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Cultural identity and queerness
In the Spirit of Beth: Queering Indigenous Space

Great wide plains
© Jaser Cervantes on Unsplash

Mixed race, Two Spirit person Nicole Tanguay on how it is for her lot more comfortable being with people from the same cultural heritage and having to deal with queerphobia than having to deal with racism.

By Nicole Tanguay

I am a Two Spirit, mixed race, butch dyke from the Cree Nation. I have been queer all of my life, and out since the late 1970s, when I was eighteen. I spent most of my adult life finding and making spaces safe for me and other Two Spirit folks.

In 2016, I had the honour, along with five other queers, of helping to organize a memorial service for a good friend and community member, the writer Beth Brant (Tyendinaga Mohawk). I really wanted the event, In the Spirit of Beth, to be culturally representatitve, not just queer-identified—something that would pay tribute to her life, her writing, and her queerness. It is hard enough to find inclusive spaces for memorial services; I can count them on one hand. It is even harder when you are Indigenous and need to burn sage or tobacco for a smudge or pipe ceremony.

Cultural safety supersedes a white idea of being queer

The first place proposed by a couple of the white members of the planning committee was the traditionally queer-friendly 519 Community Centre. It houses many programs that support and provide services for the LGBTQ2 community. Yet the committee members who proposed the 519 had no idea that some Indigenous people did not feel comfortable or safe there, nor did they consider this before suggesting the venue. I groaned inwardly, thinking, ‘Yet again, I am forced (because I can’t keep quiet) to ensure that cultural safety supersedes a white idea of being queer. I have to educate those from the dominant society that being Two Spirit is not just about being queer/lesbian/trans/bi/gay/butch. It is about a lot more.’

I explained to them that, over the years, there have been some Indigenous trans and queer people who have not been treated well at the 519. I have heard personal stories where street people and trans people have felt unwelcome or unsafe there. I myself have been spoken to aggressively and dismissed. Once, outside in front of the building, I was verbally attacked by a non-queer person. When I asked for help, I was ignored. When I went inside to seek assistance, I was also ignored, and then finally told that the 519 has no security for outside the building and maybe I should call the police. 

Right! A butch, mixed-race dyke is going to call the police and face more discrimination due to being Indigenous!

In short, a venue dilemma for the memorial was brewing: what to do? Do we go ahead and have it in a place that is queer, because it is queer, and forget our cultural roots? Or do we bite the bullet and have it in a place that is more culturally appropriate and hope there will be no queer-bashing or queer-shaming?
Fortunately, another Two Spirit kwe – woman in Ojbway – was part of the planning committee. I did not have to explain why culture was more important; she knew what I was talking about. There was also a Black woman who also did not have to be educated. She understood the importance of honouring the spirit as well as the person. That woman just smiled, and I knew things would happen in a good way.

After much deliberation, we decided to celebrate Beth Brant’s life in an Indigenous space. Now came the real work. Finding an Indigenous place that was a) big enough; b) a cultural space everyone could feel comfortable with; and c) inclusive and a queer-friendly space. Most Indigenous agencies in Toronto, except one or two, are very inclusive. Just like mainstream agencies, they have their good and bad sides. But all recognize that in our traditional teachings, going to the spirit world is sacred, and therefore each person deserves to be honoured in a good way. That means if people are keeping to the traditional teachings, Indigenous agencies will not turn someone away due to how they look and what gender they are. Especially when a memorial is involved.

To celebrate  life in a good way

Luckily, the Black co-organizer had a connection to the Native Canadian Centre. The space held many attendees and was well located and accessible. In fact, a number of Two Spirit people had had their celebrations of life there, including the dancer René Highway, brother of the writer Tomson Highway.

The event came together with queers who gave testimonials on the impact of Beth’s writing. Her daughter and grandson travelled from Michigan and talked about her life and her passing. My favourite part was the presence of Beth’s moccasins and the shirt she wore when she wrote. Indigenous Two Spirit elder Aiyyana Maracle, who at the end of her life made one of her last trips to Toronto to honour Beth’s spirit, spoke about how Beth had inspired her to continue to McGilligan Books, who had all published Beth in Canada, gave out her books to those who attended. There were straight, trans, and Two Spirit people, along with different generations of supporters.

Without the support of both the queer and Indigenous communities, I am not sure the celebration of Beth Brant’s life would have been so spectacular. Each person who came arrived with an open heart, and gave more love and respect and joy to Beth’s family because the space felt inclusive.

It never gets easier when dealing with death

This is what we in the organizing group had wanted: when someone dies, we wish them to be remembered and to celebrate their life in a good way. Getting to that place can take time, and may involve holding one’s ground, always remembering that the event is about the loved one who has passed.

Since I began to write this piece, there have been more people who have passed in my immediate circle. I have found it hard to just get by, as I have been filled with the grief of four more folks who have passed into the spirit world – two were elders who became my brothers. It never gets easier when dealing with death, but what I have learned these past few months is that no matter if they are queer, there needs to be a place of safety for all. We need to come together, even if we are from marginalized communities. WE need to make it safe for all to be out and queer, especially at the end of our journeys.


This essay is taken from Any Other Way: How Toronto Got Queer (Coach House Books, 2017). For more information about the essay collection: https://chbooks.com/Books/A/Any-Other-Way