and everything like that.”
Like George-Kanentiio, Day sees the show as a unique opportunity to showcase Kanien’kehá:ka culture on the global stage.
George-Kanentiio, a journalist by trade who has written extensively about Kanien’kehá:ka culture and history, arrived at the project through his late wife, the Grammy-winning Oneida musician Joanne Shenandoah, whose music will also be featured in the show.
George-Kanentiio and Shenandoah were good friends with the late writer and professor, David Coryell, who taught his students about the negative ways that Indigenous people were depicted in film. One of his students was Ryan Little, who, influenced by his mentor, pitched the idea for the project to Marvel, according to George-Kanentiio.
“I was excited to draw on that experience to build an entirely original corner of the MCU with storylines for new Indigenous heroes written from a place of respect for past generations and optimism for future ones,” said Little in Marvel’s statement.
George-Kanentiio described his experience working with Little and the Marvel team as “exceptionally good.”
“They were just willing to make any changes that we suggested. They were adaptable, and they were really impressed with who we are as a people, as Mohawk people,” he said.
George-Kanentiio is hopeful that What If…? will help “to change the way the world sees us, and how the world sees Indigenous people.
“We’re hopeful it’ll start a series of other shows featuring Native storyline.”