Mo Springer reviews A Two-Spirit Journey: The Autobiography of a Lesbian Ojibwa-Cree Elder by Ma-Nee Chacaby with Mary Louisa Plummer

A Two-Spirit Journey by Ma-Nee Chacaby

Trigger Warning: This book graphic depictions of physical and sexual assault

My kokum explained that two-spirit people were once loved and respected within our communities, but times had changed and they were no longer understood or valued in the same way. When I got older, she said, I would have to figure out how to live with two spirits as an adult. She warned me I probably would experience many hard times along the way. I remember her rubbing my head and shoulders, saying, ‘I feel for you. You’re not going to have an easy life when you get older.’

Chacaby, Ma-Nee (Kindle Locations 1170-1173)

Ma-Nee was born in 1950 in Thunder Bay, Ontario in a tuberculosis sanitorium. Shortly after this she was adopted by a French couple, but she was soon found by her grandmother who acquired custody and raised her in Ombabika amongst an Ojibwa and Cree community. Growing up in Ombabika, Ma-Nee learned a great deal of her heritage and traditions from her grandmother and describes many happy memories of her time her. However, at the same time, her childhood was also characterized by the physical abuse of her mother, sexual abuse from family and strangers alike, growing up in a community plagued by alcoholism, and racism from the Canadian government.

When she was a teenager, Ma-Nee was married to an older man who abused her. She experienced alcoholism herself, homophobia, visual impairment, and many more obstacles and struggles. Through her ongoing struggles, Ma-Nee persevered and found strength in herself and her community. She became a mother not only to her own children and those in her family, but to many in the foster system. She becomes an AA sponsor, an elder of her people, and a leader in the LGBTQ+ community. This is a story that outlines the racism and prejudice experienced by a Two-Spirit Lesbian Ojibwa-Cree Elder, and how she survived it all to then lead others through the same struggles.

I’ll be honest, this is a hard book to read, but an important one. The afterword describes how the book came to be, with Ma-Nee telling her story and Mary Louisa Plummer transcribing it. The end-result feels like a story that is being told you, as if Ma-Nee was in the room with you recounting her life. I found it very hard to put the book down, no matter how brutal the subject matter. The text comes alive through photographs of and paintings by Ma-Nee, giving us more of an immersive perspective into her life.

If you wish to learn more about two-spirit people, the experiences of Indigenous women, and the hardships faced by queer women of color, I highly recommend this book.

Sheila Laroque reviews A Two-Spirit Journey: The Autobiography of a Lesbian Ojibwa-Cree Elder by Ma-Nee Chacaby

A Two-Spirit Journey by Ma-Nee Chacaby cover

I gravitate towards autobiography and memoir writing, so I was delighted to find this autobiography when I was browsing for something to read. This is the personal narrative of Ma-Nee’s life, and a great documentation about all of the changes that she has experienced. From living out on the land, to being closer with communities and navigating a journey into sobriety as well, there has been so much that Ma-Nee has experienced and gone through.

A lot of the details and traumatic events that Ma-Nee has gone through can be triggering for many readers. However, I do encourage people to read this and understand the significance of Ma-Nee’s writing of her life story that is accessible in this way. Written records of Elder’s stories are not usually published, so to be able to access the teachings that Ma-Nee is willing to share with us from her Oji-Cree community is important.

This work also gives us a chance to acknowledge that processes of coming out and pride festivities look very different in other parts of the world, especially in smaller and more rural locations. There is a great deal of strength that can come from community-building, and it is possible to grow and lead a good and fulfilling life after experiencing trauma. I encourage people to read this as an important record for future generations, as well to know more about what life is like in many LGTBQ contexts.

Sheila Laroque reviews Calling Down the Sky by Rosanna Deerchild

Calling Down the Sky by Rosanna Deerchild (affiliate link)

I’m not much of a poetry person. I never have been. I’m the type of librarian who only took the required English courses; and I definitely don’t have an English literature degree. However, I wanted to challenge myself to diversify my reading beyond what I usually go for. I admit that I avoid poetry because I often fear that I won’t understand what it’s about. Calling Down the Sky is a work that I was able to understand on a deeper level, and I’m grateful to have had the chance to read such poetry.

