Sporting spiky blonde highlights and a bright World Cup track jacket, Mitchell Mack exudes the image of an energetic young Vancouverite, adapting to changing times while staying true to his spiritually.
Next week, Mack, who is two-spirited, will don the regalia of a pow-wow dancer for Embracing Our Spirits: A Gathering of Two Spirit, Family, and Friends. It’s the first-ever gathering of its kind in the Vancouver area.
“It’s a huge event for Vancouver,” Mack says. “There is a huge two-spirited community out there and they don’t even know it exists. This will bring us all together. We’re building a better two-spirited community.”
Though being two-spirited has many meanings in different contexts, it is generally the self-identification term of choice for gay, lesbian and bisexual aboriginal people.
Next week’s event aims to bring two-spirited people together through traditional First Nations ceremonies, such as talking circles, smudge ceremonies, two-spirit power pow-wows, as well as drag shows, seminars, focus groups, silent auctions and feasts.
Mack describes the pow-wow as a kind of party where tribes and families get together and dance to celebrate spirituality.
“There are many different reasons for holding a pow-wow but it’s mostly about bringing communities together,” he explains. “The dances and ceremonies come from our ancestors so when we perform them we are often thinking about our grandmothers, grandfathers. We let their spirits live on through us in these ceremonies. It’s about getting in touch with the Creator.
“I’ll be dancing for the north as I am from Northern Ontario,” he continues. “I make my regalia, which is very spiritual, out of baby eagle feathers, which some people think aren’t very nice but are my favourite.”
The hubbub of city life is far removed from Geraldton, the small community near Thunder Bay, Ontario where Mack spent his childhood summers with his family on the pow-wow trail. “My family would sing at pow-wows on reserves throughout the region. Mom and I would make costumes. It was a family affair: she’d sing, I’d dance and my brother would drum.”
Embracing Our Spirits is an attempt by two-spirited community members to provide people like Mack with an opportunity to celebrate their aboriginal roots and spirituality here in Vancouver.
For Mack, the event marks the culmination of a long journey back to his spiritual core.
“I was having a bit of a crisis in my life,” he recalls. “I woke up one day and felt like my life had no real meat to it. There was nothing going for me and life was shit. Things weren’t as I envisioned them as a child.”
Crossing paths with Robert Hong, one of the two-spirited men co-organizing the gathering, would alter the course of Mack’s life.
“People just get put in your life for a reason,” he reflects. “He was a guide and had a huge effect on my life. He’d been doing things in his own life that I had wanted do for a very long time. He was doing sweat lodges, talking circles, etc.
“He doesn’t just bring community together–he builds them.”
Being two-spirited “is about why the Creator put us here,” says Hong. “It’s something different. It’s not necessarily negative, it is using the Creator to teach or show you something.”
The term two-spirited is not only about sexual and gender identity; it explains an individual’s role in the family and community. Many First Nations throughout North America not only tolerated but venerated individuals who possessed a gender or sexual identity which blurred the lines between male and female roles.
“In the circle of community two-spirited people sat in the centre alongside elders,” says Hong. “We were the ones who would teach traditions to kids as we wouldn’t have our own children, and the parents would be away working or whatever. We had a better ability to see the spirit world and in some cases we can go to the other side and back. We have strong male and female medicine.”
The advent of European colonisation meant many aboriginal traditions, including the place of two-spirited people, were cast to the wayside or disappeared altogether.
“Smallpox wiped out many elders and we were put in residential schools where we were not allowed to speak in our languages or talk about our history,” notes Hong. “We had no written language, it was all oral.”
In the last 30 years, though, many aboriginal people have been reclaiming and rebuilding their pre-colonisation roots. “People are thirsty for pre-colonisation spirituality,” says Hong.
Still, it can be hard to hang onto the old traditions.
For one thing, many two-spirited people not only find themselves confronted with homophobia, but have to endure racism and isolation as well. As a result, says Dolan Badger, “many people give up their traditions when they move to the big city.”
In addition to co-organizing Embracing Our Spirits with Hong, Badger is an outreach worker with the Urban Native Youth Association.
Although there are many two-spirited people in Vancouver, Badger describes it as a fragmented community with “pockets here and there.”
Embracing Our Spirits is a first step towards forging a cohesive two-spirited community.
The event is being sponsored in part by the Gay Men’s Methamphetamine Working Group, in conjunction with the Urban Native Youth Association, the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre, and the Four Feathers Society.
Part of the funding for the gathering comes from a grant provided by BC’s municipalities for crystal meth education in aboriginal communities. In addition to celebrating two-spirited culture and traditions, the weekend gathering will give organizers an opportunity to provide participants with drug use information, particularly on crystal meth.
“This is to celebrate spirituality and healing, but also education–teaching people about our community,” says Badger.
Organisers hope Embracing Our Spirits will turn into an annual event, or even something larger.
“I envision programs coming out of this,” says Mack “Getting together as a community is bringing together lost souls. It’ll send a ripple effect through the community. It’ll be a shockwave which could evolve into a movement!”