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Artist Features

Visibility trumps Tokenization by Kisik Whiskeyjack

August 17, 2023

Cedar T - Event: Rez Erection - photo by Red Socks photography - Venue: Evolution Wonderlounge - showcasing 2Spirit drag queens who were brought back to life for this show.

On August 24 in Churchill Square, Indigi-Hauz of Beaver Hills (@indigihauz on Instagram), with the Edmonton Pride Festival, are hosting an Alberta first, the Beaver Hills 2 Spirit Powwow,” with support from the Edmonton Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts. We asked one of the organizers, Kisik Whiskeyjack, a local drag performer and organizer with Indigi-Hauz, to reflect on the importance of this event, and on the history of the 2Spirit movement, for the EAC blog. Read his thoughts below…

2Spirit resurgence is synonymous with the Matriarch uprising.”
This is a phrase that I came to understand after travelling across Turtle Island attending various 2Spirit gatherings: 

  • 2018 — Beausejour, Manitoba (Ojibwe / Homeland of Métis) — 31st Annual International 2Spirit Gathering — Manitoba Two-Spirit Society 
  • 2018 — Flathead Lake, Montana (Kootenai/​Blackfeet) — 22nd Annual Regional 2Spirit Gathering — Montana 2Spirit Society (MT2S)
  • 2019 — New York (Lenape territory) — 50th Anniversary of World Pride — 2Spirit Contingent in the Pride Parade 
  • 2020 — San Francisco (Olone territory) — 9th Annual 2Spirit Powwow — Bay Area American Indian Two Spirits (BAAITS)
  • Florida (Seminole territory) — visit 2S Elder Will Davis (Chocktaw)

I write this blog post with the spirit of intent to create space for those with the ability to bring life into this physical world, who share synchronicities with that of the cosmos’ night sun, and relational ties close to water, to life itself. In academia, there is a buzz word — intersectionality — social categorizations regarded as creating overlap and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage. Even within marginalised groups, this is the case.

Being born male comes with its advantages, through residual effects of colonisation, with patriarchy being held in high regard. James Brown said it best with the release of his song It’s a man’s world” in 1966, and even better, But it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl.” Combating homophobia is not enough, even internally. The resurgence of our gender diverse relatives involves inclusion of our trans 2Spirit relatives who TRANScend the gender binary. Most importantly, those born female, as well as those who transition into femininity throughout their lifetime. 

The upcoming inaugural Beaver Hills 2Spirit Powwow is doing just that. The event will be held in Churchill Square in the heart of downtown Edmonton, in front of City Hall.

History of the 2Spirit movement

The 2Spirit movement had its early beginnings in the United States, with the Gay American Indians, co-founded by Randy Burns in 1975. Their main cause was fighting the AIDS pandemic on Native Americans. Back in those days, racism ran rampant in the gay community, with the exclusion of Native Americans from bars in the Castro District in San Francisco. On the east coast, in the early 70’s and 80’s, marginalised groups within the queer and trans community including Black, Indigenous and People of Colour experienced similar plights. For example, a prominent figure in history, gay liberation activist Marsha P Johnson, self-identified Drag Queen and transgender legend, participated in the Stonewall uprising of New York City in 1969. The New York ballroom culture likewise arose in response to racism experienced in drag pageant circuits. A modern contemporary portrayal of New York ballroom culture can be found in the drama television series POSE, which features fierce, iconic house mothers of their time. This history across Indigenous Nations on Turtle Island and shared experience of other People of Colour within the mainstream LGBTQIA+ community is the source of my personal inspiration to create safe spaces for our 2Spirit relatives to return to the Sacred Circle.

The creation of the term two-spirit” is attributed to Elder Myra Laramee, who proposed its use during the 3rd Annual Inter-Tribal, Native American and First Nations, Gay and Lesbian American Conference, held in Winnipeg in 1990 (around the same time I was born). I first came across the term when I was in my early teens, however, I didn’t understand the scope of responsibility that comes with accepting this sacred role, until my late 20s when I decided to walk the Sweetgrass Trail (Red Road). To live a life free of active addiction, lead a healthy lifestyle, and walk a path of recovery being the beginning for me.

2Spirit resurgence

In 2017 my involvement in the 2Spirit resurgence uncovered blessings that expanded into every area of my life, with the first being part of a community that I never knew existed. I was an undergraduate student attending the University of Alberta, fresh out of treatment for recovery from alcohol and substance use, when I took an interest in exploring What is 2Spirit?” and reading all about it in the textbooks. While I found no definitive answer, I learned that it means something deep and personal for every 2Spirit relative I came across at gatherings across North America. People of differing Nations, ways of knowing and being. Each on their own journeys to learn and share what it means to them. One commonality I observed is the importance of unsubscribing from mainstream LGBTQIA+ usage of pronouns… but I digress. 

