By Joey Phoenix
Sherry Gagne (Metis, Abenaki, Mohawk, Algonquin, Choctaw – Board Member for North Shore Pride), Makademakwa Ikwe (Odawa, Potawatomi, and Metis), and Jessie Little Feather (White Mountain Apache and Navajo), three Two-Spirited individuals living in New England, have formed a small chosen queer Two-Spirit community.
In this interview they talk about LGBTQIA2+ and Indigenous Pride, the intersections of mental health and indigenous struggles in the United States, how Sherry and Jessie met and started dating in the midst of grief and heartbreak, and how they’ve each been able to reconnect to their homes and their families, both chosen and biological, and what that has meant to each of them.
As of this writing, North Shore and Boston residents are standing, sitting, walking, reading, breathing, grieving, wishing, living, and loving on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded land of the Agawam, Massachusett, Naumkeag, Pawtucket, Nipmuck, and Mashpee-Wampanoag peoples.
But having this said, statements alone are insufficient while the struggle against the systems of oppression that have attempted to both dispossess indigenous people of their lands and deny their rights to self-determination still perpetuates today.
That reality, coupled with rampant homophobia and othering of those in the LGBTQIA2+ community means that an Indigenous person with intersecting identities in the queer, disabled, and/or other underrepresented communites has a sharp hill to climb in terms of equity and accessibility anywhere in the world.
Defining terms: Native people are considered “Two-Spirit” in their communities when they fulfill a traditional third-gender (or other gender-variant) ceremonial and social role in their cultures. For a more thorough description of this, read the interviewees own definitions in the transcript below.
Editorial Note: As a white person in a white led-organization, this interview is transcribed below as it was given with only short edits for clarity. The text has been approved by the interviewees for correctness in representation.
A Community of Queer, Two-Spirit Individuals in New England
Joey Phoenix (JP): What are each of your names and pronouns?
Jessie Little Feather: My name is Jessie. My Native name is Little Feather, and I’m a Two-Spirit. That’s it.
Makademakwa Ikwe: My colonized name is Aleticia and Makademakwa Ikwe. My pronouns are she and her.
Sherry: I’m Sherry. I go by she and her and they and them.
JP: As a non binary-person, I’ve found it very important to talk to people in community intersections who haven’t been talked to enough – people that are in the pride community and the indigenous community and other individuals in the BIPOC community. So again, I really appreciate your time and your energy in talking to me today
Let’s start with how the last year has been for each of you.
Jessie Little Feather: Isolating, lonely, and a little depressed. Being limited in not being able to dance because I like to dance a lot. That for me was my stress reliever. I’m a truck driver and I would work all week, and then Saturday is a time for me to dance. So not having that stress reliever for me was very stressful.
Now that it’s warmer I’m able to go out kayaking, taking walks, and camping.
But this year too, Sherry and I met on Facebook. We had a mutual friend, Sherry and I, and I guess she saw my picture.
Sherry: I thought she was really cute. [they all laugh]
Jessie Little Feather: I met Makademakwa Ikwe online too, but we’re just friends.
Joey: So Makademakwa Ikwe, how has the last year been for you?
Makademakwa Ikwe: It’s been a fucking year from fuckin’ hell, that’s what’s been been really difficult. I left a six year relationship with a woman and it’s been tough, I have to tell you. One of the unspoken things that we don’t talk about is mental illness. And I suffer from mental illness, I have severe PTSD. And I’ve had it since I was a child.
So whenever I have a breakup, I have to deal with deep seated PTSD. No shame in that, just saying it’s tough. And I had to go through a lot of different healing modalities and go to my own ceremonies to address it, because as a Two-Spirit person, it’s not about sexual orientation. It’s about who we are, our roles in our communities, how we handle our powers, how we conduct ourselves.
Our roles as Two-spirit people will mean different things in different Native Nations. Even as Two-Spirit people, we are not homogenous, but we have diverse roles according to our Nation.
JP: Do you feel supported by your community around mental illness and these challenges?
Makademakwa Ikwe: There’s a lot of stigma and shame around mental illness. And, you know, you don’t talk about it. So most of my life, I have never talked about it.
It’s only been this year that I’ve talked about it openly. In the past ther was only a select few who knew that I suffered from it. And it’s now that I’m talking about it. Because I’m not alone.
I think the more we talk about it the more that we can support each other. I am getting more support and I feel safe in ways I have never before been supported.
JP: I love that. I deal with that a lot. Sherry, how has this year been for you?
