The Two-spirited Rebirth of Indigenous Nations: An Interview with Waawaate Fobister – Stu Marvel
… (Navajo for ‘permanently changing’)…aayahkweew (Plains Cree for ‘neither man nor woman’)…boté (Crow for ‘not man, not woman”)…winkte (Sioux for ‘would be woman’)…tayagígux‘ (Aleut for ‘woman transformed into a man’)…mixu’ga (Osage for ‘instructed by the moon’)…katsotse (Zuni for ‘boy-girl’)…
More than 155 Indigenous nations of North America had a word to describe people beyond the binary of male and female, with some tribes recognizing up to six different gender categories. Individuals were usually observed as ‘neither man nor woman’ from an early age, with many communities holding rituals of passage to determine whether a child would be drawn to a unique combination of gender roles. In others, a portentous dream or vision was often regarded as a signal. Such people were generally held in high regard, with their qualities seen as a gift conferring important spiritual responsibilities. Anthropologist James Thayer writes that they were “said to possess supernatural powers for healing (Cheyenne, Arapaho, Plains Cree) or for naming (Dakota)” and would often hold a ceremonial role as shamans or prophets (Lovejoy 2008).
The ease with which multiple gender formations were received within tribal cultures represented more than the hiving of an extra category into an essentially binary system. Rather, it spoke to a worldview that valued the complex interrelationships of all living things. Many Aboriginal nations respected the powers of transformation, with creatures and spirits from traditional cosmologies shifting between the worlds of fish and sky; birth and death; man and woman. If a person was born with both male and female characteristics it was expected that their creation had received great care from the Spirit and they were consequently blessed with unique abilities. As Dakota elder Eva McKay explains, “They were special in the way that they seemed to have more skills than a single man or a single woman…He is two persons, this is when people would say they have more power than a single person. They were treated with respect” (Carter 2008). Such physical and spiritual embodiment was in keeping with a mobile order of being that had little in common with the European societies developing across the Atlantic, where a dualist mentality of good-versus-evil grappled furiously within a nascent Christian theology.
As Western colonists eventually poured off their boats and onto the shores of what is now Canada, they brought along a cargo of relentless dichotomies that explained to them how the world worked. Man over woman, mind over body, life over death, light over dark, humans over nature. The colonial encounter with Indigenous peoples encouraged white Christian men to place themselves on the upper half of this schema, and to construct a global hierarchy within which they stood supreme. Through the denigration of ‘savage’ peoples to a lower order of nature, a host of new racist, heterosexist and classist categories were invented to prop up European society at the apex of human history.
A central goal of this imperial project was to make the world over in Europe’s image, bringing ‘civilization’ to all and installing three primary virtues at the heart of assimilationist ideology: the superiority of nuclear family patriarchy, the importance of land ownership (preferably when owned by Europeans!) and the infinite wonders of capitalism. The determined elevation of these values over Aboriginal understandings of kinship, harmony with the land, communally held property and – importantly – a respect for gender variance encouraged Western settlers to hoist aloft the banner of a Canadian federation. Amidst the heat of genocide and gendering a country was born.
These violent legacies are today being challenged, however, as the rights of Indigenous peoples are demanded the world over. Struggles for self-determination and cultural preservation have been taken up in both domestic and international legal arenas as Indigenous peoples and their allies ground themselves in movements for social justice. Crystallized in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was adopted in 2007 after 22 years of drafting and negotiation, a vigorous global movement is working to achieve the goals of decolonization.
On a Canadian level, a young man from the Grassy Narrows First Nations reserve in Ontario is doing his part to unearth Aboriginal traditions from the bedrock of imperial history. Actor Waawaate Fobister is just 24 years old and yet he has already taken to stages across the country to retell the forgotten stories of his people. Incorporating the Ojibwa language, where the word agokwe referred to a ‘man-woman’ while a ‘warrior woman’ was known as okitcitakwe, Fobister’s most recent creation is a one-man show in which he performs multiple characters. Simply titled Agokwe, the play uses the trickster and shapeshifter figure of Nanabush to evoke ancient histories of transformation. It traces the journey of two Aboriginal boys who fall in love at a hockey tournament while dealing sensitively with the brutality and complexity of homophobia on the reserve. “I guess I’m doing my small part as a person, as a storyteller,” Fobister explains, “and that’s the way my ancestors have been for generations, for centuries. That’s how our stories are passed down. My role as a storyteller is to come back and bring these ideas of agokwe, two-spirited people through my storytelling.”
The term ‘two-spirited’ was born in 1990 at a Native American/First Nations gay and lesbian conference in Winnipeg, as a way of distinguishing the spiritual nature of tribal gender categories from an identity politic based primarily on same-sex desire. Two-spirit is not merely an analogue to ‘gay and lesbian’ or ‘transsexual’ or even ‘queer’. Indeed, many Aboriginal LGBT communities resist identifying with a Western linearity that (typically) ranges gender across a continuum from male at one end to female on the other. Traditionally, two-spirited people occupied a variety of spiritual and cultural positions upon a wheel of gender possibility. Yet as mentioned above, with this special status came significant responsibilities. When Fobister is asked if he personally identifies as two-spirit he hesitates for a moment, pondering the weight of the title: “I don’t know…it’s such a big responsibility and a big role, so for me to call myself that is huge. And I don’t take it lightly.”
