Photos by Jah Grey
Nenookaasi Ogichidaa, or “hummingbird warrior” in Ojibwe, is a two-spirit powwow dancer who is Black, Ukranian and Ojibwe, a First Nation based in Canada and the U.S.
Two-spirit is an umbrella term that Indigenous parties from North America use to describe their place on a range of genders and sexualities. Neno goes by two specifies of gender pronouns: they, their and them, as well as she and her. For Neno, it’s important to be identified by those pronouns as they steer the world.
TORONTO — When Nenookaasi Ogichidaa dances illusion shawl, it’s like watching a butterfly in flight, looping and inventing through the air.
Nenookaasi, or “Neno” for short, wear a yellow shawl, blooming with fiery backstages that trails into peripheries. On their paw are handmade moccasins, decorated with ignites and enforced with regained skin from sofas dumped curbside.
A nearby Chinese lion dance accomplishment begins and the audio of the pounding drums carry. Neno takes off in circles. The butterfly revolves.
“I missed this so much, ” they say.
For First Nations and Inuit communities, its four emblazons symbol, among other things, the emotional, spiritual, mental and physical components of wellbeing.
Neno describes dancing as their drug project and the joy it brought was essential to their recovery from a automobile gate-crash in 2009.
Under their shawl, they wear a pullover hoodie. Across their chest are the words, “Resilient And Relentless” — messages that Neno incarnates. Depending on how you convene the 37 -year-old, you’ll recognize a different surface to their resilience. How you refer to them may change, too. Neno looks at gender pronouns as descriptors of the duties.
There’s the powwow dancer who fires through gender norms. The mental wellness navigator who works with Black and Indigenous communities in Ontario. The creator standing alone on city streets at night. The faggot lady in love, who gushes over her wife and three kids( four, if you weigh Ra, the recently adopted puppy who joins us for the day, too ).
“Being two-spirit, it’s not about gender personas. It’s about the obligations that we play. And sometimes those responsibilities,’ they’ is appropriate, ” Neno says. “When I’m make advocacy as the status of women, that’s really important.”
Two hours before their dance, our interview starts at an metropolitan conservatory in Toronto that’s open to the public year-round. It’s one of Neno’s favorite plazas, and it’s here that I am introduced to the activist, who stands their ground.
During our conference, two employees approach us. We are told that using my phone to record our conversation interruptions programme. The sleeping puppy Neno cradles does, very.
“This is your place of[ piece ], I are all aware that. But this is a public situate paid off taxpayers, ” Neno points out. “We’re having exchanges right now, we’re allowed to do that.”
Around us, several unbothered visitors snarl photographs of tulips and palm trees with DSLR cameras—professional photography is forbidden without a permit on city-owned property. Given the unfairness of the scrutiny, I ask if Neno wants to leave.
“No, let’s keep doing this. I can’t pause every time somebody else is feeling uncomfortable around me, ” they say.
Neno regularly encounters the uncomfortable. As a person of mingled heritage, they’ve struggled with their gumption of ego. Changing up, they were estranged from their Ukranian roots and were the only desegregated being in their Jamaican family. “Whitewashed, ” was what beings called them when they spoke. When Neno started coming to Indigenous community draws, they weren’t seen as someone who belonged. They took to referring to their identity as “Black-Nish”( Nish referring to Anishinaabe–a collective term for culturally referred First Nation in Canada and the United States ).
“Folks would request,’ How are you native? ’ I would say,’ My left toe is native.’ I’m tired of explaining and going through my lineage tree, ” they say. “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.”
“Through the Americas, across Turtle Island, ” Neno says, referencing an Indigenous period for the continent that predates The americas, “There’s Black Indigenous people. It’s[ hardly ever] talked about.”
Neno’s plurality as a Black Indigenous person of Ukrainian descent is something they refuse to stifle. That extends to their two-spirit identity.
As Neno told HuffPost Canada, they didn’t like powwow’s gender confinement: men and women are expected to only play particular dances, wear certain getups. Their hopes to show their fluidity between gender responsibilities by wearing both male and female regalia were rejected.
Over time, Neno realized the binary world they were forced into didn’t promote their wellbeing. Their medicine wasn’t sitting right. So they stopped dancing with much of their regalia; refused to wear a dress again; retired their beadwork; took the eagle feathers out of their hair. The last-place meter Neno danced in full regalia to the big drum was three years ago.
“It’s been really hard, ” Neno acknowledges. “That’s when my spirit is most free.”
In the face of this disappointment, it would be easy to shy away from taking up space in various parishes. But that’s not policy options for Neno. They tend to work that is healing and difficult. It became their calling to be visible for those yearning to be represented; unabashedly Black-Nish at all times.
At the Black community health care center they work at in an east-end borough of Toronto, Neno inventories the four sacred drugs — tobacco, cedar, sweetgrass, and sage — in front of their office. They sit on several advisories consulting on race and health, including a two-spirit advisory that pays guidance on ceremonial protocols for Pride galas across Canada. They founded Izhishimo, a nonprofit program that learns Indigenous two-spirit mortals about powwows and how to make their own regalia. Recently, they hosted their first outdoors powwow in Toronto’s Malvern neighborhood, residence to many Black and Indigenous occupants.
Neno is still envisioning what their ended two-spirit powwow regalia will look like. It’s a large task, as regalia tells the story of its wearer and confers what capacities they inhabit. Until they can design an kit that will capture the realities of their gender identity, Neno is diverting their energies to parish organizing and educating others about their cultures.
They don’t dance as often as they used to, but on occasion, Neno still rotates. Their moccasins and shawl get batch of love whenever Neno wants to spin with friends at social gatherings and powwows.
When they do, it’s hard-boiled not to stop and look. Neno counts on that. It’s how they depict fellow Black-Nish folks close, knowing on see they can share a kinship with the dancer.
“There’s this little girl who announces me’ flaming princess, ’” Neno says, remembering one of their favorite 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 surface … they’re not suffering what I have, ” they say, referring to their experiences being visibly Black in Indigenous spaces.
Toward the end of our time together, Neno’s effect on Black-Nish youth is made apparent in Yonge-Dundas Square.
It’s Toronto’s busiest plaza and, for an hour, she’s hosting a pop-up exhibit of her artistry evidence, “ #nuitpoc. ”
Hundreds of creators take part in Nuit Blanche, an artworks celebration that transforms the city for one night every year. The event’s name necessitates “sleepless night, ” but literally translates to “white night.” # Nuitipoc is her unofficial contribution, with Indigenous people of color( IPOC) taking centre stage.
For the past three Nuit Blanche galas, she’s taken over York and Queen St. W ., a street corner in downtown Toronto, with a social venture that’s roused visceral reactions. Hand-painted clues are covered in proclamations she has heard about her ethnicities. Throughout the nighttime, she stands in front of them with focused gazes and forearms outstretched, inviting commentators for hugs and conversation.