Sherry: It was a rough year. It was a rough year for me too. I lost a relationship that I thought was gonna be a long term relationship. And it was a big surprise to me when it ended, I had no idea. And I, two months later, my aunt who was my best friend died of COVID. And that was another heartbreak. And I decided that I needed to retreat and take a break from life and do some self care.
I went into the woods at Mother Earth Creations Intertribal Pow Wow Grounds in West Ossipee, New Hampshire. I belong to that community. We work to educate the community about Native cultural practices.
I was gifted the opportunity to use part of land that I can set up a tent on. And so I decided to just check out of life and find my spirit again. And I went and I learned how to fish and how to eat wild plants and herbs and flowers and connect with the spirits of my ancestors. And the land was once the ancestral homeland of the Abenaki tribe. And I am Metis which means mixed Aboriginal blood. I have Native blood and European blood and part of my Native heritage is Abenaki. My heritage is also Mohawk and Algonquin and Choctaw. And so I felt like I needed to be there on those grounds and be isolated, and be with the animals and the trees and feel their Spirits.
I learned a lot about self care. And I became a very strong person doing that. And I got my spirit back, I found my soul, I mended my heart. And when I came back from that retreat I was ready to meet life again. And I had my spirit back. And I was excited to see what life would bring me. And I was lucky enough to be on Facebook, and while scrolling through the newsfeed and the “people you may know” section came on, and there was Jessie Little Feather’s picture.
And I said how the heck would I know her – because there was only one mutual friend. Well, that made me curious, what would that one be? And why is there only one? So it must be a different kind of connection here. So I went and I checked out her profile, and I contacted my mutual friend, my friend who is also named Sherry.
I asked her “How do you know Jessie?” and Sherry said, “Oh, she’s a Native friend.” And I said, “Well is she single?” she said, “Well, yeah.” And she said, “I think so do you want me to find out?” I said, “Well, I might be ready. I might be ready to start dating. Yeah, sure.”
And so she contacted Jessie. And I said, tell Jessie, I’m gonna friend her on Facebook so that we can message each other. And I didn’t get a message, or an acceptance of friend requests until the next morning. I didn’t sleep much that night [she laughs].
The next morning I messaged her on Facebook messenger. And we were messaging each other for what, like an hour and a half or something. And finally, I just said, What the fuck? Why don’t we just talk on the phone at this point? I’m kind of old fashioned like that. And let’s do FaceTime. So I can look at you, I want to meet you.
And so we did FaceTime for a couple hours then she said that she was thinking about going to the movies the next day. And I said, well, I like long drives. And she lives in Rhode Island. I live in Massachusetts, I said you usually go to the movies alone? And she said no. And I asked if I could come down for a first date.
I was thinking we were going to meet at a mutually easy meeting place. Park our cars and go somewhere else right? I’m kind of a woodsy out of doors person. But she was thinking, no, let’s grab a bite to eat at the food court at the mall. [everyone laughs]
I was waiting in the mall for Jessie to show up. And I hear this overhead Britney Spears music and you know how they pump in all that artificial air in the mall to make you want to shop and stuff – make you a little, you know, buzzy and excited and want to shop.
I’m standing outside Old Navy and the lady is trying to get me to come in and buy stuff. Then Jessie comes up and says, so what do you want to do? And I’m thinking let’s go to the beach. Let’s go. Show me the ocean or something. She goes “You want to go to the food court?” [They both laugh]
Anyways, we grabbed a bite at the food court. And I was kind of checking her out while she was at this little chicken shop.
We grabbed a bite to eat. And she says “What do you want to do?” So we ended up going to the beach. And we went out on this little rock jetty and went out into the ocean. We sat and we talked and it’s just been beautiful ever since. It was our one month anniversary on Sunday.
Jessie Little Feather: It just, it just flows so well. It’s like it’s scary. There’s no tension.
Sherry: We just laugh our asses off. So it’s so good. Pretty good.
JP: I’m curious about many things, to move back a little bit – Something I heard you say each of you say in your own way was that there were difficult challenges you were able to grapple with because of your communities. And, Sherry, you went back into the woods.
I feel like in an American culture, we have a difficult time with mental health, mental health and with grief, like we’re not really able to process grief. And I was wondering, in your culture, do you feel like you’ve been given the tools to process grief? And what has helped you, how has it helped you grapple with these very difficult challenges being a human in a way that’s more healthy than a lot of Americans feel?
I say Americans, I mean white people and…
Makademakwa Ikwe: Colonizers?
JP: Well yes.
Makademakwa Ikwe: Excuse me, I can be a little blunt.
