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Reclaiming Our Roles

Missing, murdered, and exploited Indigenous people, is a very nuanced subject, especially when talking about Two-Spirit people, so it’s important to provide some context.

Our current notions of gender and sexuality are colonial-based. In most Indigenous nations, pre-contact homophobia didn’t exist, queer people often held significant roles in society, everything from being healers, mediators, name givers, and so much more.

Although there were traditional roles for men and women, people were not held to those societal expectations instead, it was expected that you would contribute and interact in society in the way you were best suited and not determined by your sex. Many Indigenous languages don’t have pronouns or gendered language the way colonial languages do. It’s also important to note that Two-Spirit is a direct translation from the Ojibwe language and that not all nations had an equivalent word for queer people and the translations may vary.

Two-Spirit doesn’t just mean queer and Indigenous, it is more than a sexuality, more than a gender identity, it is also a cultural and spiritual identity, and it is an identity that you must choose to adopt yourself. It can not be prescribed to somebody else because being Two-Spirit comes with living up to the historical context that the label has held and fulfilling that role in society. That being said, post-contact, the fluidity that Indigenous people accepted and even celebrated surrounding gender was seen as barbaric. Two-Spirit people were labelled as berdache which basically meant a boy sex toy, although that’s not a direct translation, it best explains the view colonizers had on queer people. The rest of this article is from a speech I gave on MMEIP Awareness Day, advocating for our Two-Spirit siblings.

“I often struggle to organize my thoughts when it comes to these things and so I think it’s important to start by setting my intentions. I want to remember, to educate and call to action. Starting by remembering all of those that we have lost and are missing. There are no stats or numbers on how many Two-Spirits have been murdered and are missing, just like women and girls we have never been taken seriously or deemed worthy enough to be recorded. I can’t stand here and list the names of our missing Two-Spirits because so many have been reported missing using their dead names without reverence for their identities. When people look for us, they use our legal names and assigned sex, we instantly lose our identity and sense of self.

There is no single cause for missing, murdered and exploited Indigenous people, it is caused by systemic issues of racism, poverty and disenfranchisement which have left us vulnerable. When we talk about poverty, the national average for poverty in Canada is about 8%, for Indigenous people its 11% for trans and gender diverse people its 13% – 21%, when you compound being Indigenous and queer those numbers also compound.

Indigenous people are three times more likely to commit suicide than non-Indigenous people, queer youth are four times more likely to commit suicide than their cis/straight peers. Again, these numbers compound when you are both queer and Indigenous. The last stat I’ll give is that 78-85% of Two-Spirit people report being victims of sexual assault.  That is the highest percentage of any demographic.

So, what has created this environment where we are vulnerable, unsupported, and disenfranchised? Much of it can be traced back to Residential Schools. We know that residential schools enforced strict gender roles on the youth that attended them. We know that Two Spirits were forced to play it straight for fear of their lives and that many of the unmarked graves belong to the Two-Spirit youths. Many youths who attended residential schools faced sexual assault at the hands of the priests and nuns that worked there. For many youths, this created a trauma response to associate queerness with the assault they experienced, which persisted feelings of homophobia and internalized homophobia.  For the queer youth that survived, they returned to communities which now had Christianity imposed upon them. Two-Spirit people lost our place in ceremony, we lost our roles in society we lost our culture and many of us were not accepted by our families.  This loss is much of what makes us vulnerable.

We live in a society that has systems that are supposed to protect the vulnerable. As both queer and Indigenous people we have been let down or ignored by these systems. We face homelessness at the highest rates and encounter the most barriers to accessing supports. We have been both targeted and ignored by police. We are overrepresented in foster care while facing the most significant barriers to healthcare.

The systems that exist in this country do not exist for the betterment of Indigiqueer people.

We are targeted because we are fetishized, both as Indigenous people which the media has deemed us to be savage and unruly and as queer people, we are the forbidden and the exotic. When we take vulnerable people, and the systems which should protect them instead exploit them, then you take people fetishizing us, it creates a situation where people know they can get away with kidnapping and murdering us because society has deemed that we don’t matter. “We were asking for it.” “We ran away.” “We were drunk or high.” “It’s our own fault.” We have heard all of these excuses, but they all boil down to one thing. Society says we do not matter.

All of us have a part in changing that narrative. I matter, Two-Spirit people matter, We matter. All Indigenous People matter.

Where do we go from here?

We start by rebuilding and reconnecting with our communities. We get the supports needed for addiction and mental health treatment. We revitalize our language and culture. We welcome Two-Spirit people back into ceremony. We connect all generations of Two-Spirit people to remove isolation, to promote connection and community. We defund police and redistribute those funds to social programs to help our communities. We support grassroots Indigenous movements, and Indigenous-owned businesses to help reduce inequity. We listen to Indigenous people and take tangible actions of reconciliation. We call on all levels of government to do their parts in adhering to the calls for truth and reconciliation and the 231 calls to justice. We take time as parents, mentors, and advocates to educate those around us, on both the history of Indigenous peoples and the reality of we face today. Most of all we all need to make noise, and make our voices heard because when we all stand together, we cannot be ignored.”

 

A red dress, floating in the breeze.
A sister, left outside to freeze
Her voice is silenced

Daughter misunderstood, the family tie rips
A handprint, covering her lips
Her voice is silenced

A stern face, bruised and swollen
A mother abused, her spirit stolen
Her voice is silenced

Too flamboyant, all too queer
Taught to live, in silence and fear
Their voice is stolen

Speak now, before its too late
Work against, the hands of fate
Before your voice is silenced.

About the author

Author Profile
Mitchel Bowers

Mitchel is a Métis 2 Spirit Drag Queen mostly known by their stage name Simma Downe. As Simma, they have been performing in drag all across Canada for over five years. Her campy style and larger-than-life personality have made her one to watch. She has won numerous awards and titles including a Halifax High Heel Award, a Pride YMM Leadership Award and an ACWB Buffy.  As a founding member of the Oil Royals, she has helped create the drag scene in Fort McMurray. Out of drag, Mitchel is the Chair of Pride YMM, the vice-chair of RACIDE and a director for Art's Council Wood Buffalo. 

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