ISSUE 15.3

“Medicine in Our Very Bones”

Bringing Indigenous Burlesque to Kwantlen Polytechnic University

Virago Nation performs Pow Wow Go Go. Photo by fubarfoto

written by Shane Sable, Amei-lee Laboucan, and Jennifer Hardwick

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).

Shane Sable performs Go My Way. Photo by MKM Photography

RE-MATRIATION: THE INDIGENOUS REPRESENTATION WE NEED

Public and academic discourses are filled with violent, harmful stereotypes, and Indigenous women often appear as historical relics, victims without agency, or highly sexualized objects. These images fuel colonial genocide and affect the ways that Indigenous women are able to move in the world.

Laboucan: The things I knew about Indigenous women and sexuality weren’t the most positive. The degradation of Indigenous women can be seen everywhere, from famous people wearing headdresses in hyper-sexualized ways to the Disney movie Pocahontas. Because of these representations, owning the fact that I am a whole entire human with sexuality has been fraught. I don’t want to feel like I’m perpetuating harmful stereotypes, which can be quite suffocating.

However, as Lisa Monchalin points out in The Colonial Problem, gendered violence has not always been prolific on these territories, and the stereotypes of Indigenous women in no way represent women’s power and complexity. Before contact, Indigenous communities were often matriarchal, with Indigenous women holding important and respected roles as leaders (176).

Rather than shying from stereotypes, Virago Nation members decided to use the same bodies that had been subject to stereotypes and the colonial gaze to challenge objectification and tell different stories that acknowledge and celebrate Indigenous women’s power, complexity, and strength.

Sable: Our work offers representations that are meant to counter harmful stereotypes by creating positive, diverse images of Indigenous people exercising agency over their own bodies. Only Indigenous people are equipped and have the right to determine our sexualities and how they are represented. By offering our own iconoclastic representations of Indigenous sexuality, we are speaking back to colonial violence, reclaiming it from a toxic patriarchy, and relocating it within matriarchal power structures. We rebuild our systems of governance by centring power for Indigenous feminine sexuality within a community of Indigenous women. From here springs a kind of communal accountability that is vital to Indigenous flourishing and is deeply lacking in colonial culture. We subvert mainstream narratives of women’s bodies as consumable items by actively demonstrating our agency over our bodies. Not only is this work decolonial in its refusal of harmful narratives, but it re-matriates and Indigenizes our role as women, as community keepers, as sexual beings.

Burlesque—which has a long history of challenging patriarchal views and expanding understandings of gendered identities, bodies, and sexualities—is an art form that is uniquely suited for challenging harmful stereotypes and positioning Indigenous women as sovereign over their own bodies, images, and desires. Taking its name from the Italian word “burla” meaning to mock or ridicule, burlesque is a Western medium, born in Italian theatre in the sixteenth century and adopted and adapted in England through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The art form landed on the piece of Turtle Island referred to as America in 1868 when Lydia Thompson and her British Blondes premiered their play Ixion in New York’s Wood’s Broadway Theatre (Glasscock 24). Over the years, the art form has adapted and changed, crossed continents, and been mobilized by diverse communities to explore gender, sexuality, politics, bodies, relationships, and social conventions. Women and LGBTQ2S+ identities have often been central to this work. As Debra Ferreday argues, “Burlesque powerfully dramatizes the fact that femininity is not reducible to a single object or practice: that feminine identities are multiple, and may be experienced as pleasurable . . . burlesque also works to destabilize the ways in which dominant feminine identities become normalized” (49). In this sense, contemporary burlesque is underscored by its political engagement with women bodies, sexualities, and rights.

Laboucan: I saw the glossy posters on the Surrey campus inviting students to come out and see Virago Nation perform, and I was intrigued. It’s not every day you see representations of Indigenous women owning their sexuality and having agency over their (almost) naked bodies.

The start of the show is a powerful display of all members of Virago Nation performing their Come and Get Your Love act together to Indigenous rock band Redbone’s song of the same name. The lyrics to the song ask, “What’s the matter with your head?” and eventually conclude nothing is the matter with the women. Redbone is singing to and for them to come and get their love. Choosing this song to start the night promptly addresses the stigmatization Indigenous women face about their bodies and sexuality, while simultaneously celebrating the oncoming display of women’s empowerment. To me, this opening number also looks to celebrate two-spirit identities with the colourful rainbow display of clothing while also speaking back to colonial homophobia that is, sometimes, strongly felt in Indigenous communities and academic spaces.

Sable: The primary concept of this act is a coming together of all of us in the circle to dance, like a pow-wow. Our fringe shawls are a burlesque interpretation of those worn by fancy shawl dancers and our pasties were beaded by one of our cousins. Our choreography fuses traditional pow-wow and sixties go-go dance moves, creating a new and harmonious relationship between cultural expressions. The colour palette is also based on the different colours of dancing regalia at pow-wows. While we weren’t intentionally referencing queer pride by using this colour palette, I think it’s worth noting that the majority of our members identify on the non-binary spectrum, so that’s an added layer of meaning that we embrace. The act overall is a lovely representation of the genesis of the group itself. Each of us comes from a different Indigenous nation and pow-wows are meant to be intertribal, so the act represents a coming together of those who are different but also in relation. The costumes were made by Scarlet Delirium.

After the opening number, Sparkle Plenty, who was the MC for the night, took to the stage and gave the audience a rundown of who Virago Nation actually was, what the group’s messaging was, and what they intended to do that Thursday evening. One of the first things brought up during Sparkle Plenty’s introduction was how rarely Indigenous women were portrayed positively; the show sought to address and remedy that by empowering women of all shapes, sizes and professions—specifically and most importantly, Indigenous women.

