Monday, 9 April 2012

A Question of Identity

There has been intense media coverage of Jenna Talackova, a transgendered Canadian contestant in the Miss Universe contest, lately so I watched the extended version of the video clip which was presented by ABC TV on Friday night and was amazed by the normality and comfort in her identity by Jenna and the complete acceptance by her mother so I did what I usually do when I’m curious and did some background research.  As usual, I discovered some aspects which were never mentioned by the mass media and shed some light on the story. Although Jenna and her family look like your typical white, middle class North Americans, they are actually members of the First Nations’ tribe, Lake Babine Nation and self identify as aboriginals. She continues to connect with her many relatives in the Burns Lake reserve by attending potlatches and funerals. The Miss Universe contestant is also an official member of the tribe and was given $2500 towards the pageant entry fee by the clan council as an example of their ongoing support of her transgender journey which they have followed closely since she was a child.
Lake Babine Nation, Canada
Lake Babine Nation members

The Lake Babine Nation is an example of a very successful First Nations band that has strong social cohesion, a matrilineal society and a tradition of gender equality among the members including strong female representation within the power structure.  It is the third largest band in British Columbia with 27 reserve lands and practices the Potlach / Hereditary Chiefs system. The Potlach system is comprised of four clans – Beaver /Grouse, Frog /Marten, Caribou /Mountain and the Bear /Grizzly.  The members of this tribe have traditionally lived partly off reservation with about half residing in Vancouver or Prince George, British Columbia and transition comfortably between reserve and fully integrating into main stream Canadian communities while preserving their core aboriginal self identity. The map below shows the location of the Lake Babine reserve.

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So it’s no surprise that a family who already distinguish between a core aboriginal self identity and an external white appearance in the aboriginal / white continuum would understand and accept a transgendered member in her journey to outwardly manifest her true inner female identity thus the comfort and normality of the participants displayed in the video clip. Of course this angle was never acknowledge in the interview and was puzzling to the viewers who are aware of the facts presented in the info graph below.

Much of the discrimination and harassment against the transgendered expressed in the info graphic has also been documented about the aboriginals in their transition to off reservation status. When I was in Prince George, I saw firsthand the consequences of this activity in the degradation and exclusion of the indigenous peoples to the margins of the community with rampant alcoholism and homelessness among the natives of other bands in the area.Every other store front in downtown PG was some government rehabilitative department outreach center. Jenna’s relatives could certainly relate to the discrimination against the transgendered. While I was searching down this path, I came across some feminist analysis of aboriginal women with what I would consider too narrowly focused research with skewed conclusions. Here is a typical example of a feminist studies thesis entitled “Engaging Feminism: A Pedagogy for Aboriginal Peoples”.The basic premise is that noble equalitarian North American aboriginal societies were corrupted by white patriarchal conquerors from Europe who seduced the native males into marginalizing “aboriginal women” to oppressed female subordination through the process of the men internalizing the inferred superior European cultural norms of male supremacy and misogyny . The thesis was conceived by the author’s Cree Métis heritage and based on her observations of gender inequality in both native Cree and mainstream European cultures. The author believes that the thesis research has lead to her personal validation and empowerment. I’m willing to accept that her conclusions may be validate for Cree women but to generalize the outcomes to all aboriginal women is as invalid as generalizing in a discussion of aboriginal language. The Cree language has as much in common with The Lake Babine Nation Nedut'en language as Mandarin has in common with English. The same goes for Cree culture versus Lake Babine Nation culture. I’ve seen the aboriginals which she discusses in the streets of Calgary but this isn’t applicable to some bands in British Columbia.
In First Nations aboriginal culture there is a gender variant tradition known as two spirited. This was official classified in the 1990 Winnipeg cultural anthropology convention as 2S and was a part of the reclamation of indigenous heritage in response to prior Euro-colonial documentation where the accepted terminology was “berdache” which is a derivative of the Persian word “barah” that references “slave boys” or “male prostitutes.”  Many tribes had rites of passage to determine if the children were two spirited and, if affirmed, were given important roles as shaman or curing diseases. This was repressed by well intentioned but misguided policies of the European immigrant authorities. The same policies that lead to the outlawing of potlatch, a gift giving festival and primary economic system of shared communal wealth in British Columbia  by the 1884 Indian Act which made potlatch a felony with a sentence of between two and six months in jail.
If Jenna becomes Miss Universe and transcends her origins then it will be a victory not only for the transgendered but also for aboriginal women. The question of "Who am I?" will not be decided on physical appearance or origins but what we choose to become.

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