An important part of Fobister’s journey from a closeted teen on the reservation to spokesman for gay Aboriginal youth has been through the teachings of Ojibway traditions. He explains that while growing up in high school he didn’t know that gays even existed, let alone two-spirited peoples. It was only after he became the first of his extended family to graduate from high school and moved to Toronto to pursue an acting career that any context for his experience came into view. After contacting the Two-Spirited People of the First Nations, Fobister was introduced to the term agokwe and began to learn about the histories of his people. He explains, “It made me feel so empowered. I was like, this is so amazing and strong and powerful!”
Fobister is careful to stress the importance of elders in passing on these teachings and in refusing to forget the oral traditions of a colonized people: “All of my knowledge is mostly from elders, from listening to their stories and what they have to say and what’s important to them. There’s a saying that ‘when an elder dies it’s like a library burning down.’ I try to take as much in from the elders as I possibly can so I can pass it on and keep that tradition going. Elders are really important in our communities because we can learn from them and they have these stories that are important to our lives. They have messages.”
This contemporary re-claiming of two-spiritedness is occurring within a broader resurgence of Aboriginal traditions, as Native peoples are strengthening old practices suppressed under centuries of colonization. Montreal activists Fiona Meyer-Cook and Diane Labelle describe how this emergence of gendered and sexual difference ties in to other sacred aspects of community life: “In the same way that the drum, the sweat, the pipe and languages are re-emerging, Two-Spirit people are beginning to make their voices heard.” Embracing and living openly as two-spirited means addressing not only homophobia, but the entwined pressures of racism, imperialism, sexism and neocolonialism (Meyer-Cook and Labelle 2004).
While the traditional esteem held for categories such as agokwe and okitcitakwe is now being remembered, this resurgence should not be romanticized over the tough reality faced by contemporary two-spirited peoples. Such experiences can only be understood within the context of Aboriginal peoples as a whole and the violence of colonialism in Canada. To take the example of Aboriginal persons living with HIV/AIDS, not only poverty but the homophobic legacy of European society continues to beleaguer many communities. This makes it difficult to talk about the same-sex transmission of disease or begin working on prevention and support initiatives. The impact of these obstacles is painfully apparent in national health statistics: Although they represent only 3.3% of the Canadian population, Aboriginal persons comprised 5-8% of prevalent infections and 6-12% of new HIV infections in Canada in 2002.
Meyer-Cook and Labelle also point to the negative memory association that many residential school survivors hold in regard to the sexual abuse experienced at boarding schools, much of which was same-sex in nature. As they explain, this means that “Two-Spirited people are seen in the same light as sin and sexual abusers.” Without an analysis that places the factors of racism, poverty and multi-generational trauma in the context of colonization, two-spirited people can quickly become vulnerable to multiple forms of discrimination. A 2007 study entitled Leading an Extraordinary Life: Wise Practices for an HIV Prevention Campaign with Two-Spirit Men found that many two-spirited men had experienced a painful litany of family and community shaming, discrimination and abuse. As the report concludes, “The effect is that Two-Spirit people have become displaced people within Aboriginal and Canadian society.” It can be difficult to muster up the courage to stand against rejection or physical threat from within one’s own kinship circle while still working toward better social and economic conditions for all Aboriginal nations.
Yet such courage is casually expressed by Fobister as he relates difficult stories from his past with both strength and humour. He talks about performing an earlier play called Savage, the story of a young gay boy who grows up in a small town and is helped by a mentor. A thorny and revealing piece, Fobister has toured it all over the province to public and private schools, on reserve and off. He recounts the Q&A that followed a performance in Moose Factory, when the first questioner from the crowd of assembled students wanted to know if he was actually gay himself.
Fobister explains, “They asked in kind of a snotty way – they’re high school students right – and so I go up and say, YES! I’M GAY! (laughing) And they had this really awkward reaction and didn’t know what to do, because no one ever ever says they’re gay in those communities. No one says that, because it’s been lost. And then I have young gay people that come up to me after the shows, and are like ‘you inspired me so much because I can’t ever say that, and for you to come here and say I’M GAY in front of these people, a gym full of people, I feel so empowered. And like there’s hope for me’.”
In providing a model for other Aboriginal youth, Fobister clearly envisions his role as that of a traditional storyteller. He is explicit about the desire to reach out to remote or marginalized communities and speak to young people who may feel as isolated as he did. “Those are the people that I want to reach and that’s why I keep doing the things that I’m doing. Because it can inspire somebody. And hopefully that person will be able to do some of the things I’m doing, in their own way. And keep informing people.”