About halfway through the show, Sparkle gets the audience involved. She asks the audience to stand up and shake all their flabbier bits: arms, stomachs, thighs, and butts. During this segment of “Medicine in Our Very Bones,” Plenty also talks to the audience about how the bodies represented in the burlesque troupe are ranging and different, yet acceptable and powerful in all forms.

Laboucan: I will not lie: as a fat Indigenous person, this was fun. Hearing an empowered woman speak about differing body shapes for Indigenous women was important. As an Indigenous woman with a body that is considered unacceptable within Eurocentric beauty ideals, I feel the genuine importance Virago Nation places on representing Indigenous bodies, affirming the lived experiences of Indigenous people, and holding space for us when we often have to navigate unsafe spaces. When I think of past representations of Indigenous women, it’s often sexy or unsexy. Sometimes the representation is of a much older Indigenous woman who is wise and all-knowing, which leaves little room for Indigenous girls to see themselves being represented if they don’t feel like they fit into either of those categories. Especially when the imaging of the sexy or unsexy Indigenous woman is based on stereotypes through a Eurocentric lens. Sexy can often been seen as skinny with long straight hair, and unsexy is often seen as fat with unruly hair. However, when Sparkle Plenty speaks, she’s talking to everybody. Sparkle is letting the audience know that even though they may not look like what is represented in media, they’re still just as important.

Embracing the bodies—all bodies—of audience members carries social and political resonance.

Sparkle Plenty, host of Medicine in Our Very Bones. Photo by David Jacklin Photography (1)

CONCLUSION

“Medicine in Our Very Bones”: Gender, Sexuality and Embodied Resistance in Indigenous Burlesque was formulated with the goal of bringing the medicine of Indigenous women’s art into academic spaces. The first performance of the initiative did just that, challenging colonial violence and stereotypes, offering positive and diverse representations of Indigenous women and two-spirit people, building community, and upholding Indigenous knowledges and cultures. The event exemplified that transformative potential of Indigenous women’s art and underscored the significant role that performance can play in post-secondary institutions.

Laboucan: While the academy has not always been a safe space for Indigenous learners, watching Virago Nation perform is what I would call resistance and political action. It’s an act of taking up space and creating a space for Indigenous folks and like-minded people to feel safe in.

Sable: Given that academic institutions can be notoriously conservative—in part because of their predication on a Christian monastic model—holding space for discussions of Indigenous sexuality at KPU is incredibly valuable. I feel honoured that Virago Nation was given the responsibility of sharing our stories in that space. Not only does it become possible for the next person to enter the conversation, it also helps to heal the damage that academic life hoists on Indigenous participants. I moved through eight years of post-secondary education without ever feeling safe to “indulge” in who I am by openly being Indigenous and two-spirit. When I first started burlesque, I was taught to think of my burlesque persona as the best possible version of myself, all the time. It’s been a tremendous learning curve to truly implement that teaching, but Virago Nation has allowed me to do that. Performing in academic institutions like KPU has allowed me to bring that healing into places that have and do create harm for Indigenous people. And I know and have been shown that in doing that healing work for myself, I am doing it for those who witness it as well.

Notes:

1 This title takes its name from a poem by Tenille K Campbell. It was made public as part of her collection #IndianLovePoems. https://twitter.com/EricaVioletLee/status/1026662622052134917.

2 Many scholars have established the relationship between colonization and research. For details, see: The Circle Game: Shadows and Substance in the Indian Residential School Experience in Canada by Roland David Chrisjohn, Sherri Lynn Young, and Michael Maraun; Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples by Linda Tuhiwai Smith; or Knowing the Past, Facing the Future: Indigenous Education in Canada by Sheila Carr-Stewart.

Works Cited

Anderson, Kim. A Recognition of Being: Reconstructing Native Womanhood. Second Story Press, 2000.

Faculty of Law University of Alberta. “Restrictions of Rights: Compulsory Enfranchisement.” Faculty Blog, 3 October 2018. https://ualbertalaw.typepad.com/faculty/2018/10/restrictions-on-rights-compulsory-enfranchisement.html.

Ferreday, Debra. “‘Showing the Girl’: The New Burlesque.” Feminist Theory 9:1 (April 2008), 47–65.

Glasscock, Jessica. Striptease: From Gaslight to Spotlight. Harry N. Abrams Inc., 2003.

Monchalin, Lisa. The Colonial Problem an Indigenous Perspective on Crime and Injustice in Canada. University of Toronto Press, 2016.

“Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.” MMIGW, 3 June 2019. https://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/final-report/.

Simpson, Leanne Betasamoksake. ““Not Murdered and Not Missing.” Writings, 5 March 2014. https://www.leannesimpson.ca/writings/not-murdered-not-missing-rebelling-against-colonial-gender-violence/.

“The Residential School System.” Indigenous Foundations, 2009. https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/the_residential_school_system/.

Amei-lee is a proud Black and Indigenous woman who likes to talk and write about all things Indigenous. Her ancestral lands are in Treaty 8 territory of Northern Alberta. Amei-lee lives on stolen and illegally occupied Coast Salish territories.
Photo by Ivy Edad

Shane Sable is a 2spirit Gitxsan artist, activist, and administrator for the Vancouver International Burlesque Festival. Shane is also the convening member of Virago Nation, Turtle Island’s first all-Indigenous burlesque collective. Shane’s body of work focuses primarily on rematriating Indigenous sexuality through burlesque and community-engaged art and cultural activities.
Photo by Ivy Edad

Jennifer Hardwick is a settler scholar of Irish and German descent who lives and works on the unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples. She is faculty in the Department of English at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, where she teaches Canadian and Indigenous Literatures, digital media, and writing/rhetoric.

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