WORDS BY Adrienne Huard
PHOTOGRAPH BY EVAN BENALLY ATWOOD
Western colonization has violently imposed binary views of gender and sexuality upon the world, attempting to erase more expansive understandings of identity—like those of Indigenous peoples.
On May 27, 2021, news outlets began releasing information about a mass grave at Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia, Canada, on the lands of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation. This announcement confirmed what many Indigenous peoples have been repeating for generations: that thousands of our ancestors were stolen from us by the hands of the Indian residential school system, which was funded by the federal Canadian government and various Christian sect churches.
From 1831 to 1996, Indigenous children were ripped from their homes by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, members of the church, and Indian agents, and then forced into underfunded and overcrowded schools. At these schools, many were severely mistreated, sexually abused, and punished for their Indigenous identities. This was a genocidal tactic that robbed Indigenous peoples of seven generations of traditional knowledge, kinship ties, and profound understandings of ancestral territories. Many children didn’t make it home. Research from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report confirmed that at least one in twenty-five children never returned to their families, and many of their family members were never notified of the whereabouts of their missing children.
Since then, there have been countrywide calls to search other residential school grounds for more unmarked and unrecorded graves. Reflecting on the possibility of my ancestors’ final resting places at St. Joseph’s and St. Margaret’s Indian Residential Schools in Ontario, I think of the land that has embraced them when our family members couldn’t. It is an insurmountable grief that I feel when acknowledging the violent assimilation tactics that perforated our ancestral territories that carry our Anishinaabeg cosmologies—from our governance structures to our clan systems, languages, ceremonies, plant medicines, maps, and creation stories.
The land dictates everything about our ways of being. Particularly, the land teaches us about fluidity. Concepts of the gender binary system and heteropatriarchy were imposed by the residential school system and its Christian colonial beliefs, which screamed aggressively louder than Anishinaabeg understandings of multiple gender expressions and sexualities. Indigenous children were segregated to gendered residencies, their long hair sheared to confirm performative gendered falsehoods. This perpetuated the violent erasure of diverse gender identities and queer sexualities that have existed harmoniously in our communities since the conception of the Anishinaabeg Nation.
As a Two-Spirit Anishinaabe femme, I mourn for the lack of acceptance and recognition of queer, Indigenous experiences from our own communities. The land doesn’t operate under binary thinking—it is diverse, complex, and unpredictable at times. Rather, the land holds us and all of our remarkable paths and identities. Historically, settler colonialism remains deeply enamored with the tendency to codify, categorize, and name in order to perpetuate hierarchies and order through a heteropatriarchal lens. But hierarchies are obsolete to the land—every organism and spirit has a purpose.
Liminality disrupts settler colonial ideologies through a dissolution of linear time, hierarchies, and certainty. Much like the land, there will always be moments of instability and impermanence.
Binary systems are deeply entrenched in Western colonial beliefs. We can see examples of this in post-colonial theories, such as Frantz Fanon’s Self and Other, Edward Said’s Occident and Orient, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Master and Slave dialectic. To spare you the academic jargon, binaries propel the colonial desire to establish the division of “powerful” and “unempowered.” Binaries exist everywhere we turn—from feminine vs. masculine, right vs. wrong, civilized vs. savage, heaven vs. hell, homosexual vs. heterosexual, etc. These models represent two oppositional perspectives, but what happens to the space in between? The concept of liminality illustrates an almost middle ground, a space that sits midway of the binary. Victor Turner (this is the last Western theorist I’ll mention) made this idea popular in the ’60s, and it can account for moments in time, physical spaces, societies, and even within the individual.
Liminality disrupts settler colonial ideologies through a dissolution of linear time, hierarchies, and certainty. Much like the land, there will always be moments of instability and impermanence. Liminality rejects a level of knowing, anticipation, or predictability and replaces it with humility in the unknown. In my language, Anishinaabemowin, we refer to our Creator as Giizhe Manitou. This translates to “ever-loving great mystery,” demonstrating humility in not fully grasping what Creator or Creation looks like—a teaching that was shared to me by one of my Anishinaabe mentors. There’s strength in not understanding, in questioning, or in remaining unfixed. Because the Earth, the waters, and the entities that exist on these lands are perpetually in motion and ever-changing—nothing remains static.
The idea of liminality also exists within queer theories, disrupting gender binary constructs and contrasting positions of sexuality. Much like my sexuality and gender expression, I find myself oscillating between identities but never sitting at one side of a spectrum. Alternatively, I follow the land’s lead by existing in a fluid state—never stationary and always growing. Now in my mid-thirties, I am finally beginning to learn Anishinaabeg understandings of gender, sexuality, and relationality through community, kin, and Elders. It breaks my heart to know that some of my ancestors were never given that opportunity to truly embody Anishinaabe understandings of body, love, and spirit.
It wasn’t until I left the Canadian Prairies to attend university in both Montreal and Toronto, when I truly understood my relationship to the land. Ceremony, language, and my community brought me closer to my ancestral territories and knowledge, but I never comprehended how important it was until I was provinces away. In my defiance and disdain, I was taught humility and appreciation for the land that birthed me and the cosmologies of my ancestors.
Many Two-Spirit, trans, and queer, Indigenous folks also feel the same displacement but do not have an option to return due to homophobia, transphobia, and blatant misogyny that’s bled into our communities due to the impacts of colonization. I recognize my privilege in being able to return home in a body that’s read as cisgender and unlikely queer-coded due to my femme identity. How do we speak about land when some of our queer and trans community members are not welcome? How to we address land when displaced Two-Spirit, trans, and queer, Indigenous peoples find kinship and chosen family in urban city centers? I have been fortunate enough to have found kin within urban settings, all spanning from across Turtle Island to band together and hold each other through our complexities and power. From queer bowling alleys, crowded apartments, karaoke bars, and old junky vehicles on road trips, we find our own ways to express reverence for the land within each other.
It is not my goal to center myself in the midst of the devastating news at Kamloops but, rather, to bring a perspective that is inherently affected by the residential school system, as many Indigenous peoples’ are. I also humbly admit that I am not a monolithic voice for the Two-Spirit and queer Indigenous community. I am, however, deeply honored and inspired by many Indigenous thinkers who continue to expand on these conversations of land and body. And while the land may be beautiful and unforgiving at times, it reflects the intricate relationships that mirrors my queer Anishinaabeg ways of being.