Together Apart, Queer Indigeneities
by Jessica Johns
When I first walked in, Kali Spitzer’s installation An Exploration of Resilience and Resistance (2019) mirrored what I read to be the intention behind the weekend symposium: visibility, voice and individual representation by Indigenous women, gender-variant and sexually diverse kin. For every photograph of an Indigenous person on the wall was a paired headset playing voice recordings of them. The recordings varied from speeches, to singing, to conversations with the their kids. As I moved through the space witnessing each person, I had this aching feeling of familiarity. It felt like Kali captured not just an image, but an experience, a memory of sitting down with an auntie over a cup of Red Rose tea, eating together, sharing knowledge and laughter at a kitchen table. This kind of honest sharing on the part of the photographed person could have only come from a place of deep trust—“grounding the collaboration in trust,” Kali says in her artist statement, is the “essential element of my work.”
And this grounding in trust, honesty and love continued for the rest of the weekend, which was curated by Kali together with Whess Harman and weaved together intersecting artistic practices that included, but were not limited to, photography, visual art, beading, music, performances, readings and discussions. In their keynote address, Lindsay Nixon said that “just as queer, two-spirit, and trans Indigenous peoples enact a different kind of governance, I think we enact a different kind of futurism.” Lindsay read a section from their latest book _nîtisânak_—a finalist for a 2019 Indigenous Voices Award and a 2019 Lambda Literary Award, and winner of the 2019 Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBTQ Emerging Writers—which equally references essays, personal experiences, pop culture, friends and music, echoing the way the symposium validated knowledge production from worldviews that exist outside art institutions and the academy, knowledges that come from our experiences, from our guts, from our stories.
The nature and medicine walk with Cease Wyss, the beading and reading circle with Anne Riley, the round-table discussion about artistic intentions with Whess, Kali and Evan Ducharme, and the concert performances by With War, Mourning Coup and KERUB were wonderful acknowledgements of art, medicine, community and music as knowledge sources. They invoked engagement between participants, allowed kinship relations to be nourished and encouraged reciprocity— methods of being together that we’ve always known but are rarely afforded in colonial spaces which encourage power and knowledge hierarchies. Additionally, the readings and conversations with fabian romero, Storme Webber and Demian DinéYazhi’ displayed the power of folks working at the intersection of writing and various other forms of art, including community organizing, and acknowledged that 2SQ/Indigiqueer art itself is unconfined, borderless, existing across. These events allowed us to create together, to dance together, to move and discuss in a space where the balance of power was even, where participants were acknowledged and valued alongside the featured artists.
Because settler colonial institutions have been nonconsensually extracting and mining thoughts, stories, art, brilliance and resources from Indigenous bodies—particularly from 2SQ/Indigiqueer bodies—for as long as the history of settler colonialism, it was significant that, while most of the events were open to the general public, three events were curated specifically for 2SQ/Indigiqueer participants: Cease’s walk, Anne’s circle and the community discussion on rural 2SQ/Indigiqueer identities led by Edzi’u. These events weren’t for non-Natives or the equally dominating het-cis bro Natives sometimes complicit in the lateral violence of upholding heteropatriarchy in Native spaces. I won’t speak to the specifics of what occurred in these closed events here; if folks wish to learn about 2SQ/Indigiqueer people, “they can commit first to self-reflexively studying settler colonialism as a condition of their own and two-spirit people’s lives,” as Scott Lauria Morgensen writes in “Unsettling Queer Politics: What Can Non-Natives Learn from Two-Spirit Organizing?.” But, I will say that these events allowed us to be with each other, to be auntie’d into eating freshly cut pineapple by Edzi’u, to have discussions important to our communities, to witness each other and our own experiences without the worry of white optics, without the fear of having our opinions and feelings weaponized against us. In their curatorial essay, published in the Together Apart, Queer Indigeneities Vol. 1: Intentions (2019) zine, Whess writes that the symposium was “envisioned as a way of making and holding space for 2SQ/Indigiqueer folks to come together and be in dialogue with one another,” and that’s exactly what occurred in these spaces.
In the final presentation of the weekend, Lacie Burning screened archival footage of the Two-Spirit Cabaret, curated by Archer Pechawis and performed at the grunt gallery in 1993, bringing to life the stories, voices and performances of 2SQ/Indigiqueer folks from before some of us in attendance were even born. As Lacie wrote in the Together Apart zine, “When I think of intentions I think of blessings in disguise and I think of the individual power to carve out better places.” The film was a way of witnessing the 2SQ/Indigiqueers who carved out space before us, folks who were living and loving and laughing in the very space we occupied that weekend. In mirroring this practice, all events, except for the ones closed to 2SQ/Indigiqueer artists, were filmed. In leaving traces of ourselves through our own videos, future generations of 2SQ/Indigiqueer artists can witness us and know that we were dreaming about them even before they existed.
If there is another symposium next year, I look forward to seeing trans Indigenous women programmed into events, as I believe with community work such as this, we should always try to grow. Whess and Kali’s curatorial work was grounded in kinship— a kinship that reaches to past, present and future 2SQ/ Indigiqueer kin by way of the care that was weaved into the programming, into every interaction and into every space. There was an insistence on making sure that the events holding our “brilliant, beautiful, queer Indigenous selves,” as Whess wrote, were made visible not only in the present, but also in the future. Although Whess noted that even when intentions are thwarted “it’s not the same as having them lose their value,” this time, the intentions felt realized.