Rosanna Deerchild is a Cree broadcaster, who also identifies as Two-Spirit. Personally I’m most familiar with her work through the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)’s radio show Unreserved. It was an interesting experience to read the poetry of a writer whose voice I was already familiar with.I could hear her saying the words on the page to me. In that way, it made me relate to what was written had already meant; both because I was familiar with how she was saying the words, but also understanding the tone and experiences in the book.

The lasting impact of residential schools within Canada is ongoing, and all of the complexities that come with intergenerational trauma will still be worked out for years to come. Deerchild explores how her mother’s trauma has affected the relationship that they have; but also for other members of the family too. It is all of our complexities and traumas that can shape and create who we are, and that can be seen throughout this work.

This was a quick read for me, and I was surprised by how much of it allowed me to see my own family experiences within her poetry. The most powerful poem in the collection is the title poem, “Calling Down the Sky.” No spoilers, but the acts of resistance give moments of hope, which makes this a powerful poetry collection.

Sheila Laroque reviews Nîtisânak by Lindsay Nixon

nîtisânak by Lindsay Nixon

Nîtisânak is the Cree word for family; and Linday’s non-fiction account of growing up punk, queer and Indigenous in smaller cities of the Canadian prairies will resonate with many folks from many walks of life. After all, the concept of a ‘chosen family’ has been discussed widely in queer writings before, but nîtisânak brings new perspectives and ways of writing that will appeal to a broader audience. The text is peppered with shorthand, acronyms, and other shorthand ways of writing that makes the text feel less formal. The way that Lindsay writes feels very organic to Internet message boards and a Twitter-savvy audience; without feeling forced. This makes sense, because part of their story discusses the importance of Internet messaging boards in the punk scene on the prairies to find the next shows and a sense of community.

Lindsay’s story takes place in many of the same cities as my own. Reading this book at times feels like it could have been written by myself, or any other of my friends from when I was younger. Their story takes place largely in Regina, Saskatchewan which is a rival city to where I grew up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. They then move to Edmonton, Alberta and have a tumultuous and in many aspects an abusive relationship with a girlfriend that is referred to as B2B. This acronym stands for ‘back to black’, in reference to the Amy Winehouse album of the same name. Nixon’s description of this relationship of being both something beautiful and something that was the source of a great deal of pain for them resonated a great deal for me. Romantic relationships blend into familial relationships; and Nixon highlights with great care some of the foundational ways that young queer friendships can also create the same family bond and structure in our lives.

Peppered throughout this work are different prayers that are numbered. Setting aside the text like this gives the sense that these parts are special and need to be paid attention to. They are different than prayers that many people would have likely encountered in other contexts. For example, prayer 3 states: “Thank you to all the trees who breathe in poison on the daily, who gift us the air that we breath and the wind that propels everything forward”. These moments stand out in the text, while other Cree words are used seamlessly, without definition or italics. In a way that makes the Cree language just as another part of the text, and another part of their story. Cree is spoken widely enough that the curious reader could easily look up the words in any online Cree dictionary to the definitions of a new word. By just leaving it as it is, Lindsay is inviting the reader into their reality and the worldview that they and their family hold. This choice of writing style also signals that the work is for an Indigenous audience; to whom might not have seen themselves reflected in other coming of age stories. Being queer, Indigenous and punk in a particular local prairie context is an important story that can reflect back pieces of our own realities to us; even if we ourselves are not necessarily those things.

This is an important piece of writing that will appeal to people from many different backgrounds and families. I would give this a 4 out of 5 stars.

Sheila is a queer Métis woman, living in her home territory of Edmonton, AB, Canada. She has worked in a number of libraries across Canada, but being back in the public library has given her the space to rekindle some love with books and reading. She also co-hosts a podcast about Indigenous publishing called masinahikan iskwêwak (which is Cree for Book Women) with two other Métis librarians. The podcast can be found at https://bookwomenpodcast.ca/; and Sheila tweets at @SheilaDianeL.