Bridges: Alex Wilson's research brings everyone into the circle


Wilson has used her position in academia to develop a literature base around Two Spirit identities.
University of Saskatchewan researcher Alex Wilson, who received a scholarship on the identity development of Two Spirit people that has helped contribute to building and sharing knowledge around Two Spirit people around the world, near the Education Building on the U of S campus in Saskatoon on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020.Liam Richards / Saskatoon StarPhoenix

As her Friday evening lecture comes to a close, Alex Wilson is taking her students stargazing.

A professor in the University of Saskatchewan’s college of education, Wilson teaches Queering our Schools and Communities.

By its most basic definition, the undergraduate course will give future educators the tools and perspective they need in order to better support gender and sexually-diverse students.

But it’s also about broadening the world view of the group of about 30 people seated around the room. That starts with language.

Wilson takes a moment before bringing the class to the university’s observatory to ask them to name a constellation. To her students, the figure onscreen of a man with a belt made of stars is Orion the hunter. But for Wilson, from Opaskwayak Cree Nation, it’s Wesakaychak.

In her dialect, Swampy Cree, there are no gender-specific pronouns. Instead, the language uses descriptive terms and is contextual rather than definitive.

Linguistic distinctions distinguish whether something is animate — whether it is connected to cycles of life and thus has spiritual significance. In other words, every person is meaningful.

Cree cosmology is about how everything fits into the broader universe, Wilson says.

Wesakaychak the trickster — who can be interpreted as genderfluid — shows that gender and sexuality don’t determine whether or not someone has worth.

“If every person knew that they were necessary for us to exist as humans, we’d have a completely different planet,” Wilson says to the class. “My hope is that we’ll all continue to reinforce that.”

That meaning is reiterated in the term Two Spirit — to use it as a self-identifier is to acknowledge that one is spiritually meaningful, Wilson says.

Outside the classroom, she has used her position in academia to develop a literature base around Two Spirit identities, in order to effect change in education and policy and ensure the work being done is informed by Two Spirit people.

As a Two Spirit woman growing up in Opaskwayak, about 600 km north of Winnipeg, Wilson says she always felt accepted.

“Thinking back to my own life, things were fairly normalized in my home community,” she says. “I didn’t feel marginalized and I had a very supportive family and community around my gender and sexuality.

“But I know a lot of people didn’t have that same experience.”

As an undergrad, she facilitated an LGBTQ+ youth group. She went home for the summer, and when she returned for her last semester, every Indigenous student in the group had committed suicide.

“It was upsetting, and traumatic for the other kids,” she says. “But also it made me wonder what was going on.”

She started looking for research and literature around Indigenous queer identities, but all she could find was anthropological research, largely from a colonial perspective. At the time, the term Two Spirit didn’t even exist.

It drove home just how much colonization and prescriptive ideas of heteronormativity are bundled up in each other, Wilson says.

“A lot of their analysis was really problematic, because it centred the Western binary of gender, male and female, as the norm. They were really looking for examples of how they could put people into these two categories, and then examples where people didn’t fit that.”

She is part of a Two Spirit activism movement that started in Winnipeg in the 1990s, when the contemporary term for Two Spirit was developed at the third annual Native American and Canadian Aboriginal LGBT people gathering.

The term was introduced by Elder Myra Laramee through a vision she had prior to the gathering.

Working to develop Two Spirit-led literature became the focus of her masters and doctorate. For her doctoral dissertation work and eventual essay, “N’Tacimowin Innan Nah: Our Coming In Stories,” she heard from Two Spirit people of different ages and experiences, then developed the theory and practice of “Coming In.”

Coming in to one’s self means being fully present in all aspects of being, including gender, sexuality and culture.

She draws on Cree cosmology to explain: the nature of the cosmos, she says, is to be in balance, and even if it’s disturbed it will return to that state.

In that way, Two Spirit identities allow individuals and communities as a whole to be restored to balance.

“To have (her) work help us have general background and history recorded, not only through her own personal experiences but also the documentation of various Two Spirit people throughout the years, has been phenomenal,” said OUTSaskatoon cultural and projects coordinator Jack Saddleback.

“She’s such a formidable force when it comes to making things better for people. She’s been incredible in pushing for more research, and for having more people from the community also be a part of it.”

As the term Two Spirit has shifted since its development, the connection to culture, spirituality and land has always been there, Wilson said. Colonization displaced traditional practices and teaching around sexuality and gender that existed pre-contact.

“The world view very rapidly changed, tens of thousands of years of history changed in an instant,” Wilson said. “It was the first time homophobia was introduced on kind of a systemic level.

“That we are out and proud today, given some of this history, I think really means something.”

Recognizing oneself as Two Spirit is a way to reconnect to those traditions and restore a disrupted balance, she said.

“The reclamation of a healthy, positive identity as a Two Spirit person, or using the term even, is really significant,” she said. “It took a long time, but I think it’s important that people are really proud now to claim their identities.”

Queering our Schools and Communities is the longest running class on the subject at any Canadian university, started by Don Cochrane in 1995 as Gay and Lesbian Issues in Education.

Wilson teaches it, and a graduate course, Queering Land-based Education, through her lived experience, research and knowledge base around Two Spirit identities. She worked to have the word “Queer” added to the title, a change that took place two years ago.

“To me queering is an unravelling, it’s providing voice to those who don’t normally get to speak,” Wilson says.

Queering an institution like education means subverting notions of what it even means to take a course. For Wilson, that means taking her students out of formal classroom spaces as much as possible.
The Queering Space student installation in the University of Saskatchewan College of Education.Provided: Alex Wilson / Saskatoon

The College of Education has a hallway of student photos under titles like Diversifi(ed), with the -ed bolded. A few years ago, Wilson and her students filled an empty portion of the wall with Queer(ed), copying the style of the other sections to create a queer presence and safe space.

During Chelsea Davis’s year, students organized a conference and were given nearly free reign over its vision.

“I took (Alex’s) class out of a genuine interest in the subject matter as well as a responsibility to my students, as a high school teacher, for making a safe space for them,” said Davis, now a graduate student in the faculty of education.

“But I learned that queering education extends to everything you do as a teacher. It’s not just about creating a safe space, it’s about disrupting and challenging. It can transform everything you do as a teacher.”

In recent years, Wilson has been able to begin looking at socio-economic implications of Two Spirit identity.

As a group that exists at the intersections of homophobia and/or transphobia and racism, members of the Indigenous LGBTQ+ and Two Spirit communities are disproportionately affected by inequities around basic services like health care, housing and employment.

“I think it’s just an intersection of all of these forms of oppression that kind of come together and they impact this community in a way that other communities aren’t,” she says. “It’s kind of like they are bearing the brunt of all of these implications of colonization.”

Suicide continues to be an issue that disproportionately affects Two Spirit people, Wilson notes, but finding actual numbers to back that up is difficult. Research and data gathering has a role to play in filling those gaps.

It’s all part of a broader revitalization of Two Spiritedness. Most recently in Saskatchewan, the province’s first Two Spirit Pride festival was held by Beardy’s and Okemasis First Nations in 2016.

Saskatoon’s first Two Spirit pow wow took place at the U of S two years later.

“Having supports for Two Spirit community, having research and curriculum even designed by Two Spirit people, that’s shifting so that it’s happening now,” Wilson says.

“Even just the term Two Spirit. Ten years ago people didn’t really use it much; 20 years ago it was pretty much unfamiliar to most people.

“But today you see it used everywhere, in the prairies especially.”