by John Copley
On the second and third of November the University of Alberta (UA) will make history, bring new hope to a long-persecuted segment of society, and continue to prove that it remains a pioneering leader when it comes to setting positive precedents committed to the promotion of human rights and societal dignity. On November 2-3, the University and its Office of the Provost Vice President (Academic), will host and provide, in partnership and conjunction with the Two Spirit Circle of Society of Edmonton (Two Spirit), the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services (ISMSS) and numerous other groups, an unprecedented opportunity to "break the silence" that has long surrounded sex, sexual and gender differences within families, cultures, and communities.
That opportunity comes in the form of AMIQAAQ 2, Born This Way: Two Spirit Voices Conference 2012, which will be held at the UA’s Campus St. Jean on November 2-3.
“This is an important, groundbreaking conference and I believe, the first of its kind to be hosted by a major research university in Canada,” noted Born This Way: Two Spirit Voices Conference Chair, Tracy Bear, who is also a PhD Candidate and Special Advisor to the Provost Vice President (Academic), Aboriginal Initiatives at the University of Alberta. “This conference is providing an unprecedented opportunity to ‘break the silence’ that has long surrounded sex, sexual and gender differences in our families, cultures, and communities. The first morning and early afternoon of the conference has been designed for high school students, teachers and administrators; the remainder of the conference has been designed for adult participants. We encourage high school teachers and students from across the Capital Region and beyond to register as soon as possible. Contact us for more information by emailing Stephen Leard at: firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling him at: 780-414-1663.”
The AMIQAAQ 2 conference will see participants learn about Two Spirit individuals, cultures, and communities; interrogate hetero and gender normatively which often renders many sexual and gender minorities invisible and silent; share stories and experiences of community advocacy, struggle, healing, reconciliation, and knowledge building; and create new networks of support to transform our communities into spaces of hope and possibility for all to be welcomed and valued for their unique individual cultures and identities.
“The intent of this conference,” noted Bear, “ is to encourage meaningful and respectful campus and community dialogue and to promote increased understanding of sex, sexual, and gender diversity within today’s Indigenous societies. This is an opportunity to learn about the cultural resources available for two-spirit individuals; you are not alone. The conference offers a sense of belonging by delving into the realities of life before colonization; there is no shame in celebrating who you are and where you come from. It is time to shed the decades of marginalization set upon Aboriginal peoples across the globe by recalling and remembering our precolonization identity.”
Amiqaaq is an Inuk word meaning, “share” and this conference is a gathering of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis knowledge keepers who will share their views of two spiritedness. Recognizing that wisdom comes from a diversity of places and cultures, this conference will celebrate and share Indigenous knowledges drawn from community, youth, and academic perspectives.
“Before colonization,” explained Two-Spirit Elder Ed Lavallee, “it is believed that Plains Cree Two Spirit (Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual, Transsexual, Transgender and Inter-sex) people, similar to many other Two Spirit people in other Indian Nations, were regarded as people placed among them for special and specific purposes by the Creator and therefore were thought to be divine. That thinking was in direct opposition to the European cultures that eventually settled here and as a result they tried, though various ways and means, including the adoption of the Indian Residential Schools, to eradicate our way of life and destroy the belief that we’d held sacred for centuries.”
The AMIQAAQ 2, Born This Way Conference will hear from an array of qualified and gifted speakers including Gregory Scofield, Jessica Danforth, Chrystos Smith, Craig Womack and Greg Makokis BSc, MHSc, MD Indigenous Family Medicine.
Scofield is one of Canada’s leading Aboriginal writers whose seven collections of poetry have earned him both a national and international audience. His maternal ancestry can be traced back to the fur trade and to the Metis community of Kinosota, Manitoba, which was established in 1828 by the Hudson’s Bay Company. His keynote address looks at the idea of ‘Two-Spiritedness’ from a Cree/Metis perspective, and from that of the author's personal and spiritual connections/disconnections to the word two-spirit itself. The author explores the contemporary labelling of gay, lesbian and transgendered Aboriginal people, delving into the politics of self and communal identification. This keynote address attempts, in a humorous and thoughtful way, to further contribute to the dialogue about personal, sexual and political forms of labelling in the Aboriginal community.
Danforth, who will speak during the conference’s Youth segment, is a member of the Oneida Indian Reservation in Wisconsin. The title of her talk is: Two Spirit Youth Kick Ass! Indigenous Activism and Organizing in Sexuality, Gender Fabulousness, and Beyond. She believes that “More than a word or a label, "Two Spirit" is a movement, a form of resistance, and is also in reclamation - because there are more understandings of Indigenous sexualities than just "Two Spirit" alone.”
