On January 24, 2019, Indigenous burlesque collective Virago Nation took to the stage at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) on the shared, unceded territories of the Kwantlen, Musqueam, Katzie, Semiahmoo, Tsawwassen, Qayqayt, and Kwikwetlem peoples. The performance marked the beginning of “Medicine in Our Very Bones”1: Gender, Sexuality and Embodied Resistance in Indigenous Burlesque, a collaborative initiative funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The collaboration was born out of the belief that Indigenous women’s art is “good medicine” that holds power to engage, challenge, re-imagine, and transform. Through a series of performances, workshops, and mentorship opportunities at KPU, the initiative would deepen understanding of Indigenous gender and sexuality, introduce new audiences to Indigenous arts, and support students, faculty, and staff working to address historical and ongoing colonization.
The event was coordinated by the primary organizers of “Medicine in Our Very Bones”—Shane Sable, a two-spirit Gitxsan performer and convening member of Virago Nation, and Jennifer Hardwick, a settler faculty member in the Department of English at KPU—who have been friends and collaborators for over fifteen years. The audience was made up of over sixty faculty, staff, and students, including Amei-lee Laboucan, a fourth-year Black and Indigenous journalism student with Cree and Métis ancestry from Treaty 8 territory in Northern Alberta. Sable, Hardwick, and Laboucan join here to explore the impact of Virago Nation’s performance. We do so with the goal of upholding the power of Indigenous women and two-spirited peoples’ ways of knowing and lived experiences within Indigenous arts, the academy, and the territories currently known as Canada.
VIRAGO NATION AND THE LEGACY OF INDIGENOUS WOMEN’S RESISTANCE
Founded in May of 2016, Virago Nation is an all-Indigenous burlesque collective of women/femme/two-spirited artists on unceded Coast Salish Territories that seeks to challenge the toxic effects of colonization by representing positive, diverse expressions of Indigenous sexuality. The group currently has six members representing distinct nations, sexualities, and Indigenous experiences. Together, they employ humour, seduction, pop culture, and politics to challenge colonial stereotypes and dichotomies, speak back to violence, and envision dynamic, multifaceted sexual identities for Indigenous women that are rooted in their own desires. These envisionings take the form of embodied and performed stories that engage and enact Indigenous knowledge, foster awareness of historical and ongoing colonization, and promote Indigenous peoples’ (and Indigenous women/femme’s specifically) sovereign rights to their own bodies, sexualities, and gender identities.
Sable: Initially, Virago Nation came together as a community of practice or community of support; making art while Indigenous can be fraught with challenges, and I was reaching out to women in my burlesque community I knew to be Indigenous to see if they wanted to talk about it. We all had connections to one another through the community, and none of us represented our Indigeneity as part of our performance personas at the time. We began by reintroducing ourselves, sharing our Indigenous identities and relating stories of how close or removed we each were from our traditional cultures. Collectively, we were struck by the fact that, although we had widely varying lived experiences, we had larger common experiences that helped us bond and validated our Indigenous identities. It was a salve. Before long, someone asked the question that inevitably comes up when a group of artists spend enough time together: “So when are we going to share these stories with people like us who need to see them? When are we going to make art?”
Virago Nation’s decision to make art was born out of a desire to see their lived experiences represented authentically. Their work is situated within a long history of Indigenous women’s resistance, which has sought to uphold and protect identity in the face of colonization. As Métis scholar and activist Kim Anderson argues in A Recognition of Being: Reconstructing Native Womanhood,
Indigenous women have had to become practiced at resistance. Through collective resistance, Native women have worked hard to protect their cultures and sustain the social and political fabric of their nations. On a personal level, Native women have had to defend their identities. This has meant learning to resist stereotypes, imposed roles and negative definitions of their being, as well as learning to cope with the poor treatment from others that results from all of this. (94)
Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar, writer, and artist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson notes that this resistance is a direct response to “White supremacy, rape culture, and the real and symbolic attack on gender, sexual identity and agency” that are used as “tools of colonialism, settler colonialism and capitalism.” Attacks on Indigenous epistemologies of gender and sexuality traumatize individuals and communities, disrupt social and political kinship networks, and prevent Indigenous peoples from fully inhabiting their bodies and identities, thus leaving Indigenous peoples, lands, and nations vulnerable. These attacks have been part of the colonial project since contact, and have been conducted through educational policies, government legislation, and the proliferation of harmful stereotypes that have sought to enforce gender binaries, entrench patriarchy, inflict physical and sexual violence, disrupt kinship systems, and dehumanize Indigenous peoples. The results of these attacks have been clear: Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people in Canada face such extreme violence that, after sustained pressure from Indigenous survivors and families, the Canadian Liberal government launched an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in December 2015. In its final report, the Inquiry found that the violence Indigenous women, girls, and two-sprit people experience is part of a historical and ongoing genocide (Reclaiming Power 5).