For the last four years, Roxanne Tootoosis, James Lamouche, and Lana Whiskeyjack have been inviting LGBTQ2S+ youth and parents of LGBTQ2S+ youth to join them in circle.
On the last Wednesday of each month, a growing group, called okimaw kihêw mêkwanak, meets at the kihêw waciston Indigenous Centre to learn and share resources.
“Parents and grandparents were asking about raising children who identify as gay or lesbian or bisexual,” says Roxanne, who is MacEwan University’s Indigenous Knowledge Keeper. “They wanted to know what that meant. They wanted their children to be safe and for no harm to come to them. Because Lana and I have transgender children, we had some knowledge and insight to share.”
So in 2016, Roxanne and Lana (an assistant professor at the University of Alberta) set out to create a comfortable space of courage for anyone to come and learn. The monthly gatherings are rooted in ceremony and based on Indigenous kinship principles, and ways of knowing and being. They serve a traditional meal, invite Elders to share cultural teachings, and work to create capacity, resources and support for youth who are two-spirit, transgender or non-binary.
“It’s an interesting dynamic,” says Lana. “We have youth who come because they don’t necessarily have support in their own families and communities. We have about a dozen parents – some whose children are out and others whose children aren’t. And we have non-Indigenous people who are interested in learning as part of reconciliation.
What's in a name?
The group chose to go through Indigenous ceremony to determine its name. okimaw kihêw mêkwanak is Cree (nêhiyawêwin) and translates to “leader eagle feathers” in English. The term refers to the feathers that are on a ceremonial Indigenous staff.
Traditional roles, ceremony, rites of passage and transition to adulthood – especially related to two-spirit people – are subjects that everyone who attends is hungry to learn about, says Roxanne.
“Before contact, two-spirit people were revered because they were gifted with both a male and female perspective. They were our healers. They looked after the orphaned children. They contributed so vastly, but colonialism eradicated that. Now we’re trying to bring it back. To give these members of our community their rightful place of honour.”
It’s a message that she says is beginning to ripple out of this small group. “Our non-Indigenous allies want to know how to be respectful and to take the proper approach,” says Roxanne. “It’s just amazing what can be done when we work in unity.”