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Decolonial love: These Indigenous artists are taking back the self-love that colonialism stole

Meet the two-spirit and queer Indigenous creators fighting back against racism, sexism, transphobia and homophobia by celebrating "decolonial love."

How two-spirit and queer Indigenous creators are celebrating 'decolonial love' with their work

Ziibiwan's Time Limits EP was the first release on Indigenous-focused record label Revolutions Per Minute. (RPM Records)

Indigenous artists are constantly changing and adapting our traditions into new forms of expressions — and a new Indigenous artistic movement towards decolonial love is revitalizing Indigenous arts across the country. The idea of decolonial love comes from author Junot Diaz, who describes it in an interview with the Boston Review as "the only kind of love that could liberate...from that horrible legacy of colonial violence."

To put decolonial love into everyday language, it is learning to love each other and ourselves without the burden of racism, sexism, transphobia or homophobia. Decolonial love is a way of letting go of the shame and violence which often comes with being Indigenous in Canada. As Indigenous peoples, we have been taught that our bodies, sexualities and genders are wrong or not as valuable as other people's. Decolonial love is coming back to our traditions and cultures through our artistic practices to love ourselves and each other as we were always meant to. Here are five Indigenous artists from diverse disciplines on what decolonial love means to them.

(Kylie May, Michael Arthur/Facebook)

Kiley May

Who: Kiley May is a Mohawk woman from Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario, Canada. She is also a trans girl, two-spirit and was Toronto Pride's youth ambassador for 2017. Kiley is one of the most visible Indigenous trans girls in Toronto, working as a community ambassador and sharing her journey as she develops her art.

Discipline: Actor, dancer, model, photographer, writer

What decolonial love means to her: In her words, decolonial love means "arriving in a relationship and having all of me accepted and adored." Kiley believes decolonial love requires asking the world to "fully embrace my past, present and future, including my culture and spirituality." On the subject of love, Kiley is very clear on what it means for her: "love, for me, has looked like men taking me as I am without compromise, not asking me to change,and validating me as a woman regardless of the body I have."

When I asked Kiley how decolonial love influences her arts, she immediately answered, "It means having men be cool with eventually being a part of my art, because it's inevitable they will inspire me creatively." Kiley's work is a powerful example of decolonial love in action as she uses her dance and stage presence to challenge stereotypes of trans womanhood. Her public advocacy and writing are helping to create a world where Indigenous trans women are celebrated and visible within our communities.

Ziibiwan Rivers. (Courtesy)

Ziibiwan Rivers

Who: Ziibiwan Rivers is an emerging two-spirit Anishinaabe electronic artist/producer from Toronto. He released his first EP Time Limits with RPM Records in 2016, which earned him two nominations for Best New Artist and Best Instrumental Album at the Indigenous Music Awards. His work is brilliant, combining electronica music with Indigenous culture in every beat. On the subject of decolonial love, Ziibiwan is a fierce advocate.

Discipline: Electronica musician

What decolonial love means to him: In his own words: "Decolonial love is one of the most purest and honest way of loving. With decolonial love, your relationship to the land is unconditional." The influence of Ziibiwan's love for and to land is present in his music. He creates spectral soundscapes where land, water and sky come together. When asked how decolonial love is transforming Indigenous arts, Ziibiwan feels that "decolonial love...breaks down hundreds of years of oppression in how we love one another. Decolonial love is the resurgence of the Indigenity of oneself."

The presence of a decolonial love is felt through Ziibiwan's music, but I wondered how it impacts his personal life. His answer was beautiful: "Decolonial love is knowing how to love yourself properly to the fullest." Ziibiwan's work blends genres and reclaims Indigenous rhythms though music. It's decolonial love through beats and vibes, merging with Ziibiwan's embrace of his unique place as a two-spirit Indigenous artist. In a music industry dominated by heterosexuality and western masculinity, Ziibiwan's celebration of decolonial love through his music offers a powerful alternative.

Melody McKiver. (Courtesy)

Melody McKiver

Who: Melody McKiver is an emerging two-spirit Anishinaabe musician, media artist, traditional powwow dancer and and arts educator of mixed ancestry. Melody is an enrolled member of Obishikokaang Lac Seul First Nation and has Scottish/Lithuanian roots as well. They are a classical trained musician in the viola, but they are also talented with many other instruments. Melody has traveled the world with their music and is currently developing an LP of works for the viola to be released in 2017.

Discipline: Musician, media artist, powwow dancer, arts educator

What decolonial love means to them: Melody readily admits that "decolonial love has been an ongoing learning curve," explaining that decolonial love means learning to "hold and navigate each other's traumas experienced through generations of colonization." One of the key features of decolonial love is engaging with the history of colonization, trying to understand how and why colonization has impacted our communities. It can often mean that Indigenous arts have to work through very painful material, but Melody has very positive and empowering view of decolonial love as a way to undertake that healing work.