JP: No, I want – I want that. And like it’s very important to me that I make that distinction, because, you know, we are here on stolen land.
Makademakwa Ikwe: We acknowledge that we are on these territories here at Providence point. And I’m a guest, a guest as well.
It goes back to trauma, as a people we have historical trauma. A lot of us were removed from our homes. Literally tens of thousands of Native people have been removed from their homes just in the past 100 years, but mainly the past 70 years, you know, we were forcibly removed from our homes. I was one of them and was put into an orphanage at the age of three. I was separated from my family. And that’s part of my PTSD, my trauma. I go back to that moment. It’s a burned moment in my consciousness that I cycle back in. I grew up a ward of the state.
We’re a sovereign people but we have a federal status as a nation within a nation. And we are still looked upon as being children when really it is the other way. But it’s that political status of being a ward of the state.
I once had a ceremonial person, a chief, say during a ceremony. He said “all of this land can be taken by the Federal government.” When I heard him say that, I imagined all of our land gone in an instant. Everything that we ever knew would be different. And that’s what happened to me, like, in an instant, everything I ever knew was gone. And so I grew up like that.
So you asked that question, a really important question. How do you process grief, right? We all have grief, but we all have from our [ancient] cultures, even white people are from traditional European cultures. When you go back, when you go back 500,000 years, you know, you’ve got it there, too.
And it’s in modern times that it’s been destroyed. We used to have tools for grief. We had women who would cry for days in a period of public grief. Now, okay, you got a week off, paid, and then you gotta get back to it. No time for grieving, no time for processing your sadness. And for children who are removed, like me, there was no grieving time for me. One day, I was in my home, and the next day, I was in a metal bed. You know, in those metal beds with springs sticking up into your flesh. Before then, I had always slept on the floor, and so now I was in a metal bed. And that’s, that’s my memory.
Many of us have had to…and even as a Two-Spirit person that’s another question. My Nation had to do a coming home ceremony for me. They took me in, they took my children in, because I returned, I returned after being stolen. So that’s the long answer, the short answer is no, I don’t have any tools. And the long answer is yes, the tools are there. And yes, I’m still, I’m still gaining those tools.
JP: Thank you for sharing.
Jessie Little Feather: Well, for me, I am adopted. I grew up in a non-Native family. I grew up in Sturbridge, Massachusetts in the 60s and 70s. It was mostly all white. So I grew up being ashamed of who I was as a person, because everybody in my family was all white, blond hair, blue eyes, everybody around me, all my friends. So I was ashamed to be dark skin, black hair, glasses, and I’m petite. I’m only 4 foot 11. So I got picked on a lot. And not only being picked on because of my color, as I grew up, you know, learning about myself my sexuality, and I thought I was the only gay person around I didn’t even know the word gay.
But then as I got older, my biological mother, she always said you know, one day you will be proud of who you are. Don’t listen to these kids, because I always came home crying. As I got older, I was still ashamed to be gay. I had to fake it and go out with guys.
I did find my biological family. I found both my biological mother who was full blooded white Mountain Apache and my biological father who was full blooded Navajo. I met my biological mother first. And she’s full Apache, so she spoke Apache. She didn’t really speak English, so my sisters, I found my 11 siblings…
Jessie Little Feather: So they had to translate for my mother and I. So that was really neat. And when I went back to Arizona to my reservation, which is the White Mountain Apache Reservation, out in Arizona, they too, also had a big ceremony, a big gathering of my family. It’s huge. A welcoming home, because for Native children who have been adopted out, they call us lost birds, so I wasn’t lost anymore.
So I came back to my home to my people. So that was really, really nice. I found out that one of my younger sisters is a medicine woman of the White Mountain Apache Tribe. I mean, she’s like, wow, she gets all her information through her dreams.
I learned a lot about my Apache side, hearing the language. seeing some of the ceremonies, one of my nieces went through a sunrise ceremony, which is very, very big in the Apache Nation, which is a young woman going into womanhood, and it can last up to three days or more. And the whole thing lasts forever. And picking out what we would call a Godmother, or Godfather, and it was really, really neat to see and learn more about myself.
I always felt that my life was like a jigsaw puzzle. That’s the only way I can explain it. So I have a lot of different empty spaces. So the picture was never complete. But as time went on, and I met my biological mother and my father, all those pieces started to connect and fill in. Now I know where I get my height from because my mother she’s like 4’10” – I’m actually taller than her and I was around people that looked like me. And I wasn’t a minority anymore. And I actually think I look more like my father. Usually Navajos: we have round gaces that are more flat. We are short and stout, because we’re nomads and sheep herders.
