Nenookaasi Ogichidaa, or “hummingbird warrior” in Ojibwe, is a two-spirit powwow dancer who’s Black, Ukranian and Ojibwe, a First Nation based mostly in Canada and the U.S.
Two-spirit is an umbrella time period that Indigenous folks from North America use to explain their place on a spectrum of genders and sexualities. Neno goes by two units of gender pronouns: they, their and them, in addition to she and her. For Neno, it’s vital to be recognized by these pronouns as they navigate the world.
TORONTO — When Nenookaasi Ogichidaa dances fancy scarf, it’s like watching a butterfly in flight, looping and spinning via the air.
Nenookaasi, or “Neno” for brief, put on a yellow scarf, blooming with fiery wings that trails into fringes. On their ft are handmade moccasins, embellished with flames and enforced with reclaimed leather-based from couches dumped curbside.
A close by Chinese language lion dance efficiency begins and the sound of the pounding drums carry. Neno takes off in circles. The butterfly spins.
“I missed this so much,” they are saying.
Neno is dancing in entrance of a Drugs Wheel outdoors Toronto’s Metropolis Corridor. A latest addition, the wheel is a tribute to Indigenous peoples dwelling on the land now often known as North America.
For First Nations and Inuit communities, its 4 colours symbolize, amongst different issues, the emotional, non secular, psychological and bodily elements of wellbeing.
Neno describes dancing as their medication work and the enjoyment it introduced was important to their restoration from a automotive crash in 2009.
Below their scarf, they put on a pullover hoodie. Throughout their chest are the phrases, “Resilient And Relentless” ― phrases that Neno embodies. Relying on the way you meet the 37-year-old, you’ll see a special facet to their resilience. The way you check with them might change, too. Neno appears at gender pronouns as descriptors of duty.
There’s the powwow dancer who blazes via gender norms. The psychological wellness navigator who works with Black and Indigenous communities in Ontario. The artist standing alone on metropolis streets at night time. The queer lady in love, who gushes over her spouse and three youngsters (4, should you rely Ra, the just lately adopted pet who joins us for the day, too).
“Being two-spirit, it’s not about gender roles. It’s about the responsibilities that we play. And sometimes those responsibilities, ‘they’ is appropriate,” Neno says. “When I’m doing advocacy as a woman, that’s really important.”
Two hours earlier than their dance, our interview begins at an city conservatory in Toronto that’s open to the general public year-round. It’s certainly one of Neno’s favourite locations, and it’s right here that I am launched to the activist, who stands their floor.
Throughout our dialog, two staff strategy us. We’re instructed that utilizing my cellphone to document our dialog breaks coverage. The sleeping pet Neno cradles does, too.
“This is your place of [work], I understand that. But this is a public place paid for by taxpayers,” Neno factors out. “We’re having conversations right now, we’re allowed to do that.”
Round us, a number of unbothered guests snap images of tulips and palm timber with DSLR cameras—skilled images is barred and not using a allow on city-owned property. Given the unfairness of the scrutiny, I ask if Neno desires to depart.
“No, let’s keep doing this. I can’t pause every time somebody else is feeling uncomfortable around me,” they are saying.
Neno frequently encounters the uncomfortable. As an individual of combined heritage, they’ve struggled with their sense of self. Rising up, they had been estranged from their Ukranian roots and had been the one combined individual of their Jamaican household. “Whitewashed,” was what folks referred to as them after they spoke. When Neno began coming to Indigenous neighborhood gatherings, they weren’t seen as somebody who belonged. They took to referring to their identification as “Black-Nish” (Nish referring to Anishinaabe—a collective time period for culturally associated First Nations in Canada and the US).
“Folks would ask, ‘How are you native?’ I would say, ‘My left toe is native.’ I’m tired of explaining and going through my genealogy tree,” they are saying. “We know a lot about slavery, we know a lot about Indigenous genocide and colonization. But we don’t talk about how they merge with each other.”
“By means of the Americas, throughout Turtle Island,” Neno says, referencing an Indigenous time period for the continent that predates North America, “There’s Black Indigenous folks. It’s [hardly ever] talked about.”
Neno’s plurality as a Black Indigenous individual of Ukrainian descent is one thing they refuse to stifle. That extends to their two-spirit identification.
As Neno instructed HuffPost Canada, they didn’t like powwow’s gender confinement: women and men are anticipated to solely carry out sure dances, put on sure outfits. Their hopes to point out their fluidity between gender obligations by carrying each female and male regalia had been dismissed.
Over time, Neno realized the binary world they had been pressured into didn’t promote their wellbeing. Their medication wasn’t sitting proper. So that they stopped dancing with a lot of their regalia; refused to put on a costume once more; retired their beadwork; took the eagle feathers out of their hair. The final time Neno danced in full regalia to the massive drum was three years in the past.
“It’s been really hard,” Neno admits. “That’s when my spirit is most free.”
Within the face of this discouragement, it might be simple to shrink back from taking over area in varied communities. However that’s not an possibility for Neno. They gravitate to work that’s therapeutic and troublesome. It grew to become their calling to be seen for these craving to be represented; unabashedly Black-Nish always.
