In Canada, in the sport of water polo, one name stands above the rest, Waneek Horn-Miller. She is a strong and proud Bear Clan woman from the Mohawk Nation of Kahnawake close to Montreal. Mohawk people have a rich vibrant culture and history based on honour, trust, peace, respect, and leadership.

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waneek horn-miller canada hall induction
64th Canada’s Sports Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony

Waneek Horn-Miller Origins

Waneek was raised with her three sisters in a single-parent home by their mother, Kahn-Tineta Horn. As a young girl she remembers that at times there was no heat in the house or much food on the table but what they lacked materially, was compensated for with love and support to pursue their dreams.

Waneek remembers as a child, having a dream to someday participate in the Olympic Games. Waneek’s mom moved the girls to Ottawa to access better opportunities, where they shared a small room with a pullout couch that they all would sleep on, across from the YMCA.

Scraping together what little money she had, she purchased a membership for the girls at the YMCA, giving Waneek a chance to get involved in sports more seriously. Waneek’s mom often reinforced to the girls that opportunities do not come along too often in life, but you must seize them and maximize your efforts when they do.

Sports at an Early Age

In these early sporting years, Waneek noticed how rarely she saw other Indigenous Peoples participating. Wherever she went, she encountered systemic racial remarks.

Though she was incredibly young, she remembers, “It was an awfully hard and discouraging message to hear as a ten-year-old.” When Waneek asked her mother, “Is this true what they say?”

Her mother would always respond, “You get in that pool and show them,” which she did by winning three consecutive Ontario provincial swimming championships starting at age 11.

waneek horn-miller playing water polo
Waneek Horn-Miller (right), co-captain, battles for a loose ball during a water polo match at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. CP2863485, THE CANADIAN PRESS/Kevin Frayer

So Much More Than Sports

At age 14, Waneek experienced something much more challenging than just being a teenager, or training at the pool, where life would place her on the front lines of history in a conflict known as the Oka Crisis.

Waneek Horn-Miller holds on to her 4-year-old sister as she lies on Highway 344, Oka, Que., Sept. 26, 1990. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Waneek Horn-Miller holds on to her 4-year-old sister as she lies on Highway 344, Oka, Que., Sept. 26, 1990. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Close to the town of Oka, Quebec, Mohawk Warriors set up a barrier to block the expansion of a golf course that planned to build on unceded burial land sacred to the Mohawk community. This conflict continued for 78 days and received international attention. When violence broke out between Canadian soldiers and Mohawk Warriors on the last day of the standoff, Waneek, while carrying her younger sister, was stabbed near her heart by a soldier’s bayonet.

Suffering a near-fatal wound, the traumatic experience forced Waneek to the sidelines where she considered quitting sports for good.

Through her mother’s support and encouragement, a year after she was injured during the Oka Crisis, Waneek joined both Indigenous and non-Indigenous runners from around the world on the 1991 Sacred Run Canada, which started in Victoria, British Columbia, and ended in Kahnawake, Quebec.

In Sacred Runs, runners relay between different Indigenous communities and nations to revive a sense of strength and unity. In 1992, Waneek participated in the Sacred Run North America, which began in Fairbanks, Alaska, and ended in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Olympian sprint kayaker Alwyn Morris encouraged Waneek to return to water polo training. Waneek made the All-Star Canadian Water Polo teams for both Junior and Senior women from 1991-1999. In the way of her Mohawk ancestors, she successfully transformed what had been a frightening, tragic, racially polarizing event in not only her life but our country’s history into something so much better.

The Sydney Olympic Games

Ten years later, almost to the day, Waneek walked into the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia as co-captain of the Canadian Women’s Water Polo Team where the sport made its Olympic debut.

She became the first Mohawk woman in Canadian history to compete at the Olympic Games. Not only was she victorious in achieving her childhood dream; she seized the opportunity to honour her Mohawk ancestors by showcasing to the world how strong, tough, and capable Indigenous women are.

Her resilience and response to crises and challenges inspire us to look for the positive, even in the most challenging of circumstances, and create the best versions of ourselves.

Waneek Horn-Miller’s participation medal from the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. 
Courtesy of Waneek Horn-Miller
Waneek Horn-Miller’s participation medal from the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. Courtesy of Waneek Horn-Miller
Waneek Horn-Miller-Origins & Connections to Sport-Image 4
Waneek Horn-Miller-Origins & Connections to Sport

Waneek Horn-Miller FAQ

Why is Waneek Horn-Miller Important?