When I met him, my dad, he came down from Chinle, from the Navajo reservation. It was great to see him. I can see a lot of resemblance to him. And he spoke some Navajo and gave me a Navajo belt, it was woven. I found out that one of my sisters makes Navajo rugs, since they are sheep herders she uses the sheep’s wool to make the rugs. All the colors are all from different herbs. And I was like, wow, you know, learning that about myself and heritage.
And as I got older learning about that side, I became more and more proud of who I am. Then I learned about Two-Spirit, because I never had heard about that before. Why would I when I grew up with non-Natives? So as I started to learn more about it I’m like, hey, that’s me.
Depending on what tribe you’re from, Two- Spirit has so many different definitions. The definition that I chose, that really describes myself is one who houses both male and female spirit in one body. That is like, so me. You see it? I mean, I might look a little male, my masc attitude comes out. But you know, I have breasts, you know, and I’m a woman. Sometimes some people call me sir or him or, you know, whatever. I don’t get offended. Because to that person, they’re seeing my male side. Then I might go to another store. And they’ll say, ma’am, or miss or something else. Well, that person sees my femme side. So I don’t get offended. Because that’s, that’s who I am, I’m a Two-Spirit. So now I’m in Providence, Rhode Island, you know, meeting up with other two-spirits: more people, my tribe. And it’s rare to see a Two-Spirit especially on the East Coast.
And so we’re sisters and as it just so happened, one of them is my partner. So I’m very proud of that. And I just can’t wait for more healing. We’ve all gone through these traumatic things in our life, whatever it may be. But we’re together now we’re starting to make our own little Two Spirit community.
JP: A place of belonging
Jessie Little Feather: Yes. Because I am adopted, feeling as an outcast in my own family, but now that I’ve found other Two-Spirits, people who are like me, I feel more connected.
JP: It seems like the puzzle piece thing that you said is a very common experience. And hearing you and Makademakwa Ikwe both say the same thing. I’m curious how common that is…and it’s a lot for me to process. I’ve not ever had to hear about that before. So I’m feeling many things. So thank… thank you for sharing that with me. I think I will ask Sherry, about your tools for dealing with difficult challenges and with grief. And if your community is giving you those tools.
Sherry: Before I really started to learn about my heritage, my parents passed on the information to me that I was 100% French Canadian, because their parents hadn’t passed down the information to them that we were also Native. And I have a cousin that is related to my mom and my dad’s side of the family. And her parents were passed down the information that we had Native Heritage on both my mom’s side and dad’s side, so she got in contact with me and my parents and told us, you know, you’re not 100% French Canadian, like you always thought. Me and our part of the family, we’re related to both your mom and your dad. You’re native and European. And so you’re mixed, you’re Mixed Blood. And she introduced me to the Metis Nation which means mixed Aboriginal blood, which means part European blood, and part First Nations Canada. And/or Native from what is now called the United States. Back then, years ago, before the Europeans came and colonized this whole continent, it was considered one continent, it wasn’t broken up into borders, and States and South and Central America, North America, Canada, it didn’t have those names and boundaries and territories. The colonizers came, and they colonized us and broke us up into compartments, for their convenience for government. governmental reasons and, and tried to strip us of our ways, and whitewash us. And before they came in and did all that, people who were indigenous to this continent called it Turtle Island.
And so my ancestors come from Canada, but they first came from France, they moved into what is now called Canada. They mixed with the indigenous people, First Nations, people of Canada, and they migrated and they moved to what is now called the United States, back then they just moved south of the continent and into what is now called the United States, and mixed with the indigenous people here on the northeast coast of the United States, and so we were Eastern woodland Natives.
And so I have, like I said, French, you know, Canadian, First Nations, Canada, and Native American, and what I’ve come to believe and learn, since my cousin introduced me to my Native roots, my Native heritage is before I learned about it, I grew up Catholic. And I only learned and knew about what they call the Trinity. And about Jesus, Mary and Joseph and the apostles and the sacraments and going to church, you know, every weekend or else, you know, you don’t go to church there better be a reason, a good reason, like you’re really sick or there’s a strike against you on the scorecard with the big man upstairs, right? [Everyone laughs].
He’s this big, white bearded dude upstairs in the clouds, he’s keeping track. And he knows how many times you miss church and what the reasons were. And then when I learned…I started getting away from that when I fell in love with a woman, and they told me that I’d have to go to Confession first before I received First Communion. And I said, what the fuck. I said, you love me less now than you did yesterday, before you knew that I fell in love with a woman now all of a sudden, I have to confess.
