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Transgendered, Two Spirit, First Nations

Who are They?

Community by Carey Rutherford (From GayCalgary® Magazine, November 2016, page 12)
Transgendered, Two Spirit, First Nations: Who are They?
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So, not only is it the case that the gender diverse members of Canada’s First Nations groups insist that "Two-Spirit are not Gay!" (GayCalgary Magazine, October 2014, April 2015) but it is even more the case that the whole method of naming and discussing gay, lesbian, transgender and other members of this country’s Indigenous community is in constant, contemporary rediscovery. Metis Elder, Sandra Leo Laframboise, describes these changes (Two-Spirit self-recognition, and the history of Native gender diversity in Canada and the U.S.) as "the intricacies of a community defining itself". What does this look like? If how we talk about ourselves constructs our experience as meaningful to us, then how do we create a meaningful and empowering discussion for each of us to live within, especially when stretching the current envelopes of interpersonal identity?

Imagine how challenging this is for a group of colonist-programmed people whose tapestry of several hundred languages, cultural intricacy on par with Europe, and regional approaches to gender diversity have all been significantly lost, simplified or recycled. As was suggested in the previous articles, this is not about creating a place for oneself, but recovering previously acknowledged places.

"I’m presenting at the Lowitja Indigenous Health Conference in Australia," Sandra begins. "I was invited by a researcher to co-present on one of the researches that I’m Elder to." As a trans First Nations psychologist and researcher, Sandy wears several hats, including that of a Metis Elder who is not afraid of speaking their mind. This is one reason why Sandy started Vancouver’s Dancing to Eagle Spirit Society. When discussing where I had gathered my information for the first two articles, I mention those who were basically centered in Alberta, either through the Glenbow or Tsuu T’ina museums.

"Well," Sandra retorts, "I know Harlan [Pruden– Northern Cree lecturer] is doing a lot of work around Two Spirit, but he doesn’t have all the answers. We need to consult the whole community on this and have community forums." And some other more colourful things that we decided not to print! And we laughed at this frank beginning.

Sandra is happy that GC is expanding the article outward from the male-embodied two-spirits in this region, "and it’s important that you interview someone in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, . . . Ontario." When I point out it has taken nearly a year to get this next installment of "Two Spirit are Not Gay" going, she agrees that "[Non-Native] doesn’t exist in our communities.

"The Native gay boys, the two-spirited, they’re out and loud and have been exposed to the big-city issues; the trans two-spirited people stay very quiet and try to be stealth[y]. But some of us have realized that you can’t be stealth[y] if you want to make change and movement. Female to male transgendered Indigenous people are a little bit more calm, subtle, clean."

Sandy claims that the problem with the above-mentioned Northern Cree "and others is they all want to be It; they all want to be the expert on this. So they promote themselves, but they don’t promote the larger community. They don’t go out of their way to make sure that community members’ voices are heard. While they do a lot of work in communities, it’s always  . . . an agenda-driven, community-based issue. There lies the problem."

GC did mention Sandra speaks her mind!

"[As a First Nations researcher], we’re changing that approach in everything we do, including in social justice movements . . . The words we’re starting to use are ‘Nobody owns the whole pie’ in social justice. This is my grain of sand in the big sandbox."

Sandy returns to the point again and again, as is indicated in the Indigenous research method, of always looking at the larger picture and not getting stuck in themselves. Whether it’s the rainbow spectrum, social research techniques, or activism, there’s a big picture to consider.

"I use words in the big community like This is chicken-shit: crow-poo (laughs). Because we actually have to really realize that we – the people who are put in the forefront (two-spirit, transgendered, bi-sexual, etc.) on behalf of communities because of some of the work we have been involved with – we are actually standing on the shoulders of others from our representing communities. So we have got to remove our own agenda, and truly represent the community."

Sandra also points out that others, in more eastern provinces (like Saskatchewan, Ontario, etc. – transgendered, male and female-embodied two-Spirit and other members of the First Nations queer community) "are most of the time forgotten . . . Some of my articles have been I Will Not Be Erased. Damnit!