In the book Me Sexy, Daniel Heath Justice explains how the time-honored role of two-spirited people as spiritual guides can be reclaimed as a powerful tool to work toward healing the wounds of colonialism. He writes, “In the traditions of many Indigenous nations, queer folks had – and continue to have – special gifts granted by the Creator for the benefit of our families and the world at large. In this understanding, our sexuality isn’t just a part of our Nativeness – it’s fuel for the healing of our nations.” As Indigenous communities in Canada are increasingly mobilizing to demand legal recognition, reparation for the residential schools legacy, land restitution and the renewal of sacred ceremonial practices, two-spirited peoples may most ably represent the fluidity and far-seeing knowledge of these ancestral traditions.
As the birth of Canada was nestled in the uncompromising cradle of a dualist worldview, so the re-birth of Indigenous traditions may pivot upon the reclamation of more complex ontologies. It has been argued that the disruption of equitable relations between men, women and other gender categories was a key colonial strategy to erode and damage the vitality of Indigenous nations. As historian Andrew Gilden writes, “These efforts radically transformed the traditional Native American beliefs as to child autonomy, relative equality of the sexes, and commitment to the tribal community” (Gilden 2007). Under the impact of colonialism all gendered relations changed, but a particular vitriol was reserved for those who existed outside the male-female binary. The distinctive threat that two-spirited people represented to settler society is evident in the patriarchal, heterosexist language expressed from the earliest days of colonization.
Europeans who encountered multiple genders were both titillated and horrified by the existence of what they called berdaches, a derogatory term which comes to French through the Arabic word bardaj meaning “kept boy” or “male prostitute”. Treatment not only focused on what was erroneously labeled male transvestism (women rarely figured in these field notes) but fixated almost exclusively on matters of sexual coupling. White ethnographers were relatively unconcerned with the social significance held by two-spirited people, choosing instead to dwell on the fevered perversions of sodomy. The spiritual role of multiple genders was condemned by the church and branded with shame as discourses of ‘morality’ ensured that only heterosexual couples joined by Christian marriage (and preferably non-miscegenated) could receive the approval of the state.
Thus in helping to reaffirm the two-spirited traditions of Native peoples, young leaders like Fobister are challenging a fundamental plank of the colonial platform. In revealing the restrictive impact of a gender binary that kept women at home, men at work, property in private hands and spirituality in a book, two-spirited peoples may be able to function once again as visionaries for their nations. In Lighting the Eighth Fire: The Liberation, Resurgence and Protection of Indigenous Nations, Leanne Simpson retells a well-known Nishnaabeg prophecy: “The later part of that prophecy relays that we are currently living in the Seventh Fire, a time when, after a long period of colonialism and cultural loss, a new people, the Oshkimaadiziig, emerge. It is the Oshkimaadiziig whose responsibilities involve reviving our language, philosophies, political and economic traditions, our ways of knowing, and our culture. The foremost responsibility of the ‘new people’ is to pick up those things previous generations have left behind… .”
Simpson explains that the current generation of Native people holds a profound ability to contribute to the recovery and rebirth of Indigenous nations. Through a return to original visions of peace and justice, the keepers of the eighth fire can forge new relations with other nations and engage with settler society to decolonize their relationships. Only then can a sustainable future be created upon a renewed foundation of mutual recognition, justice and respect.
In discussing the impact of his work and how it seeks to honour the forgotten role of the two-spirited peoples in Native communities, Fobister is modest yet passionate about the fire he hopes to light. “That’s why I wrote [Agokwe] and that’s why I want to go tour it, so in a way I’m trying to give it as a rebirth myself. And giving back to our communities because the old ways of how people were back before colonization have been lost and disappeared. So I find my responsibility as a storyteller is to tell it as much and as true and honest as I possibly can.”
Amnesty International (2008) Take Action: UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Canada must set positive example, Accessed Online, May 1, 2008.
Carter, Sarah (2008) The Importance of Being Monogamous: Marriage and Nation Building in Western Canada to 1915, Calgary: University of Alberta Press.
Gilden, Andrew (2007) “Preserving the seeds of gender fluidity: tribal courts and the berdache tradition,” Michigan Journal of Gender and the Law, 13(1).
Lovejoy, Bess (2008) “Two Spirit Peoples,” The Sacred Fire, 2-Spirited People of the 1st Nations, Fall 2008.
Meyer-Cook, F., & Labelle, D. (2004). “Namaji: Two-Spirit organizing in Montreal, Canada,” Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services, 16(1).
Stu Marvel is not as young as she used to be, but she’s a whole lot gayer.
Waawaate Fobister is a Canadian playwright and actor, whose debut work Agokwe won six Dora Mavor Moore Awards in 2009. The play, which premiered at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times theatre in 2008, is a gay-themed play which explores the burgeoning attraction between two aboriginal teenagers, one a traditional Ojibwe dancer and the other a hockey player.