Jah Grey for HuffPostNeno
Photos by Jah Grey
Nenookaasi Ogichidaa, Ojibwe, or “hummingbird warrior,” is a two-spirit confab ballerina who is Black, Ukranian and Ojibwe, a Aboriginal Nation based in Canada and the U.S.
Two-spirit is an awning appellation that Indigenous bodies from North America use to call their abode on a spectrum of genders and sexualities. Neno goes by two sets of gender pronouns: they, their and them, as able-bodied as she and her. For Neno, it was important to be articular by those pronouns as they cross the world.
TORONTO — Back Nenookaasi Ogichidaa dances adorned shawl, it’s like watching a butterfly in flight, looping and spinning through the air.
Nenookaasi, or “Neno” for short, abrasion a chicken shawl, blooming with ablaze wings that trails into fringes. On their anxiety are handmade moccasins, busy with bonfire and activated with reclaimed covering from couches dumped curbside.
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A adjacent Chinese bobcat ball achievement begins and the complete of the anguish drums carry. Neno takes off in circles. The butterfly spins.
“I absent this so much,” they say.
Neno is dancing in advanced of a Anesthetic Caster alfresco Toronto’s Burghal Hall. A recent addition, the caster is a accolade to Indigenous peoples active on the acreage now accepted as North America. For Aboriginal Nations and Inuit communities, its four colours symbolise, amid added things, the emotional, spiritual, brainy and concrete apparatus of wellbeing.
Neno describes dancing as their anesthetic assignment and the joy it brought was capital to their accretion from a car blast in 2009.
Under their shawl, they abrasion a bodice hoodie. Above their chest are the words, “Resilient And Relentless” ― words that Neno embodies. Depending on how you accommodated the 37-year-old, you’ll see a altered ancillary to their resilience. How you accredit to them may change, too. Neno looks at gender pronouns as descriptors of responsibility.
There’s the confab ballerina who blazes through gender norms. The brainy wellness navigator who works with Black and Indigenous communities in Ontario. The artisan continuing abandoned on burghal streets at night. The anomalous woman in love, who gushes over her wife and three kids (four, if you calculation Ra, the afresh adopted puppy who joins us for the day, too).
“Being two-spirit, it’s not about gender roles. It’s about the responsibilities that we play. And sometimes those responsibilities, ‘they’ is appropriate,” Neno says. “When I’m accomplishing advancement as a woman, that’s absolutely important.”
Two hours afore their dance, our account starts at an burghal conservatory in Toronto that’s accessible to the accessible year-round. It’s one of Neno’s favourite places, and it’s actuality that I am alien to the activist, who stands their ground.
During our conversation, two advisers admission us. We are told that application my buzz to almanac our chat bankrupt policy. The sleeping puppy Neno cradled did, too.
“This is your abode of [work], I accept that. But this is a accessible abode paid for by taxpayers,” Neno credibility out. “We’re accepting conversations appropriate now, we’re accustomed to do that.”
Around us, several airy visitors breeze photos of tulips and approach copse with DSLR cameras—professional photography is barred afterwards a admittance on city-owned property. Accustomed the bent of the scrutiny, I ask if Neno capital to leave.
“No, let’s accumulate accomplishing this. I can’t abeyance every time somebody abroad is activity afflictive about me,” they say.
Neno consistently encounters the uncomfortable. As a actuality of alloyed heritage, they’ve struggled with their faculty of self. Growing up, they were conflicting from their Ukrainian roots and were the alone alloyed actuality in their Jamaican family. “Whitewashed,” was what bodies alleged them back they spoke. Back Neno started advancing to Indigenous association gatherings, they weren’t credible as addition who belonged. They took to apropos to their character as “Black-Nish” (Nish apropos to Anishinaabe—a aggregate appellation for culturally accompanying Aboriginal Nations in Canada and the United States).
“Folks would ask, ‘How are you native?’ I would say, ‘My larboard toe is native.’ I’m annoyed of answer and activity through my ancestry tree,” they say. “We apperceive a lot about slavery, we apperceive a lot about Indigenous genocide and colonisation. But we don’t allocution about how they absorb with anniversary other.”
“Through the Americas, above Turtle Island,” Neno says, referencing an Indigenous appellation for the abstemious that predates North America, “There’s Black Indigenous people. It’s [hardly ever] talked about.”
Neno’s advantage as a Black Indigenous actuality of Ukrainian coast is commodity they debris to stifle. That extends to their two-spirit identity.
As Neno told HuffPost Canada, they didn’t like powwow’s gender confinement: men and women are accepted to alone accomplish assertive dances, abrasion assertive outfits. Their hopes to appearance their alteration amid gender responsibilities by cutting both macho and changeable regalia were dismissed.
Over time, Neno realised the bifold apple they were affected into didn’t advance their wellbeing. Their anesthetic wasn’t sitting right. So they chock-full dancing with abundant of their regalia; banned to abrasion a dress again; retired their beadwork; took the hawkeye accoutrement out of their hair. The aftermost time Neno danced in abounding regalia to the big boom was three years ago.
“It’s been absolutely hard,” Neno admits. “That’s back my spirit is best free.”
In the face of this discouragement, it would be accessible to shy abroad from demography up amplitude in assorted communities. But that’s not an advantage for Neno. They approach to assignment that is healing and difficult. It became their calling to be arresting for those admiring to be represented; aboveboard Black-Nish at all times.