I said “You don’t accept me fully and wholly for who I am. And if I’m less of a person in your eyes, and someone else’s, because of who I love, I don’t belong here and I don’t feel welcome.” So I turned around and left the confession booth. And I said, “I’m done.” And he said, Oh, but it’s just the teachings of the church. And I said, Okay, well, you can have your teachings I’m leaving.
I fell in love with my first woman at 21. I was 21. It took me a while to realize what the word gay meant, and Lesbian meant because my Catholic upbringing, and to be able to apply it to me and, and realize, Oh, my God, that’s why I admired women my whole life so much. And I wanted to dress like certain women and, you know, get to know them. And, you know, if she wore this kind of perfume, I was gonna buy it for myself. And, you know, she played guitar and sang, I want to learn guitar and sing. I had strong affections towards women and stuff.
I hated sex with men, it hurt, it sucked. I was like, I just couldn’t think about ever fucking marrying a guy and having children. And it was just gonna be a miserable life, man. And then I met this woman, and I was like, Oh, yeah. Okay. All right, here I am. This is it, man. I went to church, I told the priest and he told me, and I told him, and that was it. I said “I like this too much. See ya.” [Everyone laughs]
And then when my cousin introduced me to my native heritage, I started learning different things like about the Ancestors, and a Great Spirit that runs through everything that lives and breathes and has matter and has cells, and that is green and sucks oxygen. And it’s in the wind and it’s in the breeze, it’s in the sun. It’s in the moon, it’s in the trees, it’s in the water. You know, there’s two legged beings. There’s four legged beings, there’s water beings that swim in the water, there’s winged beings. I started learning all these terms I never heard before, that the Ancestors are people that have died, that meant something to you, that have gone before you or maybe even people that you’ve never even met before that you’re related to.
And they’re also Spirits of people that you’re not related to, but have gone before you. All these spirits make up one big collective of Spirit called the Great Spirit. And so it makes up one big spirit and, and it runs through me. And it’s in the wind. It’s in the sun that I feel on my skin. You know, I’m grieving the loss of my aunt and what do I do? Naturally, I feel a calling of the Great Spirit and the Spirit of my Ancestors, the calling me to go out into the woods and reconnect with her to feel the winds go through my throat when I take a deep breath, to feel the wind on my face, to feel the sun on my skin, that’s her. That’s her Spirit. She’s in my cells, her Spirit goes right through me, she’s in my spirit, she’s in my heart, she’s in my very breath, all I have to do is think, have a conscious thought about her, and she’s there.
Even when I’m not thinking about her, she’s there. So all I have to do and what I learned to do is when I want to connect to the Spirits, I give them an offering. And what the offering. They like when I burn sage, they like when I burned cedar, they like I burned sweet grass, and tobacco. And those are the sacred herbs that we Natives tend to burn as offerings to the Great Spirit. And, in exchange of making this offering of smoke of prayers of thoughts and intentions to them, they promise to be with us and guide us, and comfort and lead the way.
And we don’t always get what we want and what we ask for. But whatever we get in return for the offering is all in Divine Order. It’s in the order in which they see fit for us because they know better than we do. They’ve lived a whole life before us, and they’ve gone on. And now they have eternal wisdom. And they lend us the strength that we need to get through everything. And because they care about us, and they love us. And so whenever I feel like I need to connect, and I’m losing ground, and I need to get my spirit back. I just go and connect with theirs. And being out in nature, with the birds and the wind, and the deer and the animals, lighting a fire outside and,smelling the burning wood from a tree that was once alive for me to inhale. It’s beautiful smoke.
The smoke is important to us. It rises up to the sky and reaches the Spirits the Ancestors and invites them in. And so I just have to take a deep breath and inhale it and know that I’m being taken care of. And that’s how I’ve gotten through my grief, a lot of solitude and a lot of connecting with spirit.
Jessie Little Feather: Well said.
JP: Your voice is very meditative.
Makademakwa Ikwe: I was meditating, I wasn’t asleep. [Everyone laughs]
JP: I’m just deeply moved. And I am really grateful for your energy and for your willingness to share with me. Thank you all so much.
Editor’s Note: Stay tuned for part 2 in the coming weeks, with photos!
Joey Phoenix (they/them) is the Director of Brand Strategy and Innovation at Creative Collective and a proud member of the LGBTQIA2+ Community. As the resident storyteller and town crier, they encourage you to send story ideas, inspiration, or pictures of adorable critters to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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