On the afternoon of International Women’s Day on March 8, around 15 U of T students and community members gathered in a Multi-Faith Centre conference room. Painting supplies and food adorned the tables, and attendees painted while storyteller, writer, and Ojibwa-Cree Elder Ma-Nee Chacaby — who uses she and he pronouns — shared stories over Zoom.

During the event, which the Multi-Faith Centre and Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre co-hosted, Chacaby — author of the 2016 auto-biography entitled A Two-Spirit Journey: the Autobiography of a Lesbian Ojibwa-Cree Elder — recounted stories about her family and told attendees about her experience as an Indigenous and Two-Spirit person.

“Arrival of visitors”

Sitting against colourful quilts, with paintings hanging above him, Chacaby began with a story he called the “arrival of visitors.”

Chacaby currently lives in Thunder Bay, but she told attendees that her grandmother, who Chacaby believes to have been born around the 1860s, spent the first few years of her life in what is now known as Saskatchewan. His grandmother’s parents died when she was quite young, and a Cree family adopted her. 

“[The family and my grandmother] had a hard life travelling together. When they finally arrived to James Bay, [my grandmother] made a promise to herself that she was going to just live and accept whatever was going to happen. And that made her journey easy,” Chacaby recounted. 

“And then one day [my grandmother] met this man” — a half-Ojibwa and half-French man who told Chacaby’s grandmother he would like to marry her. “So they fell in love,” said Chacaby, and the two later married.

In her years with her adopted family, Chacaby’s grandmother “learned how to hunt. She knew how to make drums… She survived on her own for many years already when she was young.” She also learned medicines and became a “great medicine woman,” later passing this knowledge down to Chacaby.

“White Frenchmen and Englishmen, fur coats and redcoats were just coming… then they would come and steal the women,” Chacaby remembered her grandmother telling her. “The Anishinaabe didn’t fight back. When [the settlers] shot them, they just got shot. My grandmother tried to heal them. Some of them died, and my grandmother, she said she just kept working.”

Chacaby’s grandparents decided to leave the area and began to travel, eventually raising six kids into their teen years. At one point, Chacaby’s grandfather fell ill and was flown to a Winnipeg hospital. “[My grandmother] was really sad, but he kept saying, I’m coming back, I’m coming back. But he never came back. So he died in Winnipeg, and my grandmother just kept travelling.”

“A Two-Spirit baby”

Chacaby’s mother had an accident at a young age and spent many years in a Winnipeg hospital. She later contracted tuberculosis and was transferred to a tuberculosis sanatorium in Thunder Bay, where Chacaby was born.

“Then my grandmother heard that her baby daughter had a baby girl, and she said, oh, I gotta raise that girl,” Chacaby recounted. 

“I was four years old, and my grandmother said that I was a Two-Spirit baby, and I didn’t know what that meant…I was about 15 when I asked her, what does Two-Spirit mean?” Chacaby remembered his grandmother pointing out same-sex couples living near them and telling Chacaby that, one day, he would marry a woman.

The English term Two-Spirit translates the Anishinaabemowin term niizh manidoowag, which refers to someone who has both male and female spirit inside them. Anishinaabe Elder Myra Laramee first proposed using the term during the 1990 Third Annual Inter-tribal Native American, First Nations, Gay and Lesbian American Conference in Winnipeg. 

Although many Indigenous people use Two-Spirit to describe a range of culturally-tied gender, sexual, and spiritual identities, some Indigenous languages have terms to describe specific types of 2SLGBTQ+ identities.

Some Indigenous communities — including Ojibwe and Plains Cree communities — particularly honoured Two-Spirit people, who often served as caretakers, medicine people, beaders, and treaty negotiators in many Indigenous communities.

“[My grandmother] said, when a woman goes and marries a woman, it’s okay. That’s the way our lives were led before white people took it away from us,” Chacaby remembered. “Just listen to your heart, your mind and your soul. They want everything out of you. The only thing they can’t change is your skin,” she said.

As a product of colonization, Christian missionary settlers pushed heteronormativity and stricter gender roles onto many Indigenous Peoples, spawning homophobia even within some Indigenous communities. The 2019 final report released by the national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls notes that 2SLGBTQ+ Indigenous people “are often forced to leave their traditional territories and communities . . . to find either safety or community.” 

“Thunder Bay, when I was coming up, it was really hard… my own people were against me because they were saying, now you’re adding one more thing so people can hate us,” Chacaby told attendees. But Chacaby told the audience he didn’t care: “I was born here. This is my grandmother’s land we’re walking on.”

It didn’t click for Chacaby that she might be Two-Spirit until after she’d come out. He discussed a meeting with other 2SLGBTQ+ Indigenous people where someone mentioned the term. “That is when I thought, you know, my grandmother told me about Two-Spirit people way back since I was four years old. How come it didn’t hit me to say that when I was coming out?”

Chacaby continues to lead protests for Two-Spirit people and the environment. He is an Elder in Thunder Bay, learning and passing on knowledge. He is also a knowledge keeper for the Assembly of First Nations — a national advocacy organization with roots as far back as 1870. 

In an interview with The Varsity, Shesha Taylor — a fourth-year student specializing in fundamental genetics and its applications and a Student Life programs assistant — said that the main takeaway she received from the talk was the importance of acceptance. 

“I think a lot of women, especially from marginalized communities, find it difficult to accept themselves, or they deal with traumas that are very much perpetrated by their societies and their communities,” she said. “Accepting yourself for who you are and being in community and trying to work through that is really important.”