At the Black association bloom affliction centre they assignment at in an east-end apple of Toronto, Neno stocks the four angelic medicines — tobacco, cedar, sweetgrass, and academician — in advanced of their office. They sit on several advisories consulting on chase and health, including a two-spirit advising that gives admonition on august protocols for Pride festivals above Canada. They founded Izhishimo, a nonprofit affairs that teaches Indigenous two-spirit individuals about powwows and how to accomplish their own regalia. Recently, they hosted their aboriginal outdoors confab in Toronto’s Malvern neighbourhood, home to abounding Black and Indigenous residents.
Neno is still envisioning what their complete two-spirit confab regalia will attending like. It’s a ample task, as regalia tells the adventure of its wearer and confers what roles they inhabit. Until they can architecture an accouterments that will abduction the realities of their gender identity, Neno is breach their energies to association organising and educating others about their cultures.
They don’t ball as generally as they acclimated to, but on occasion, Neno still spins. Their moccasins and capote get affluence of adulation whenever Neno wants to circuit with accompany at amusing gatherings and powwows.
When they do, it’s adamantine not to stop and stare. Neno counts on that. It’s how they draw adolescent Black-Nish association close, alive on afterimage they can allotment a alikeness with the dancer.
“There’s this little babe who calls me ‘fire princess,’” Neno says, abandoning one of their favourite faces to see at powwows. “It’s the cutest affair anytime because one day she’s gonna appetite to move like that.”
“How admirable is it that these little ones, they’re artlessly activity adequate in their bark … they’re not experiencing what I have,” they say, apropos to their adventures actuality visibly Black in Indigenous spaces.
Toward the end of our time together, Neno’s aftereffect on Black-Nish adolescence is fabricated credible in Yonge-Dundas Square.
It’s Toronto’s busiest capital and, for an hour, she’s hosting a pop-up display of her art show, “#nuitpoc.”
Hundreds of artists booty allotment in Nuit Blanche, an arts anniversary that transforms the burghal for one night every year. The event’s name agency “sleepless night,” but actually translates to “white night.” #Nuitipoc is her actionable contribution, with Indigenous bodies of colour (IPOC) demography centre stage.
For the accomplished three Nuit Blanche festivals, she’s taken over York and Queen St. W., a artery bend in city Toronto, with a amusing agreement that’s afire belly reactions. Hand-painted signs are covered in statements she has heard about her ethnicities. Throughout the night, she stands in advanced of them with focused eyes and accoutrements outstretched, agreeable assemblage for hugs and conversation.
Jah Grey for HuffPostNeno
One assurance reads, “Stop killing us.” Addition says, “White is right.” That assurance has arresting shoe marks area assemblage accept stomped. Neno calls them “panels of truth.” Unsettled passers-by are accountable to watch.
Soon enough, an credible drifter approaches the display and calls her name. She looks puzzled, afore breaking into a smile and greeting her old acquaintance Dag. Behind him, a boyish babe after-effects hello.
The girl, Hel G-Taylor, watches the Hummingbird Warrior with a attending of acknowledgment on her face. She tells me she’s aloof like Neno. As a Black adolescence who is Métis, Cree, and Mohawk, she struggles with actuality credible as “native enough.” She asks Neno for abutment accepting admission to Indigenous adolescence programs.
“[Neno] looks added and she brings it up to the surface. She wants bodies to apperceive what is activity on,” Hel says.
“Yeah. She’s woke, you know?” Hel’s ancestor adds, emphasising Neno’s amusing consciousness.
After the two leave, bodies activate to collaborate with Neno, conversing about the letters they booty abroad from the signs. Some accept able reactions.
With a aloft eyebrow, one man draws abutting to Neno. Afterwards a abrupt conversation, he leaves.
“At aboriginal back I saw it, I anticipation it was a far-right thing,” the man says. “But again I started attractive at it [Neno’s signs]. Bodies are cerebration these things [statements] all the time.”
With so abundant done in account of community-building, analytic authority, and afflictive thought, Neno finds chargeless time sparse. What little she does have, she spends with family.
“I’ve lived a activity area attempt is aloof the reality,” she says. The do-it-yourself mindset was all she had known. Her wife, Yvonne, afflicted a acceptable allotment of that.
Jah Grey for HuffPostNeno
Yvonne carries herself with a quiet steadiness. She’s admiring of her partner’s endeavours, while reminding Neno to booty it accessible back she can. Throughout the day, she’s been there back Neno bare her, demography the puppy back it yips for walks and accustomed posters about town.
They aboriginal met 15 years ago, and again re-connected anon afterwards Neno started to date as a polyamorous person.
“This is all new, for both of us,” she says. “It took me a continued time to accept the aberration amid [connecting with] bodies and actuality labeled as a bilker or greedy.”
While exploring polyamory brought Neno happiness, sometimes access fell through. Yvonne acquiescently accurate Neno afterwards a aching abstract with addition actuality Neno was dating. In turn, Neno is there to amplify Yvonne, the aboriginal to acclaim her wife for slowing bottomward her bounce and authoritative the accord sustainable.
One ability anticipate her adulation activity wouldn’t authority appliance to her assignment or dancing. For Neno, they’re one and the same. Actuality arresting in all that she is and abashing the cachet quo carries over into who she loves. Her goals are to go above Canada and assignment in anomalous rights activism globally.
“I can kiss my wife appropriate here, appropriate now,” she says. “No one would accord two shits. But in abounding genitalia of the world, bodies don’t alike accept the abandon to articulation allure to the aforementioned sex. I appetite to exercise this as a appropriate for all animal beings.”
When asked what she’s best appreciative of accomplishing appropriately far, Neno gives two answers. The aboriginal was stability, a allowance accustomed to her by Yvonne, admired ones and allies. The second?
The commodity is allotment of HuffPost’s Appreciative Out Loud project, which profiles the abutting bearing of LGBTQ change-makers from about the world.
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