Acknowledging the Past that Ensured Our Future
Written by Apsipistoo (Evans Yellow Old Woman)
Oki Niksokowa, nistoo’unohk Apsipistoo, nitohmto’to Siksikawa.
Hello my friends, my name is Apsipistoo, which is my Siksika name. It was gifted to me by my late great grandmother Koomakii, who hailed from the Blood Tribe. My name means White Owl.
My English name is Evans LeLand Yellow Old Woman.
Yellow Old Woman is derived from an ancestor of mine named Ohtkwipitakii. Inevitably, with a last name as unique as mine, people are inclined to ask what it means but I didn’t learn the story of Ohtkwipitakii until I was a young adult. I’d grow tired of people asking me questions about something I didn’t know, so I made up a story and told people my last name was about a grandmother of mine who was old and had jaundice. Turns out that’s not quite the story of Ohtkwiptakii – instead, she was one of the few Siksikakii who were allowed to wear yellow paint in ceremony, as opposed to the traditional red ochre paint. When the settlers came, they changed her name to Yellow Old Woman, and that has been our last name since.
Evans and LeLand were names of boys my mom had crushes on in school. Not as cool a story.
I grew up on the Siksika Nation: the second largest reserve here in Canada. Siksika has a population of about 8,000 people. We are a member of the Blackfoot Confederacy, which includes the Kainai and Piikani in Southern Alberta and the Amskapi’Piikani in Northern Montana. We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us. The Blackfoot Confederacy consists of over 60,000 members. We are also a member of the Nations who signed Treaty 7. Those Nations include the Siksika, Kainai, Piikani, TsuuT’ina and Stoney Nakoda Nations.
I was raised by my mother, Akayaksiitapiim (nee Melvina Yellow Old Woman), my Grandmother, Kahkanii (nee Eve Yellow Old Woman), as well as my Aunts and Sisters. I am the person that I am today because of the women in my life. Intelligent, beautiful and resilient Blackfoot women. We have almost 140 members in our immediate family across five generations. My grandmother Kahkanii had 14 children of her own and countless traditionally adopted children from Canada and the US. She is the glue that holds our family together.
I have been on the frontline of community work for well over 10 years. I have worked in youth and adult drop-in centres, and most recently, I was the Associate Director of Indigenous Relations at The Alex Community Health Centre. Today, I am a consultant, working with many organizations in the scope of Race Equity, Indigenous Rights, and Gender and Sexual Diversity.
With my na’a (mother), I am the co-parent to an 11-year-old girl named Teshay.
My grandmother told me that it is always important to say who you are and who your people are because it keeps you accountable. It also shows respect for the people who have come before us and honours the work they did to ensure each and every one of us is here today; acknowledging the past that ensured our future.
I want to share with you some insights into the Two-Spirit and IndigiQueer Community. I encourage you all to read the following with an open heart and open mind.
My hopes are that you walk away from this with a greater understanding of the Two-Spirit and IndigiQueer Community, and how we, every one of us, are the solution to an inclusive and equitable future for us all. You are not going to read this and leave an expert; these are mere seeds I am planting. Whether you choose to water those seeds is up to you.
I am here to share my experience, my story. I am not the spokesperson for all Two-Spirit folks. Oftentimes in these situations, when we are presented with opportunities such as this, we are tokenized and what we say is pan-indigenized. Although we share similarities in Culture & Spirituality, we are all distinct, strong and sovereign nations.
Two-Spirit is a pan-indigenous term. Many different nations had different terms for queer people in their communities and their roles in community differed depending on where they were from.
Two-Spirit people played vital roles in their communities. There are historical accounts of Two-Spirit people being visionaries, healers, medicine people, and leaders in their communities. They were respected as fundamental components of our ancient culture and traditions.
All but two Indigenous languages on Turtle Island had names for people like us. If you think about it, our languages predate colonization and contact with Settlers. I think the point I want to drive home here is, we were accepted, we belonged, and we were loved by our communities. Today, Two-Spirit and IndigiQueer people face homophobia and transphobia from their own people and in their home communities as well as racism from the larger LQBTQIA+ community.
Colonization impacted a lot of Indigenous cultures and traditions, but it was not a positive change. When our people were forced into Indian Residential Schools, they tried to kill our culture, our traditions, our languages – our entire way of life.
Because of that legacy, when we ask about Two-Spirit specific ceremonies in Blackfoot, there is nothing. When we ask for any Two-Spirit songs, there are no songs.
The Two-Spirit community suffered immensely from colonization. A once revered and integral part of our communities, Two-Spirit and IndigiQueer people are now often left out of the indigenous narrative. Many Two-Spirit and IndigiQueer people are forced to leave their home communities and come to big urban centres to escape the homophobia and transphobia they face in community. Many of them never connect with community or culture again.
A lot of Two-Spirit and IndigiQueer youth that I work with express how they do not feel welcome at ceremony because they are gendered; because they are told they need to wear a skirt if they present female, or sit on the men’s side if they present male. Some say they feel they are not welcome at community events because of the often times homophobic, transphobic and misogynistic comments made by some community members.
I can tell you one thing: even if it is in jest, making fun of someone because of who they are should have no place in our communities.
Homophobia and transphobia are not indigenous. They are a legacy of Colonization and were ingrained in our psyche from Indian Residential Schools. As a result of this legacy, many of our Two-Spirit and IndigiQueer youth die by suicide because there are no supports for them.
There is a lot of amazing work being done in our communities to create change and opportunities to heal. As future leaders in our community, I implore you to create safe spaces for the Gender and Sexually diverse Indigenous community. I encourage you folks to challenge the biases you hold about the LGBTQIA+ community. We need to be willing to talk about these things.
I acknowledge that this is hard work. Talking about sex and gender is difficult because of the trauma our communities faced and continue to face. But we need to talk about these things. Sex and Gender is not taboo; it is all a part of the human experience.
For example, the Blackfoot, specifically, recognized seven different genders. Seven. Not the male and female binary. What about in your community? I encourage you to learn.
This month, June, is both Pride and Indigenous Peoples Month. The intersections of our Indigeneity and Queerness should be celebrated and we should be able to celebrate safely in our communities. You can support and become an ally by simply:
- Being open-minded
- Being willing to talk
- Being inclusive and inviting Two-Spirit and IndigiQueer friends to hang out with your friends and family
- Not assuming that all your friends and co-workers are straight or cisgender. Someone close to you could be looking for support in their coming-out process. Not making assumptions will give them the space they need
- Letting your friends, family and co-workers know that you find Anti-LGBTQIA+, Two-Spirit or IndigiQueer comments and jokes harmful
- Confronting your own prejudices and biases, even if it is uncomfortable to do so
- Defending your Two-Spirit and IndigiQueer friends and family against discrimination
- Believing that all people, regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation, should be treated with dignity and respect
My grandmother always tells me that when you accomplish something, when you are privileged with something that your family and community don’t have, you use that privilege and opportunity to ensure your brothers, sisters, and non-binary family also have a seat at the table. Nobody gets left behind. That is what true community is. That is what equality actually is.
We are Human Rights Champions. We have fought and continue to fight to ensure we have our basic human rights. Fought to be recognized and respected. We have fought for our community.
Well, the fight isn’t over.
We are not at our destination yet; there is still a lot of road left to travel. But we need to travel it together.
We are stronger, together.
Happy Pride and Indigenous Peoples Month.