This piece originally appeared in the recent (and first ever) “Sowing Seeds and Setting Roots: An Outweek 2015 Zine.” Outweek is a series of events hosted annually by the Pride Collective at UBC. For “Sowing Seeds and Setting Roots,” they encouraged submissions that took intersectional approaches to queer identity. We encourage you to check out the zine online, or to pick up a print copy at any of the upcoming Outweek events or the Pride Collective’s office (SUB 245C).
My name is Matthew Ward and I’m a nêhiyaw napew from Driftpile Cree Nation in northern Alberta. I identify as a queer Indigenous cisgender man that prefers ‘he’, ‘his’, and ‘him’ pronouns. I am currently studying at UBC in the First Nations Studies Program with a minor in Political Science. When I first heard about this zine coming out I knew that I wanted to be involved. Being familiar with a number of people involved in the collective, and attending events such as the Transgender Day of Remembrance and Harlan Pruden’s presentation on Two Spirit people, I felt that their contributions to the community I have been witness too should be reciprocated in the best way I know how. This is what I’ve decided to write.
I thought I would take this opportunity to speak about intersectionality in the context of being Indigenous, queer, of mixed identity, and living away from my community. More specifically I want to look at how these challenges have made me have to think critically about the ways in which I see my relationship to myself, my family, my community, and my work. This should be prefaced with an acknowledgement of the multiple privileges I hold in this conversation. My family’s support of how I choose to live my life and the work I do is something I do not take for granted. I have the opportunity to live, learn, and play on the beautiful territory of the Coast Salish peoples. I also have the opportunity to receive an education from one of the best Indigenous studies programs on the planet with some of the most brilliant minds in the world. I am so thankful for all of these things in my life that have brought me here with my understandings.
A lot of the work I do has been dealing with identity politics. As an Indigenous person who grew up near their territory but without much context, culture, or language, I spent a large portion of my life trying to prove I wasn’t like other Indigenous people. I wanted to do well in school, go to college, get a good job, and have a beautiful family. For some reason I grew up thinking that if I was ‘too native’ that these things couldn’t be a reality for me. The older I got and as my struggles with my sexuality came to the forefront of my life at school, I decided that I needed to move to the big city, Edmonton in this case. While there I was able to deal with a lot of my struggles around being a young gay person in a mostly conservative province. I met other LGBTQIA2+ people. I learned about the struggles they faced in Canada and around the world. I learned about love. By the time I graduated, I felt I was ready for another adventure, cue UBC.
While at UBC, my father encouraged me to take an Indigenous studies course. I was hesitant. I felt I knew what I needed to know. I thought it might be depressing and truthfully I was scared. My good friend and writer, Samantha Nock, mirrored many of these feelings on her university experience. “I wasn’t going to major in Native Studies because I didn’t want to be that Native kid”. Little did I know that taking that course would put me on a path of self-discovery, self-love, anti-oppression, and decolonization and that this would significantly change the way I saw and continue to see the world. While I won’t go into the details of the coursework per say (GO TAKE A FIRST NATIONS STUDIES PROGRAM COURSE! IT WILL CHANGE YOU!), I will say that I’ve had the opportunity to think about the world with an understanding that has taught me not only why I felt the shame I did growing up (hint: its called internalized racism, and its often experienced by Indigenous people!), but also that I am part of a strong, resilient, and beautiful community among hundreds of other distinct, beautiful, resilient nations that have been fighting for Indigenous rights and sovereignty on this territory, and across the globe since colonization began.
Now that I am coming to the end of my time at UBC for now, I’ve had to have that dreadful conversation one does in their last semester where for the first time ever, you really have to answer that question, “So what are you gunna do with your degree?” Only this time it’s a whole lot scarier because it’s coming from inside your head and not from across the dinner table over the holidays.
My first instinct was to find ways to reconnect with my community. A small community of roughly 1200 members, most of which do not live on our reserve. While in theory, I should be acknowledged and accepted as a member and feel safe being on my territory with my people, I’ve come to realize that this isn’t necessarily the case. Despite my membership and ties to my community, as a gay man, it turns out the coming from an urban space and into a small, tight-knit community with familial tensions and, I would argue fairly conservative values, isn’t that easy. I don’t know if I can say for sure that living there at this point is a reality for me. An Indian with a community he can’t visit. Of course this isn’t uncommon (hell, it was written into legislation for native women who married white men until the 1980’s in the Indian Act), but what does this mean for other LGBTQIA+ and Two-Spirit people?
By having the opportunity to acknowledge all parts of myself, I’ve found myself trapped with the call to my territory, and simultaneously the fear of violence in those spaces. How do I reconcile whom I love with the place I want to learn to love again? Of course many people will tell you that Two-Spirit people were always revered, respected, and held power within Indigenous communities, but many of these stories, teachings, and traditions have been lost over the years of colonization and residential schools.
This piece isn’t meant to invoke pity for me. It also isn’t necessarily meant to provide answers to these difficult questions. I’m a happy guy, learning every day and trying my best to decolonize the places I call home. I instead want to problematize the ‘pan-indigenous’ experience that settlers often cast on Indigenous peoples. The intersections of our identities through race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, etc. all hold real implications in our lives outside the Indigenous vs. non-Indigenous binary. I’m not interested in oppression Olympics, but instead creating spaces that acknowledge the diverse experiences within marginalized communities. It is through this acknowledgement that we are going to create real spaces of decolonization that challenge the racist settler-colonial heteropatriarchal state and all its manifestations.: Samantha Nock. “Garbage Baggage”, A Halfbreed’s Reasoning. April 30th, 2014. https://halfbreedsreasoning.wordpress.com/2014/04/30/garbage-baggage
I’d like to thank the Pride Collective at UBC for continuing to create spaces for Indigenous voices within their critical discourse, and for making my experiences with them engaging, safe, and fun. I’d also like to thank the readers who have allowed me to be vulnerable in this space. Its appreciated so much!
Matt is a humble queer nêhiyaw navigating complex identity politics in First Nations Studies on unceded xʷməθkʷəy̓əm territory. He works with the First Nations Studies Student Association and is coincidentally a collective member with The Talon.