Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation's first Pride Week celebrates roles once sacred in Indigenous communities
Two-spirit people historically had an important place in Indigenous societies before colonization
Prairie Pride is a series by Local Journalism Initiative reporter Julia Peterson that celebrates queer life in rural Saskatchewan.
Elders, students and school staff drummed and sang an honour song as two flags were raised above Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation on Monday morning: the First Nation's flag and, for the first time ever, the two-spirit Pride flag.
For Ahtahkakoop Pride committee member Sheldon Gaetz, who lives on the First Nation with his husband, watching the flags go up in tandem was a moving experience.
"We started off with a pipe ceremony, and then we did the flag raising at the school, which was beautiful," said Gaetz. "It was really nice, having that spirituality with First Nations culture and the LGBTQ2S+ movement together.
"I know there were community members who were so proud to see the flag raised."
The flag-raising was the start of Ahtahkakoop's first-ever Pride Week and was followed by a colourful Spirit Day. Later in the week, the Pride committee broadcast educational messages on the radio and social media, organized a Drag Queen Bingo night and made stacks of posters.
Gaetz says the enthusiasm for all these events has been heartening to see.
"You see Pride all over the place, and so it's nice to have it here, in the community," he said.
Fellow Pride committee member Alex Powalinsky says there has already been an "amazing" response.
"For the people that we've spoken to, and the people who have been celebrating, they say it's giving them the space to breathe for the first time and say 'wait, it might be OK for me to just be who I am,'" said Powalinsky.
"There are a lot of people who everyone knows are under the LGBTQ2S+ umbrella — but it's kind of a thing where that's not really spoken about or acknowledged. They're just there, they exist, and we continue to go on with the status quo.
"This is an opportunity for them to see that people do see them and acknowledge them, so it's just been really healing."
At a poster-making session on Wednesday afternoon, the conference room at the health centre was full of smiles, laughter and determined purpose — and lots of glitter — as people made signs to carry in the Pride parade on Friday afternoon.
Around the table, Danielle Meiklejohn was adding pompoms to her celebratory poster reading "love being a Fruit Loop in a world full of Cheerios."
Tesiyna Little put the finishing touches on her message, which offers a reminder that "it takes no compromise to give people their rights."
Little says this year's Pride Week has been an exciting milestone for the First Nation.
"It's really awesome to have everybody together, celebrating," she said. "It's a big step for the community to support everyone — and I mean everyone."
Ruth Ahenakew said she was making a poster so people growing up on the First Nation would know they are welcomed and cherished here, exactly as they are.
"Nobody needs to leave our community to be themselves," she said.
Many in attendance were parents, making posters to show their love and support for their LGBTQ2S+ children.
"We're trying to get things right," said Tonya Bird.
Marilyn Tait wanted her children to know that "I'm so proud of them."
"They shouldn't be shy of who they are," she said. "Be who you are."
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For Wanita Bird, this week's celebrations are especially meaningful — she remembers raising her two-spirit child on Ahtahkakoop and seeing the struggles she faced while exploring her identity.
"Historically, a long time ago, they said two-spirited people within our Indigenous communities were very sacred," said Bird. "They would carry the sacred items and have sacred roles within the community. And with colonization, a lot of that was lost.
"So I think this is the beginning of bringing back those roles and that respect, and I think that is the beauty and power of what we're witnessing happening here in Ahtahkakoop."
Now, Bird's child lives in Vancouver — but Bird has been calling her with updates about Pride Week since planning started in January.
"I could hear the happiness in her voice to know that it was happening here, on the reserve that she's registered in," said Bird.
All week long, Bird has delighted in seeing the community celebrate Pride — from looking up at the flags as she walks past them to hearing the Elders in the band office getting "pumped" about Drag Queen Bingo.
"It feels terrific to take part in Ahtahkakoop history and see this happening for the first time," she said. "Oh my gosh, I'm so excited to witness this."
Ahtahkakoop is one of many communities in Saskatchewan celebrating Pride for the first time this year — and Gaetz hopes there will be many more to follow next year and in the future.
"Don't be afraid to do it," he said. "Go for it. Think of your youth. Think of the people who are struggling to find who they are.
"And just do it with love."
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