This talk will discuss the legacy of Two Spirit activism and organizing, from the fabulousness of the Elders and Grandparents who have blazed the trail to the youth who are kicking ass now to keep it alive for the next 7 generations.
Smith speaks from the heart rather than a pre-written speech.
“I will talk about my personal experience as a Two-Spirit, including histories of organizing such as GAI and the Gatherings. I also will speak about education First Nations to abandon Christian-induced homophobia and reinstating our traditional roles in our Nations. I will also speak to whatever issues that are current in your communities, if someone will be so kind as to tell me what they are.
Womack, a Muscogee Creek writer and musician who teaches at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia will talk on the subject: Celebrating Our Gifts. His presentation challenges both on naming our strengths and challenging the homophobia in Indian country.
“The stars are aligning; our people are coming full circle,” noted Two-Spirit female, Jacqueline Fayant. “Thanks to the University of Alberta, the Office of the Provost and because of the work of people like Tracy Bear, and her PhD thesis on Aboriginal sexuality, we are able to come together to celebrate who we are and who we were. This conference is about looking at sexuality from a different perspective; one that is about acceptance and about creating a safer and more understanding world for us all to live in. We can never fully go back to our beginnings, but we can move forward and learn from our traditional teachings that we are free to express who we are and as a result live a full life, free of fear and comfortable about who we are and what we represent.”
The Born This Way Conference agenda gets underway at 2:00 p.m. on November 2 with conference registration. A feast will follow Gregory Scofield’s Keynote opening address and reception . Delegates will be transferred to the Catalyst Theatre to take in a presentation of Agokwe (featuring Waawaate Fobister). Agokwe (pronounced “agoo-kway; meaning “wise woman” or “Two-Spirited”) explores unrequited love between teenage boys from neighbouring reserves. Mike is a hockey player and Jake is a dancer. The boys notice each other at the Kenora Shoppers Mall and ultimately connect through a mutual love of movement while Mike is skating and Jake is dancing “like grass blowing in the wind.” They meet briefly at a post hockey-tournament party where they bashfully confess their desire for each other. However youth, distance and isolation strive to pull the threads apart when tragedy intervenes.
Playing these and many more characters through the iconic multifarious persona of Nanabush (the trickster), playwright and performer Waawaate Fobister intertwines the boys’ attraction to each other through activities that traditionally separate gender and orientations. This tour-de-force performance is a remarkable and refreshing testament to the joys and tragedies of growing up marginalized by race and sexuality within a small community.
The Saturday, November 3 schedule gets underway at 8:30 a.m. and continues until 4:30 p.m. Participants and guests will be treated to an outstanding array of gifted speakers and panel presentations.
“Two-Spirit people were a very important part of Cree society,” noted Elder Ed Lavallee. “They had many roles in the daily lives of their people and were respected and revered for being two spirited. They were often healers, shamans, and mediators in marriage and tribal disputes, keepers of tribal history and lore, and taking part and often leading in social and spiritual ceremonies. They were and still today are members of a ceremonial society called Wihtikancimuwin and perform at Sundances. Today they are known as Spirit dancers or contraries doing and saying things backward as they perform during the performance of this ceremonial.”
Elder Lavallee noted that the belief that two-spirited people are special “is epitomized in the existence of a powerful Two Spirit Spirit called Qweskicanskwew in their spirituality who turns things around for the good and well being of all things on earth. This Spirit has the female and male sex organs and is an important deity in Cree Spirituality who is called on in prayers for help, protection and blessings. All members of the Cree nation who practiced Aboriginal Spirituality use to pray to this Spirit but because if the influence of Christianity this Spirit has almost been forgotten. This fact maybe reversed in the future as Aboriginal people are reminded about this important deity in their culture. Two Spirit songs are still known and sung today. “
Today, noted Lavallee, “Plains Cree Two Spirit people who are often marginalized in modern society can be found in all walks of life. They are educators, professional government civil servants, chiefs and other politicians, writers and actors and generally are a part of their communities on reserves and in urban centers across Canada. They are emerging from their long decades of oppression and marginalization and working toward re-establishing their rightful roles in their communities as they go through this period of rediscovery. They are working to be recognized, respected and engaged in an integral manner, within indigenous communities and society in general. In some places, mostly in urban centers, they have created their own organizations to assist in this modern day movement toward self-development and recognition. They are sponsoring Forums and Gatherings to promote healing and create healthy environments where discussions take place on issues most relevant to them. As a result they are being heard in small instances at present but as their movement becomes stronger they hope they will gain and retain their rightful roles.”
For more information about the conference including details about the traditional feast on Friday night as well as the play 'Agokwe', check out the website at:www.aboriginal.ualberta.ca/bornthisway/