Ivy League next chapter for book-loving native girl
Special to The Globe and Mail
MONTREAL — When she was 13, Skawenniio Barnes just wanted a quiet place to read after school on the Kahnawake Reserve outside of Montreal. So the Mohawk teenager — whose first name means “beautiful word” — fought to build a library.
Come September, she will be toting her books in the hallowed halls of one of North America’s most prestigious Ivy League schools. Her steely determination so impressed Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Dartmouth that all four universities offered her full scholarships.
“I’ve dreamed about this since, like, forever,” Ms. Barnes, now 17, said in an interview from the library at the Kahnawake Reserve, where she works some evenings after school.
It’s the latest chapter in a story that began four years ago, when Ms. Barnes, then a scholarship student in Grade 9, complained to her mother that there was no library on the reserve.
By then, Ms. Barnes had been so hungry for words that she left the Mohawk immersion school on the reserve and fought her way into a private Catholic girls school in Montreal. She had gone searching on the Web, e-mailed her academic credentials to the school and got permission to attend, despite not being a Catholic.
When she returned home after school every day, there was no place for her to read and study. And she loved books, especially the ones that featured bespectacled boy wizard Harry Potter.
But she knew that more than a magic spell was needed to make her dream come true.
“Write a letter,” her mother, Patricia Barnes, said.
So she did — a no-nonsense missive to the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake about the “dire need” for a library.
Her plea caused a small storm when it was published in the reserve’s newspaper, and she thought it would end there — until she decided to enter a contest for CosmoGirl!
On a whim one night, she wrote a 300-word essay for the magazine’s Girl of the Year competition, in which she eloquently described her dream of having somewhere to curl up and read after school. Other children on the reserve dreamed of it, too, she wrote. They just weren’t as outspoken as she was.
“When I got the call that I’d won, I didn’t believe it,” Ms. Barnes said at the time. “I was so excited, I was, like, screaming and jumping around.”
That’s when her literary crusade popped into high gear. Her winnings included a $10,000 scholarship, which Ms. Barnes put toward her college education.
It also won her a photo shoot for CosmoGirl! at the Strand bookstore in New York’s Greenwich Village — her first trip on an airplane. She wandered the aisles, delighted, gazing at more books than she’d ever encountered before in her life.
Most important, her mission to build a library got national attention on radio and in newspapers.
Then the books started flowing in — boxes and boxes of them — from a public enthralled by the young girl’s pluck. More than 30,000 arrived from as far away as Australia. There were encyclopedias, years worth of National Geographic magazines, Alfred Hitchcock potboilers, cookbooks and, of course, several that featured Harry Potter.
She went on to win the Peter Gzowski literacy prize, received fan mail from children across North America and was invited to Ottawa, where Roch Carrier, the national librarian, offered her lunch, a tour of the National Library and the opportunity to pick out more books.
Kahnawake now had more books than it knew what to do with — and no place to store them. For months, they were stored on teetering stacks in the basement weight room of the Kahnawake Peacekeepers’ Station.
Ms. Barnes’s campaign helped persuade the band council to set up a library-organizing committee — which she promptly joined as the youngest member.
“The girl is very driven,” band council spokesman Joe Delaronde said. “In a small town like this, it’s sometimes very difficult to maintain that drive. Peer pressure will tend to bring you back sometimes.”
Chief Lindsay LeBorgne, who’d supported the idea of a library, said the problem about opening one always revolved around money.
“But Skawenniio’s initial letter touched a chord. And with the magazine contest win, well it seems that she was born under a good star.”
On Oct. 4, 2003, she cut the ribbon to the new library, called Skawenniio Tsi IewennahnotÃ¡hkhwa (Skawenniio’s Place Where One Reads). Housed in a former bakery, there were freshly made hemlock shelves donated by a local contractor, and a catalogue that seven librarians from the National Library had helped collate.
To help the library establish itself, the band council agreed to pay its utility bills for two years, while the Caisse Populaire Kahnawake is paying the rent on the building until the end of this year.
“She has always been opening doors,” her mother said. “The library was huge, but in the end, it has just been a larger door that Skawenniio was able to take advantage of because she works hard, period.”
Ms. Barnes has since turned her attention to books more challenging than Harry Potter, studying health sciences at Dawson College, a CEGEP (Quebec’s stage between high school and university) in Montreal.
Hoping to become a lawyer, she applied to several U.S. Ivy League schools. In her essay appended to each application, she described how hard it was to grow up in Kahnawake, where life was often overshadowed by drug busts, cigarette trafficking and tense standoffs between natives and police.
The fourth of five children, her father is an iron worker and her mother is a homemaker. Neither of them graduated from high school.
“I had to start working at 13,” she wrote. “I was a waitress and a cook at my uncle’s restaurant and I had a lot of responsibility at a young age. If I was thrust out in the world tomorrow to stand on my own two feet, I’d be okay.”
Last month, she received an early acceptance from Dartmouth College. Harvard, Princeton and Yale quickly followed suit — each offering a full scholarship, worth about $46,000 (U.S.) a year.
Now the only dilemma for the Mohawk teenager who brought tens of thousands of books and beautiful words to her reserve is choosing which school to attend.
For the moment, she is leaning toward Yale, if only because the university is in New Haven, Conn., — a smaller town where she feels she won’t “get lost in the cracks.”
But she is keeping all her options open. “I remember the year that I started pushing for the library, I told my family that I was going to go to Princeton,” she said. “Honestly, I never thought I’d get into one, never mind four.”