"I’m even fighting with the transgender health initiative program in B.C. right now because I have been part of them for years, and I had helped them in many things, and [when the program went public] the first thing I see under two-spirited is that they have a cis-gendered male person announcing two-spirit sweat [lodges for personal and spiritual healing]. And I said What the fuck!. . .  And then the definition of two-spirited is provided to them by the battered women’s shelter services. Well, that’s not even an Indigenous organization, so how dare you? That’s a very colonial approach!"

GC sighs in empathy, which Sandra thanks us for, and laughs yet again. Sandy makes reference several times to different videos on the topics of transgender, two-spirit and other topics because of the importance of stories told in the subject’s own voice. "So you get the essence of what they’re talking about because, if you read [about it], you do not get the essence."

And GC can assure you that, without hearing Sandra speak to you – voice soaring up in indignation, down to a one-to-one intimacy, back up into a whooping laughter – you don’t get the essence of Sandy either.

"I’m Metis, from the Algonquin Nation, and I live in British Columbia, and I have been practicing Native spirituality since 1989 here in Vancouver. I have been on the streets;  I was a child porn [victim] and a sex-trade worker; an [intravenous] drug user and all that. And I cleaned up, became a researcher and a psych nurse, and I wanted to give back to the trans community."

Sandra mentions being a pre-adolescent gay boy at the "We Demand" march on Parliament hill in 1971, and reminds us that "at that time we were homosexuals: we were not lesbian, gay, or transgendered people . . . We have evolved from that and became gays and lesbians. ‘Bisexual’ was added to the queer lexicon in the late ’70s, early ’80s (and) in the ’90s ‘transgendered’ began to be added to the community lexicon."

Sandy’s history lesson includes a mention of the origins of trans activism in San Francisco, at a place called Compton café. "It was the Queens: the transvestites, transexual, transgendered people. But, back then, we didn’t have the term ‘transgendered’ and ‘transexual". . . We were all Queens back then!"

Sandra then describes how, at a Manitoba HIV/Aids conference, "according to [my friend and attendee] Albert Macleod, the conference would stop, Elders would talk, circles were made, the vision came, and the word "two-spirit" (to have a male and female spirit in the same body) came out, and we started owning that. So all the LGBTQ members of the Indigenous community started identifying as two-spirited.

"And two-spirits is the model: yes we’re two-spirited; yes, we’re Indigenous . . . The reason it came through as an English moniker is because each tribe, according to some knowledge-keepers, had [their own] version of somebody being different. . . We didn’t send people away pre-colonization apparently." Sandra pauses for a moment. "Well, we don’t know that. However, we do know there were words in Indigenous communities referring to people who were different. And in our social practices and spiritual practices we made space for differences."

Insert authentic pow-wow drumming and singing here: energy is being raised and focused; events are reaching the present modern two-Spirit.

"So, as the movement evolved, as the years passed, and we were paying lip-service to that, we had to actually start proving this: the theory that two-spirit was an old tradition. So, as we talked with Elders, and talked about it openly, we created a space. We created viability and space for dialogue and, when you create dialogue, you heal rifts and create strength. And that’s what happened in the ’90s.

"The movement in the States and in Canada were clashing a little bit, because the States claim (the origins of two-spirit) as 1988 to ’89, and we claim it as 1991 to ’92 in Canada . . . There were words in different tribes meaning different things in the context of their cultural norms.  And we started taking that out of context. So two-spirit – as an English moniker for a modern movement – we’re taking it out of context, culturally. [But] the Navajo is the best example, because they have a lot of recorded history around that. They have words . . . that represent ‘other genders’. So the Navajo created a film called Two-Spirit: The Murder of Freddy Martinez: [it] actually explains [this], through legends and through creation stories. We’re moving from an English moniker word from a queer community perspective, from a modern movement, to a cultural perspective. The Navajo actually explained it quite well.

"That is the important thing to remember when we’re talking about two-spirited people: while the word is new – while the moniker is new – and we’re talking about a queer movement as an Indigenous people that did not fit into the queer movement, it also refers to a cultural identity. And it’s up to us two-Spirited people to educate, and to pull out those histories."


(GC)

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