While in school, I took the mantle of trailblazers and pioneers of the local 2Spirit movement. In amiskwaciwaskahikan, the Two Spirit Circle of Edmonton Society (TSCES) began in the early 2000’s by Richard Jenkins, Warren Winnipeg, Dale Ahenakew, Ed Lavallee — all Elders, Aunties, Uncles, Knowledge Keepers in their own right. They paved the way for leaders of today, Dr. James Makokis, Ryan Buffalo, Kairyn Potts (to name a few), to begin raising 2Spirit visibility in the annual Edmonton Pride Festival’s pride parade from 2012 – 2016

Four years of committed due diligence in carving out space for the new heightened platforms of today ultimately led to our upcoming major event of magnificent magnitude, the Beaver Hills 2 Spirit Powwow, the first of its kind in Alberta. If it weren’t for 2Spirit leaders, groups, organisations, movements and resurgence, whose footsteps would we have to follow in? Shout out to BAAITS (Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits in San Franciso), Montana Two Spirit Society, and Manitoba Two Spirit Society for instilling courage, bravery, love and kindness in me, to have the ability to carry forth this work, by serving the community, serving Creator.

It was at these gatherings, I strengthened in spirit, building a strong cultural foundation awakening the inherent spark of ancestral knowledge, the belief of interconnectedness and importance of community. Taking into consideration the less fortunate, the differently abled, the young and the old — the heartbeat of the drum will awaken the same thing for those who attend, even the non-Indigenous, to open their hearts and minds. I strongly believe in bridging the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous relatives within the LGBTQIA+ community and within mainstream society at large. 

Beaver Hills 2 Spirit Powwow

The Beaver Hills 2 Spirit Powwow is brought to you by the Indigi-Hauz of Beaver Hills, a collective of Indigi-Queer performance artists ranging from Queens and Hoop Dancers to Burlesque performers. We are partnering with the Edmonton Pride Festival, whose reconciliatory efforts are evident, as stated in one of their strategic pillars: Indigenous Solidarity – to actively work closely with Indigenous peoples and advocate alongside them.” Trevor Watson, Director of Edmonton Pride Festival, has proven to be a prime example of reconciliation within the local LGBTQIA+ community, by working in collaboration, making space, and providing a platform for this event to take place.

It is my wish to bring together the Indigenous communities to bear witness the sacredness of our 2Spirit kin, to combat homophobia/​transphobia within our own Nations. It is my wish to bring the mainstream LGBTQIA+ community to bear witness and experience the power of powwows, a vibrant celebration of Indigenous communities, to combat the racism experienced within the local queer community and abroad. To be seen, to be heard, to be felt beyond our skin, beyond our looks, beyond the stereotypes. For both the Indigenous and LGBTQIA+ communities to use their male privilege, their white privilege, to uplift and give voice to those most marginalised, to those who experience the effects of colonisation the most. Our women. Our transgender kin.

Special thanks to the loving, caring, women in my life, my Best Friend, my Mother and by extension — all the Aunties, Sisters, Kohkoms, Great Grandmothers, Nieces, Daughters. Special thanks to Edmonton Pride Festival for being a strong partner. Thank you to our sponsors, the Edmonton Arts Council and Canada Council for the Arts, for providing the resources to make this day happen predominantly without corporate sponsor influence.

Further to Alberta’s 2 Spirit powwow, Edmonton Pride Festival’s Indigenous Experience” will also include the Indigi-Hauz Gayla 3.0 — a showcase of Indigenous Fashion Empowerment Collective — featuring three local designers, 12+ models, Hair and Makeup Artists, and Photographers. Additionally, the Running Thunder Dancers will roll through with high-calibre performances of each powwow dance category, MC’d by Adrian LaChance, founder of the group, while sharing the history of each dance. Offering an educational experience — storytelling through fashion and regalia, honouring the rich history of our Nations in modern contemporary contexts.

To close Edmonton Pride Festival’s Indigenous Experience” will feature Juno Award Winning duo, Halluci-Nation who expand on this abundant artistry by bringing to the stage, electric powwow. You can expect a laser show, more power-house powwow dancers, and queer entertainment provided by Quanah Style to open up the concert portion of the evening, after the Gayla.

What better way to bring powerful, influential Indigenous allies to support the local Indigi-Queer community, to raise 2Spirit visibility. Ultimately, it has been said that it will be the artists who bring the life, the spirit back into our people. It isn’t until the women regain their rightful role within the Sacred Circle that humanity will be able to correct itself. That is why I am grateful to share the 2Spirit resurgence is synonymous with the Matriarch uprising.” It is Fawn Wood, of Saddle Lake Cree Nation, who Chairs the Beaver Hills 2Spirit Powwow Committee. It is Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse, Co-Master of Ceremonies. It will be grandmother, to conduct the sunrise ceremony on the morning of August 24th in Churchill Square. It is the women who are leading us, who support the 2Spirit community the most. So, in turn, in the spirit of reciprocity, it is our obligation and responsibility to stand with and for our women.

And with the recent pride cancellations of 2018, and recent proven success of this event, I urge the Queer, Trans, Black, People of Colour to take up space, to work with the privileged so they may share and uplift our voices. Because visibility trumps tokenization.

Kisik Whiskeyjack is nehîyaw from Saddle Lake Cree Nation in Treaty 6 territory. Kîsik founded Edmonton 2Spirit Society in 2018. He is also former International 2Spirit Warrior 2018 – 2019. Kisik’s Drag Queen alter-persona, Cedar T, is Hauz Mother & Director of Indigi-Hauz of Beaver Hills which was recently incorporated as a non-profit organization in March 2023.