On the Black neighborhood well being care heart they work at in an east-end borough of Toronto, Neno shares the 4 sacred medicines — tobacco, cedar, sweetgrass, and sage — in entrance of their workplace. They sit on a number of advisories consulting on race and well being, together with a two-spirit advisory that provides counsel on ceremonial protocols for Satisfaction festivals throughout Canada. They based Izhishimo, a nonprofit program that teaches Indigenous two-spirit people about powwows and easy methods to make their very own regalia. Lately, they hosted their first open air powwow in Toronto’s Malvern neighborhood, dwelling to many Black and Indigenous residents.
Neno continues to be envisioning what their full two-spirit powwow regalia will seem like. It’s a big activity, as regalia tells the story of its wearer and confers what roles they inhabit. Till they’ll design an outfit that can seize the realities of their gender identification, Neno is diverting their energies to neighborhood organizing and educating others about their cultures.
They don’t dance as typically as they used to, however every so often, Neno nonetheless spins. Their moccasins and scarf get loads of love each time Neno desires to spin with associates at social gatherings and powwows.
Once they do, it’s exhausting to not cease and stare. Neno counts on that. It’s how they draw fellow Black-Nish of us shut, understanding on sight they’ll share a kinship with the dancer.
“There’s this little girl who calls me ‘fire princess,’” Neno says, recalling certainly one of their favourite faces to see at powwows. “It’s the cutest thing ever because one day she’s gonna want to move like that.”
“How beautiful is it that these little ones, they’re naturally feeling comfortable in their skin … they’re not experiencing what I have,” they are saying, referring to their experiences being visibly Black in Indigenous areas.
Towards the tip of our time collectively, Neno’s impact on Black-Nish youth is made obvious in Yonge-Dundas Sq..
It’s Toronto’s busiest plaza and, for an hour, she’s internet hosting a pop-up exhibit of her artwork present, “#nuitpoc.”
A whole bunch of artists participate in Nuit Blanche, an arts competition that transforms town for one night time yearly. The occasion’s identify means “sleepless night,” however actually interprets to “white night.” #Nuitipoc is her unofficial contribution, with Indigenous folks of shade (IPOC) taking heart stage.
For the previous three Nuit Blanche festivals, she’s taken over York and Queen St. W., a road nook in downtown Toronto, with a social experiment that’s kindled visceral reactions. Hand-painted indicators are lined in statements she has heard about her ethnicities. All through the night time, she stands in entrance of them with centered eyes and arms outstretched, inviting observers for hugs and dialog.
One signal reads, “Stop killing us.” One other says, “White is right.” That signal has seen shoe marks the place onlookers have stomped. Neno calls them “panels of truth.” Unsettled passersby are compelled to observe.
Quickly sufficient, an obvious stranger approaches the exhibit and calls her identify. She appears puzzled, earlier than breaking right into a smile and greeting her previous buddy Dag. Behind him, a teenage woman waves hi there.
The woman, Hel G-Taylor, watches the Hummingbird Warrior with a glance of appreciation on her face. She tells me she’s identical to Neno. As a Black youth who’s Métis, Cree, and Mohawk, she struggles with being seen as “native enough.” She asks Neno for help having access to Indigenous youth applications.
“[Neno] looks deeper and she brings it up to the surface. She wants people to know what is going on,” Hel says.
“Yeah. She’s woke, you know?” Hel’s father provides, emphasizing Neno’s social consciousness.
After the 2 depart, folks start to work together with Neno, conversing concerning the messages they take away from the indicators. Some have sturdy reactions.
With a raised eyebrow, one man attracts near Neno. After a quick dialog, he leaves.
“At first when I saw it, I thought it was a far-right thing,” the person says. “But then I started looking at it [Neno’s signs]. People are thinking these things [statements] all the time.”
With a lot completed in service of community-building, questioning authority, and frightening thought, Neno finds free time sparse. What little she does have, she spends with household.
“I’ve lived a life where struggle is just the reality,” she says. The do-it-yourself mindset was all she had identified. Her spouse, Yvonne, modified an excellent a part of that.
Yvonne carries herself with a quiet steadiness. She’s supportive of her companion’s endeavours, whereas reminding Neno to take it simple when she will be able to. All through the day, she’s been there when Neno wanted her, taking the pet when it yips for walks and carrying posters round city.
They first met 15 years in the past, after which re-connected shortly after Neno began up to now as a polyamorous individual.
“This is all new, for both of us,” she says. “It took me a long time to understand the difference between [connecting with] people and being labeled as a cheater or greedy.”
Whereas exploring polyamory introduced Neno happiness, typically connections fell via. Yvonne lovingly supported Neno after a painful disconnect with one other individual Neno was courting. In flip, Neno is there to amplify Yvonne, the primary to credit score her spouse for slowing down her tempo and making the connection sustainable.
One would possibly suppose her love life wouldn’t maintain pertinence to her work or dancing. For Neno, they’re one and the identical. Being seen in all that she is and unsettling the established order carries over into who she loves. Her targets are to transcend Canada and work in queer rights activism globally.
“I can kiss my wife right here, right now,” she says. “No one would give two shits. But in many parts of the world, people don’t even have the freedom to voice attraction to the same sex. I want to exercise this as a right for all human beings.”
When requested what she’s most pleased with conducting to this point, Neno provides two solutions. The primary was stability, a present given to her by Yvonne, family members and allies. The second?
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