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11/26/2018 09:45 EST | Updated 11/26/2018 18:52 EST

'Being Two-Spirit, It’s Not About Gender — It’s About The Roles We Play': Nenookaasi Ogichidaa

"It’s been really hard for me to prove myself in my community."

Nalakwsis
Nenookaasi Ogichidaa over the city of Toronto. Portrait by Nalakwsis.

Nenookaasi Ogichidaa has a tone in their voice that makes you feel immediately at ease, like they're really listening to what you have to say. Their heart is in every aspect of the work they do, and when they see a need for something in their community, they do the best they can to fill it.

Nenookaasi is of Ojibwe, Jamaican and Ukrainian descent, and grew up in Toronto. They're two-spirit, which means they identify as having both masculine and feminine spirit. Two-spirit is used by some Indigenous people to describe their sexual, gender and/or spiritual identity. Nenookaasi uses they/them pronouns.

They're a community activist for Indigenous, queer and black rights, and the addictions and mental health outreach worker at TAIBU Community Health Centre in Scarborough, Ont.

Nalakwsis

Nenookaasi has been dancing for five years, and it means everything to them. They say it's the very few moments where their spirit is free. Their decision to start dancing was to help heal not only their spirit, but also their physically damaged body.

In 2009, I was T-boned by a straight truck that left me bedridden for four months and walking with a cane for four years. Dancing to the big drum fed me the medicine I mentally and emotionally needed to encourage my body to move like it once did. It took me six months of dancing to get rid of my cane and never walk with it again.

Dancing is ceremony. It's my refuge.

While dancing is a huge part of Nenookaasi's identity as an Indigenous person, they've struggled with where they fit in as a two-spirit person. Modern powwow ceremony is divided when it comes to male and female roles.

There are male dancers, female dancers. Male categories, female categories. Women's jump, men's jump — and as two-spirit people, where do we fit? Being two-spirit is not about gender, it's about the roles we play.

I was really lost, so I reached out to some community members and asked for support on my dancing journey. One elder told me, "During your moontime (menstrual cycle), before you go on this journey, you need to go on a fast. And when your moontime is done, come back and we'll discuss."

Dancing is ceremony. It's my refuge.

So I went without food or water for the seven days of my moontime, and on the last day I saw the elder at a feast and I was so excited, I told them that I completed my fast. But they laughed at me and didn't believe I actually did it. I felt so stupid.

I was so mortified, especially as a black-presenting person. It's been really hard for me to prove myself in my community. But eventually, some community members fed me information and fellow dancers encouraged me, so I put together my very first regalia.

One community member wanted to bring me out into the arena for my coming out ceremony and during that time, I had a vision of merging two regalias together: a grass dance, which is a traditional men's dance; and fancy shawl, which is a traditional women's dance.

I brought this up to the person who was going to be doing my coming out ceremony and they said that the only way they would do my coming out ceremony was if I promised that I would only do fancy shawl and none of "that other stuff." And because I was so eager to be part of ceremony, I said OK.

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Nenookaasi was heartbroken after being told they couldn't dance the way they wanted to. While trying to break the traditional male, female powwow categories has been hard, dancing any other way wasn't the answer.

I found myself dancing and it didn't feel right, it felt different and if you know your styles of dance, you would see that I blatantly dance grass and I blatantly dance fancy shawl all at once. Because it didn't feel right, I stopped dancing.

I didn't feel like I was doing the work that I needed to be doing.

Eventually, I got the blessing of a few elders in the community, who are highly respected, to make my two-spirit regalia. I did my research and sat with elders who really supported, had two-spirit knowledge, or were willing to learn.

Nenookaasi doesn't want other two-spirit youth who want to dance or attend powwows to have to jump through the same hoops and experience the same heartache they did – they want to make two-spirit regalia more accessible. So, they created Izhishimo.

I created Izhishimo a year and a half ago and it means "to dance a certain way" in Ojibwe. It's to help break down gender norms and allow people to dance as they need to, as their spirit needs to.

They learn about powwow history, they learn about two-spirit history. Youth dancers who are already on the powwow trail come out in full regalia and do a Q&A with participants and let them know about all the dances, what everything represents, what the responsibilities are, and everyone that's in the program has opportunities to choose some, all, or none of what they've learned and incorporate that into their regalia.

I knew I was on the right track with this program when I saw another two-spirit woman dancing in men's traditional. Men's traditional bustles are like a full fan going all the way around, but this particular bustle had only eight feathers, and they were really long and had rainbows on them.

When I asked, "What regalia is this?" they gave me this, "What do you mean?" sort of look and replied, "It's two-spirit."

Some of the responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.


This story is part of Not My Territory*, a HuffPost Canada series about urban Indigenous perspectives driven by the people who are part of the country's fastest growing populations.

*Some Indigenous people live in cities that don't overlap with their community's traditional territory, and many feel burdened by being regularly called on to represent cultures and backgrounds that aren't their own.

Not My Territory*gives urban Indigenous people a platform to speak for themselves.