Indigenous Two-Spirit artists rebuild identity through art

    Vanessa Dion Fletcher offers a dialogue on menstruation, a formerly taboo subject in First Nations communities. Art installation by Alicia Everett. | Photo courtesy of Vanessa Dion Fletcher

Every June, rainbow flags fly with pride as the sun shines on Vancouver. This June, however, the ceremony takes on a new look as Adrian Stimson, an Indigenous Two-Spirit artist, curates Unsettled, the Queer Arts Festival’s 2017 visual arts exhibition, which runs June 17-28. 

For the first time in history, 19 Indigenous artists take the lead in the festival, showcasing their talent in performance, painting, installation, etc. According to Stimson, the festival provides an opportunity for Two-Spirit artists to share their experiences and help rebuild their identity.

“Two-Spirit people were very much part of our communities from time immemorial. With the reintroduction and re-examining of our traditional ways, the marginalization facing Two-Spirit people is getting better,” says Stimson.

Buffalo Boy, a colonial buster

Two-Spirit artist Adrian Stimson | Photo courtesy of Adrian Stimson

Two-Spirit”, denoting Indigenous queers, was coined in 1990 at the third annual Inter-tribal Native American, First Nations, Gay and Lesbian American Conference in Winnipeg.

“They were becoming more aware that as a group they needed to identify themselves together somehow,” says Stimson, referring to the attendees at the conference.

Superseding “berdache”, an earlier version of it, “Two-Spirit” speaks to multiple genders and sexualities within First Nations communities.

“The previous terms that were used are very derogatory, such as ‘berdache’ – that’s an anthropological term that has nothing to do with Indigenous LGBT people,” notes Stimson.

His motivation of bringing Two-Spirit artists to the festival stems from a connection to the buffalo. In the 19th century, the buffalo the Siksika First Nation lived on were decimated by the intruders.

“At one time, it almost went to extinction,” says Stimson.

The Siksika member looks back on the history and thinks to himself, how does the slaughter affect us?

“As Indigenous people, we are born political into this country. Throughout my life, I’ve been acutely aware of the racism that exists in our world and combating the trauma in my life that started from a child,” says Stimson.

Two-Spirit people, for him, face a battle as the buffalo did 150 years ago. “Buffalo Boy”, adopted by Stimson, has since become his persona in many of his artworks.

“I use ‘Buffalo Boy’ as a colonial buster, someone who talks back to the colonial project and talks to the contemporary issues we face everyday,” says Stimson.

He names this year’s visual arts exhibition “Unsettled”, a declaration by the buffalo.

“The idea is to unsettle the landscape as a way to unsettle the art world. By our very presence as Two-Spirit people, we are unsettling the norms that exist in our society,” says Stimson.

“We are the sum of who we are”

Vanessa Dion Fletcher is one of the unsettlers. With both Potawatomi and Lenape heritage, Dion Fletcher says her art practice is a process of investigating the influence of culture and politics on the relationship between their bodies and the land.

As the curator, Stimson is optimistic about Dion Fletcher’s performance, Menstrual Accessory, for the festival.

“Sometimes menstruation with-
in the Indigenous community is not necessarily talked about in many ways. This offers a dialogue around what it really means in Indigenous community,” says Stimson.

Unsettled features not only young minds like Dion Fletcher but works by late Two-Spirit artists Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskwew, Aiyyana Maracle, etc.. For Stimson, his work is to add to the diversity of the festival.

“Our history is very much interwoven into the various works that we create, along with our Indigeneity. We are the sum of who we are, all of us. It’s important to be inclusive in a sense of how our communities work,” says Stimson.