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3 min

Tania Dopler’s fighting spirit

A First Nations perspective on gender

She introduces herself to me as a two-spirited warrior.

I’m in an office with bright purple walls that are covered in First Nations and queer posters. By the door is a tower of Xena: The Warrior Princess VHS box sets, and in front of me sits Tania Dopler of Bear Clan — a tall, steely-grey-haired woman of Sauk-Fox, Cherokee and Irish descent. Around her neck is a rainbow pendant in the shape of a bear. I catch a glimpse of a thin, scalp-lock braid whenever she turns her head.

“Warriors aren’t just about fighting,” Dopler is saying. “[In the past] warriors saw and spoke the truth even if it was hard. They addressed wrongs, but they also looked after the children and the grandmothers. Sometimes being a warrior is about being comfortable with gentleness.”

As I sit in a comfy office chair and listen to Tania Dopler’s story unfold, I sneak glances at the Xena tapes. Like the lesbian cult icon of the ’90s (of whom we are both fans), I realize that Dopler has also gone through a redemptive transformation.

Tania Dopler was born and raised in 1960s Newfoundland. Her family hid their First Nations heritage and “masqueraded as white to avoid racism.”

In a community with no cultural or lifestyle resources, Dopler — unusually spiritual for a woman in her early 20s — naturally assumed she was meant for the nunnery because she felt no fulfillment in her relationships with men. But before she made that mistake, a kind-hearted Catholic priest and advisor at Memorial University managed to talk through her internalized homophobia and explain that God makes all kinds of different sexualities.

“It wasn’t that I had a vocation for the religious life after all,” Dopler mused. “It was just that I liked girls!”

Dopler promptly came out as a lesbian and moved to Ottawa in 1992 for graduate work in Canadian Studies and Women’s Studies. Only six months after relocating, the girlfriend whom she’d moved to Ottawa for broke off their relationship. Devastated, Dopler spiralled into alcohol addiction, but an intervention by her new Ottawa friends led her to seek help at the Amethyst Women’s Addiction Centre. During her first stages of recovery, the Centre referred her to Minwaashin Lodge, which would open the door for Dopler to begin reconnecting with her aboriginal heritage.

Since that time, Dopler has served 16 years in the Canadian Navy; she has been a library assistant, a professional researcher, a deaf-community worker and a self-defence teacher. She completed an MA and met the woman who would become her best friend, lover and wife. But it is her ongoing work with First Nations communities that has helped her understand her identity as a two-spirited warrior — especially since joining the Aboriginal Veterans Circle where she met the elder who is now her mentor.

“It’s taken a long time, but I feel really comfortable in my skin being two-spirited.”

Dopler explains that “two-spirited” is a modern term created to describe those in First Nations cultures whose gender goes beyond the simple categories of male and female. The movement attempts to reclaim the honour that many First Nations cultures attribute to those who are two-spirited.

“Being two-spirited, for me, means I live and move in this world as truly female, because this is the body Creator gave me. But I’m also truly male in the sense that I’ve been in the military, I’ve been a bouncer, I can MacGyver just about anything, and I don’t know how many times I’ve been mistaken as a man. But mostly it’s because I’m very ‘warrior.’”

In many First Nations cultures, “warrior” is customarily a designation given to those with male bodies. But Dopler’s two-spirited identity means that she is welcome to wear the men’s warrior regalia of shield, bustle, fan and breastplate and do the men’s dance in a powwow.

“I always found the term ‘lesbian’ too restrictive. It’s based on biology and who I [sleep] with. I’m more than that. My understanding of my culture is that it is holistic. The physical, emotional, spiritual — all of it is part of ‘two-spirit.’ Being two-spirited is about how I make an impact in the community, my social and spiritual roles.”

Some of these roles involve being a regional outreach-support services worker for the Ontario Aboriginal HIV/AIDS Strategy, a men’s traditional dancer in powwows, a wife and caretaker of two cats, a musician with the Nemisak Singers (who performed at WestFest in 2008), a soon-to-be blackbelt in Taekwondo and the bearer of a sacred tobacco bag.

Sure, Dopler isn’t the merciless, sword-wielding, metal-bustier-wearing badass that Xena is, but her past is riddled with the kind of self-rejection and sorrow that catalyzes everyday warriors to give back, staunchly defend the community and, in doing so, save themselves.

In the end, Dopler’s true weapon is the two-edged blade of her spirit.

“The beauty of my culture is I don’t have to give up being spiritual. Who I am is what helps me to be spiritual. And that’s a gift.”