They continue: "Decolonial love is an ongoing process of learning together on how to search through the pieces of what's been severed through violent colonial processes, and supporting each other to reconnect with our lands, communities, ceremonies and languages in ways which honour us as complex two-spirit people." Melody's music is breathtaking, combining western classical music with traditional Indigenous styles. Decolonial love rings out through their soundscapes, creating rich and layered compositions that promote self love — and other loves — for Indigenous audiences.

Lindsay Nixon. (Courtesy)

Lindsay Nixon

Who: Lindsay Nixon is a Nehiyaw-Saulteaux-Métis curator, editor, writer and art history grad student. They currently hold the position of Indigenous Editor-At-Large for Canadian Art magazine, and are the editor of mâmawi­-âcimowak, an independent art, art criticism and literature journal. As a writer, Nixon is rapidly expanding the literary boundaries of decolonial love, taking it into intimacy, sexuality and relationships in dynamic ways.

Discipline: Literary arts, mixed media artist

What decolonial love means to them: Lindsay's perspective on decolonial love is a hard-hitting combination of personal experience and academic theory. They believe Indigenous communities have been "eroded by colonialism," an experience which can impact our arts community through lateral violence or community conflict. For Lindsay, the lateral violence which comes from colonialism gets "infused in our interactions, writing and theory." Decolonial love is the antidote to colonialism for Lindsay — what they call the "pathway...to resisting scarcity-driven cruelty within our relationships."

Lindsay believes the influence of decolonial love on Indigenous arts begins in our relationship to ourselves and each other. They say, "I need decolonial love to heal myself, even from my own community, to envisage an Indigenous world, Indigenous possibility, that is gentler, kinder. I need decolonial love to quite literally love my body back to life." Lindsay's writing explores intimacy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples as well as intergenerational trauma and legacy, and repositions Indigenous love at the centre of personal transformation. Through their writing, decolonial love becomes a pathway to return to our bodies and relationships fully as Indigenous peoples.

Billy Ray Belcourt. (Courtesy)

Billy-Ray Belcourt

Who: Billy-Ray Belcourt is a queer writer from the Driftpile Cree Nation. He is a 2016 Rhodes Scholar as well as a poet and writer. His first collection of poetry, This Wound is a World, is forthcoming from Frontenac House in fall 2017. Billy-Ray is one of the smartest emerging Indigenous writers in Canada. His writing often explores intimacy, decolonial love within relationships, queer sexuality and the politics of desire, and his work takes on decolonial love in new and diverse ways.

Discipline: Literary arts, poet, scholar

What decolonial love means to him: Billy's take on decolonial love is direct: "Colonialism has made a cage out of our bodies, cages for which we don't have keys. Decolonial love works a way out of this state of captivity." He believes decolonial love is influencing Indigenous Arts to "make the present more livable and the possibility of a flourishing future more conceivable." It's apparent that many Indigenous artists see decolonial love as a way to expand their art out to address the intergenerational impact of colonial violence.

Asked how decolonial love influences his life beyond his art, Billy's answer was immediate: "To commit to loving someone like me is to be roped into the project of ridding the earth of the social structures that make the whole world feel like a prison for Indigenous peoples." Billy's poetry is beautiful and tender, a soft window into love and intimacy as an Indigenous queer person. His writing examines race and how history can repeat in our relationships as Indigenous peoples. Decolonial love is on every page on Billy's work, responding to violence against Indigenous bodies with a celebration of our diverse ways of resisting.

Decolonial love is the future of Indigenous arts

Decolonial love is just one of the many ways Indigenous artists are resisting and transforming Indigenous arts. We, as a collective of Indigenous two-spirit and queer artists, are pushing back against colonization and working together to imagine a different future for our communities. Building on the work of previous generations of Indigenous artists, we are carrying our traditions forward into our intimate relationships. The future is beautiful and filled with decolonial love for Indigenous artists and art.

About the Author

Gwen Benaway

Gwen Benaway is a trans woman of Anishinaabe and Métis descent. Her first collection of poetry, Ceremonies for the Dead, was published in 2013, her second collection of poetry, Passage, was released in 2016 from Kegedonce Press and her third collection of poetry, What I Want is Not What I Hope For, is forthcoming from Bookthug in 2018.In 2015, she was the recipient of the inaugural Speaker’s Award for a Young Author and in 2016 she received an Dayne Ogilvie Honour of Distinction for Emerging Queer Authors from the Writer’s Trust of Canada.