Waneek Horn-Miller is an important figure for several reasons, particularly in the realms of sports, Indigenous rights, and advocacy. Here are some key aspects of her significance:

  1. Indigenous Representation in Sports: Horn-Miller, a Mohawk from the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory near Montreal, is a former Olympic water polo player. She was the first Indigenous woman from Canada to compete in the Summer Olympics, participating in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Her achievement has been inspirational for Indigenous athletes and has helped to raise the profile of Indigenous participation in international sports.
  2. Advocacy for Indigenous Rights: Beyond her athletic achievements, Horn-Miller is a prominent advocate for Indigenous rights and issues. She has been actively involved in promoting awareness and understanding of Indigenous cultures, histories, and rights in Canada and beyond.
  3. Overcoming Adversity: Horn-Miller’s journey to the Olympics was marked by significant challenges, including a traumatic incident in 1990 during the Oka Crisis, a land dispute between a group of Mohawk people and the town of Oka, Quebec. She was stabbed near her heart by a soldier’s bayonet during a protest, an event that became a pivotal moment in her life and advocacy.
  4. Role Model and Speaker: She has served as a role model for young Indigenous people, demonstrating resilience and determination. Horn-Miller is also a sought-after public speaker, sharing her experiences and insights on overcoming adversity, the importance of education, and the empowerment of Indigenous communities.
  5. Contributions to Indigenous and Women’s Issues: Horn-Miller has worked in various capacities to support Indigenous groups and women’s issues. Her efforts include working with organizations that focus on health, youth, and cultural preservation among Indigenous peoples.
  6. Media and Public Engagement: She has been involved in media, serving as a television host and a public figure who brings attention to Indigenous issues in mainstream media, thereby contributing to a broader understanding and dialogue about these topics.

In summary, Waneek Horn-Miller’s importance lies not only in her achievements as an Olympian but also in her impactful work as an advocate, role model, and spokesperson for Indigenous rights and women’s empowerment. Her life story and efforts have inspired many and have contributed to positive changes in the perception and treatment of Indigenous people in Canada and beyond.

What Are Waneek Horn-Miller’s Sports Successes?

Waneek Horn-Miller’s sports achievements are both impressive and inspiring, reflecting her resilience and dedication as an athlete and advocate. Here are the detailed highlights of her career:

  1. North American Indigenous Games (1990 – 1997):
    • Horn-Miller won over 20 medals in multiple events at the North American Indigenous Games, showcasing her versatility and dominance in various sports disciplines.
  2. Pan American Games (1999):
    • She won a Gold medal in Water Polo at the Pan American Games in Winnipeg.
    • In the same year, Horn-Miller received the prestigious Tom Longboat Award, recognizing her as an outstanding Aboriginal athlete in Canada.
  3. Olympic Games (2000):
    • Horn-Miller was the Co-Captain of Canada’s Women’s Water Polo team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. This was a groundbreaking year as it was the first time women’s water polo was included in the Olympics. And Waneek Horn Miller was one of the few indigenous Olympians.
    • She made history as the first Mohawk woman from Canada to compete in the Olympic Games.
  4. FINA World Championships (2001):
    • She earned a Bronze Medal in Water Polo at the FINA World Championships, further solidifying her status as a top-tier water polo athlete.
  5. Olympic Winter Games (2010):
    • Horn-Miller had the honor of being a torchbearer for the torch relay of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver.
    • In 2010, she hosted coverage of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN).
  6. Carleton University Ravens Hall of Fame (2014):
    • She was inducted into the Carleton University Ravens Hall of Fame, recognizing her significant contributions to the university’s athletic program.
  7. Pan American Games (2015):
    • Horn-Miller served as the Assistant Chef de Mission at the Pan American Games in Toronto.
    • The Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity named her one of the country’s most influential women in sport in 2015
  8. Recognition by CAAWS (2015):
    • She was named one of Canada’s most influential women in sport by the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport (CAAWS).
  9. Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame (2019):
    • Horn-Miller was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, a testament to her exceptional career as an athlete and her impact as a role model and advocate.
  10. Advocacy and Role Model:
    • Beyond her athletic achievements, Horn-Miller has used her platform to advocate for Indigenous rights and women in sports. Her journey, especially overcoming a life-threatening injury during the Oka Crisis, has inspired many young athletes, particularly in Indigenous groups.
  11. Post-Athletic Career:
    • Following her retirement from competitive sports, Horn-Miller has remained active in the sports community as a spokesperson, advocate, and mentor, focusing on promoting sports and healthy lifestyles among Indigenous youth.
    • Horn-Miller is currently working with the Assembly of First Nations as the IndigenACTION Ambassador to develop a National Indigenous Sport, Fitness and Wellness Strategy, with an aim to attract Aboriginal youth to higher education by building self-esteem and emphasizing a balance between education and sport. She also sits on numerous boards and advisories.

Waneek Horn-Miller’s journey from the front lines of the Oka crisis to becoming an Olympic athlete and a celebrated figure in Canadian sports is a story of overcoming adversity and championing social change. Her achievements extend beyond the pool, as she continues to inspire and lead in her community and in the field of Indigenous studies in Kinesiology.