It’s hard to ignore Sandra LaFramboise’s energy.
She’s performing on stage at the Dufferin; her audience is captivated. She’s dancing to “Darling Don’t Cry” by Buffy Sainte-Marie, feeling every beat of the drum with an infectious smile of joy on her face.
The overhead lights bounce off the many beads in her hair and dress as she stretches out her arms and spins around. At the song’s climax she throws a swatch of feathers into the air, which drift to the floor, briefly obscuring her face.
The audience is a mix of people of all ages, hairstyles and backgrounds who have come to witness the presentation of candidates for the positions of chief and princess of the Greater Vancouver Native Cultural Society (GVNCS), an organization dedicated to supporting the local two-spirited community.
The winners will be crowned at the annual Passing of a Legacy ball on Jul 29, after outgoing Chief XXIX Vince Rexxx and Princess XXIX Desre’e step down.
Monica (Wandering Spirit) and Nakita (Spirit-Bear) are vying for the position of princess, and Joseph Richards (Skywalker I), James Shaler (Grey Wolf I), and LaFramboise (Dancing Two Eagle Spirit) are running for the position of chief.
LaFramboise has been working in the community for the last 15 years and helped organize the first government-funded transgender organization. She is running for the position of chief to bring awareness to the traditional understanding of two-spirited people. “It’s about being proud of who I am,” she says.
Nakita is a member of the Inuit nation from Kugluktuk, in western Nunavut. “I just want to help non-profit organizations raise money for things,” she says. “People asked me to run and I am running.”
Shaler, a member of the Cree and Métis nations, is running for chief in an effort to realize his vision of indigenous unity.
“I want to bring the Indian nations together across North American and I want to include the Métis,” he says.
The GVNCS was created in 1978 in response to racism within Vancouver’s gay community. “When we first came into Vancouver we’d be going into the bars and clubs and you were looked on as an Indian drunk,” explains Elder of Elders Laurie McDonald, who founded the organization. “We were just seen as Indian people in bars and put in brackets that white people thought we were.”
McDonald and his cohorts used the opportunity to explore their own roots and educate people about aboriginal understandings of what many call homosexuality.
“A two-spirited people is not a homosexual person per se. We’re trained at a young age to follow the two-spirited role and that’s a traditional role,” he explains. “It’s an honoured role.
“At the time, a lot of our two-spirited people were suffering from an identity crisis,” he continues. “It gave them a sense of belonging within their own culture. We look at it as a gift, and how we choose to use that gift is up to us. I believe we are helpers and teachers and that’s our role.”
Iris (Golden Eagle I), was elected Princess in 1986, 1992 and 1996. She performs for the society as a way of giving back to the community. “We raise money for hospital funds,” she says. “So if there’s someone in the hospital we give them $25 to get them by, so they can get whatever they want or we can go shopping for them.”
Many two-spirited people in Vancouver are far away from their families and people like Iris do their part to fill that gap.
“When I do my shows, I do what I have to do to make that money for the society,” she says. “I wouldn’t call myself a drag queen, I’m a woman and when I’m on stage I’m a lady. I do a lot of fundraising for the community.”
Indigenous traditions play a key role in the society. Each member takes on a spirit name and belongs to a clan within the society such as the Foxes, Bears, Eagles, Wolves, Running Wolves and White Foxes, explains GVNCS president Jeffery Bear. “For me, my name is Jeffrey Bear so I use the Bear clan and it is my traditional name, bear in my culture. So each family has their own name.”
Tradition also plays a role in the society’s governance. It is overseen by a board and a council of elders comprised of past princesses and chiefs. As a former chief, Bear is a member of that council.
“We have formed a college of elders where we come together as one. Instead of one certain individual running the whole thing we all work together. We find it works easier that way. We have monthly meetings; if something bad happens, like someone slanders the society or rumours get around or if there’s a death, we’ll call a meeting and it’s called an elders’ meeting. We are called on [for] our opinion of what to do and what action should be taken.”
The organization, however, is not limited to two-spirited people. The GVNCS regularly works, and parties, with other queer organizations who have all attended their functions.
“We invite everyone,” says Bear, listing some of the organizations: “The Dogwood Monarchist Society, Mr and Ms Gay Vancouver, the King and Queen of Hearts, Latinos, we invite them all. We break bannock with them all to show our faith and goodwill that we are willing to work with them throughout the year.”
At the Legacy ball, each princess and chief appoints an honorary white counterpart.
The GVNCS hosts three major events throughout the year. The Breaking of the Bannock, which takes place in September, is an opportunity for the society to give thanks to the wider community. The Wagonburner’s Convention in December is when they give out awards and certificates of appreciation.
Their events normally bring in a packed house. Most attendees are aboriginal but the events now attract people from the wider community who come to see the performances or to enjoy First Nations fare such as bannock, deer meat and salmon.
“We try to make it all First Nations cuisine and some people just come for that,” says Bear. “It gets so packed in there that the food is gone in 15 to 20 minutes.”
Some events bring in more money and the proceeds are donated to the larger community. “If we make enough money we’ll give it away to other organizations like Healing Our Spirits for example, or an AIDS organization,” says Bear. “If it’s a good year and we’ve made enough cash we’ll give it to charitable organizations as well. When it’s not a good year we are just able to cover the costs for the program.”
This year’s Legacy will consist of four sets. The first set will include a special 30th anniversary walk of past chiefs and princesses, introductory performances, an opening prayer and command performances, which are performances done at the command of the chief, princess or president of the society.
The second and third sets will include performances by past chiefs and princesses. Over the years the College of Elders has grown to nearly 60 people and Bear expects a nearly full turnout.
The final set is devoted to dignitaries from other societies, such as the emperor and empress of the Dogwood Monarchist Society. This is followed by the final walk of Chief and Princess XXIX and concludes with the coronation of Chief and Princess XXX.
On this anniversary McDonald looks back and reflects on the changes he’s witnessed since it all began.
“There is more acceptance nowadays,” he says. “People looking at us as equals. They would know who you are, for one thing. You’re not just another stereotype person; they do know who you are.”
As he looks ahead to the future, he hopes two-spirited people will continue to understand their roles.
“My hope is that a lot of our two-spirited people will come to terms of with who they are and hopefully their lifestyle will change to fit that role they were meant to live — to be helpers. It may mean to give up addiction issues and look at their role as teachers and helpers and regain some of that spirituality that’s been lost.”