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Dancing as his true self

Courtesy Tanner Phillips

Tanner Phillips wanted to dance since he was a little kid, but didn’t know why he felt uncomfortable participating until he became an adult.

“I always wanted to dance with the men, and I never was able to,” Phillips said. “That’s what stopped me, because I didn’t want to dance with the women.”

At the Echoes of A Proud Nation Pow Wow over the weekend, Phillips finally realized his dream when he stepped into the arena of the dance competition.

“During the grand entry, when they called out the men’s traditional category, I just walked out, and my first thought was, yeah, this is where I’m supposed to be,” Phillips said.

Though Phillips didn’t officially register to compete, he danced as a tribute to himself and his journey. In 2019, he came out as a trans man, and transitioned with the embrace of his family and community.

“Now that I’m transitioned and I feel comfortable, and since it’s one of those things that I always wanted to do, I just did it,” Phillips said.”

Phillips transitioned right before the last Kahnawake powwow in 2019, and didn’t feel comfortable participating then. After the COVID-19 pandemic derailed the last two powwows, this was the first year that new dancers like Phillips could showcase their talent and passion. For Phillips, it was also an opportunity to reconnect with his roots.

“I wanted to learn more about my culture,” Phillips said. “And I felt like it was also a really good opportunity to heal.”

In the last few years, Phillips has fought personal obstacles, including the loss of his paternal grandparents, who died just two months apart during the first year of the pandemic’s lockdown. His younger cousin, Owen Skahionwiio Mayo, helped Phillips prepare for the powwow, and said they saw it as a way to honour their grandparents.

“I believe that’s where Tanner got the spark from,” Mayo said. “A little bit after (our grandparents passed away), Tanner was like, ‘hey Owen, do you want to dance? Do you want to go practice?’”

Mayo, who began dancing as early as three years old, is a champion powwow dancer, and has won competitions all over Turtle Island. With over 24,000 followers on TikTok, Mayo is well known in the powwow dance circle.

He said that it isn’t easy for first-generation dancers like himself to continue dancing, especially for those who didn’t come from powwow families.

“For me, it was different,” Mayo said. “Having my grandfather as a Korean war veteran made me believe that I had a place in the powwow circle. I wanted to be there to dance for him.”

On Saturday, Phillips wore his grandfather’s ribbon shirt, which was a part of his regalia that Mayo helped put together. Mayo also hand-made Phillips’ kustowa, and lent him a pair of beaded cuffs that was given to him as a gift from his grandmother when he was a child.

“I was a little boy with this huge, man-sized beadwork on, but I loved it,” Mayo said. “I danced with it with pride every time I danced at a powwow for at least 10 years.”

As Mayo grew into the men’s sized cuffs, so did Phillips. “Growing up, I would see Owen dance all the time at powwows, and I just wanted to do that too,” Phillips said. “He was so inspirational to me.”

Mayo said that despite having been teased as a child for dancing, he found the courage to be true to himself and pursue the life he wanted. It was in this way that he drew inspiration from Phillips’ story.

“I respect him and I’m so proud of him to have so much courage to be who he truly is,” Phillips said. “And I’m so proud that in today’s powwow world, we are very welcoming to the trans (and LGBTQ2S+) community.”

Phillips said that this year, he was focused on having a clear mind, dancing with the proper intentions, and healing. But he also hopes that his participation brought trans visibility to the powwow dance competition, particularly because it’s gendered.

“It takes a lot for me to say that I’m proud of myself. Especially to be doing something that I was never really taught or trained in,” Phillips said. “But I’m really proud of myself.”

Next year, Phillips intends to officially register in the dance competition.

“I don’t even care if I don’t win,” Phillips said. “I just plan on practicing more and hopefully getting together with Owen.”

yeung.diane@gmail.com

Diane Yeung
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