Home News The legacy of Christine Zachary Deom

The legacy of Christine Zachary Deom

Christine Zachary Deom wore many hats throughout her life, including one as a chief at the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake. Courtesy Alexis Shackleton

Ever since Alexis Kawenníshon Shackleton was a child, her mother, Christine Katsi’tsenhawítha Zachary Deom, instilled in her the importance of her Kanien’kehá:ka identity. It was a lesson passed down from generation to generation, something Zachary Deom’s own mother had always repeated.

“She always said that people were lucky to meet us,” Shackleton said. “She told me that my grandmother said, ‘Everybody wants to meet you because of who you are.’”

Zachary Deom went on to instill that message in countless people, and when she passed away last month at the age of 77, the impact of her death radiated through the community.

“The church was overflowing. The wake at her house was non-stop, the door was continually open, people were just coming in constantly,” said Zachary Deom’s nephew, Brian Goodleaf. “It was really nice to see that many people come out and show their respects for her, because she was one to be respected. She paid her dues and she earned her stripes.”

After the holiday season, Zachary Deom was hospitalized with an infection, and though there were initial signs that she was successfully fighting the illness, complications began to arise, which ultimately led to her passing. Despite her condition changing very quickly, family members were able to make their way to her bedside, and she died peacefully surrounded by family at the Kateri Memorial Hospital Centre (KMHC) on February 9. 

“She didn’t want to die just anywhere, she wanted to die in Kahnawake. And one of her other wishes too was to go out in style, so my cousin Alexis arranged a steel band at the church, and when we carried her in and brought her back out, the steel band was playing,” Goodleaf said. 

“She always had pomp and style. And when we laid her out she had all her beadwork on, her cuffs and her diamonds and everything. She would’ve been happy.”

It’s no surprise that the community came out in such force to remember Zachary Deom. She is known across the globe for her extensive work as a cultural advocate, historian and archaeologist, lawyer, and academic. 

She served as a Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) chief and was heavily involved in intergovernmental relations, spearheading the addition of the white pine symbol in the centre of the City of Montreal flag. She was also behind the push  for the renaming of “Amherst Street” to “Atateken Street” which means “brothers and sisters” in Mohawk. Those achievements led to her being awarded the prestigious Key to the City of Montreal in 2017.

“She always made an exceptional effort in everything she did,” Shackleton said, stressing that her mother was determined in every task she took upon herself. “She was a little bit frightening. She was known not to mince her words. Her approach was very diplomatic, but she was ready to take up the fight.” 

Zachary Deom commanded respect, something that Shackleton benefited from growing up. So too did the countless children who were taught by Zachary Deom during her 11 years as a teacher at  Karonhianónhnha Tsi Ionterihwaienstáhkhwa and Kateri School.

“As a teacher she always went above and beyond. She always made activities for the kids. I remember seeing ITALICSSTARTHEREStar WarsITALICSENDHERE five times, because she would take all her students in the car after school, and she’d make a huge dinner,” Shackleton said. 

Known for her own personal style and immaculate dress, Zachary Deom made sure her students knew the importance of staying presentable. “They had to dress in evening clothes to school in order to have this dinner, and we’d have proper etiquette, place settings, everything.”

Shackleton remembers how her mother beaded sky domes onto capes for the students when they graduated elementary school with her great-aunts and grandmother, and how the whole class would come to her grandmother’s house to help in the garden. 

“At that time they didn’t have language and culture classes the way we know them today; it was just the very beginning,” Shackleton said. “But they were so engaged in that. She would really have that class participation in everything.” 

Zachary Deom had a passion for teaching and mentoring, rooted in a love of education. Throughout her life, she obtained an anthropology and history bachelor’s degree from the University of New Brunswick, a Certificate of Honour from the University of Western Ontario, and a bachelor of education from McGill University, as well as a law degree from McGill after retiring from teaching. 

Her wealth of knowledge came both from her years spent in the classroom and her understanding of what it means to be Onkwehón:we, knowledge inherited from her mother, Louise Zachary, and father, John “Big Six” Jocks. 

Throughout her life, Zachary Deom always sought to pass on that knowledge to future generations. One individual who learned under her is archaeologist Katsitsahente Cross-Delisle, who met Zachary Deom when she was obtaining her degree eight years ago. She had discovered ancestral remains during a dig and reached out to Zachary Deom at the MCK for advice.

“We ended up talking for two hours about what had happened. A few days passed and I had this nightmare of what I think happened at the site. In Kanien’kehá:ka culture, when you have dreams, they’re messages from the ancestors, they have a meaning. So I said, ‘I need to call Christine,’” Cross-Delisle said.

“She told me, ‘Hold on to that feeling you have. Make that fire that burns inside of your heart mean you fight for those ancestors to make sure everything is done in the right way.’ I always keep that in my mind. Every time I’m on an archaeological site, I remember what Christine said about making sure you fight for the ancestors.”

For family, friends, mentees, and colleagues, Zachary Deom’s legacy will be eternal. But above all, what will be remembered is her unwavering commitment to her family, her community, and her culture.

“My auntie was a school teacher, a judge, a lawyer, a mom, a grandmother, but she took every one of those roles very seriously. If she committed to something, you had her 100 percent,” Goodleaf said. “She loved her community, and her greatest accomplishments were her family. She was one of the good ones. And her legacy is in good hands.”

evedcable@gmail.com

This article was originally published in print on March 1 in issue 33.09 of The Eastern Door.

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Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door. She has also covered harm reduction and social justice issues for the Montreal Gazette, The Breach, Filter Magazine, and more.

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Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door. She has also covered harm reduction and social justice issues for the Montreal Gazette, The Breach, Filter Magazine, and more.