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Fostering queer and Indigenous community

Kailey Karahkwinéhtha Nicholas at the Indigiqueer Circle’s first event in late January. Courtesy Kailey Karahkwinéhtha Nicholas

When Kailey Karahkwinéhtha Nicholas was 14 years old, she travelled to Massachusetts for a veganism activism camp “just for fun.” 

“I’m that kind of person,” she laughs. “It’s very in character for me to be involved in any type of social justice work,” said Nicholas. 

Like many in her generation, she grew up on Tumblr, which exposed her to topics like decolonization and inclusivity. 

“I had a feeling that I wasn’t entirely straight… I felt like a black sheep of the family,” said Nicholas. 

She credits her compassionate parents for the fact that she never felt like she had to hide her sexual orientation at home. 

“But in the overall community of Kanesatake, I still don’t feel like I can be very openly, authentically myself. There’s not a lot of queer visibility,” she said. 

But now, Nicholas is working to change that. She recently began working as a project coordinator with the Indigiqueer Circle, a new community non-profit created by and for 2SLGBTQ+ Onkwehón:we and operates in the region of Quebec, serving the 11 First Nations of the province. 

The organization was started by Diane Labelle, whom Nicholas considers an “auntie.” 

“We’re technically not related by blood. But I’ve known (Labelle) my whole life,” said Nicholas.

Labelle is a non-binary researcher, educator, and consultant who has spent decades working to decolonize classrooms and develop more inclusive and representative curricula. 

“I am in a same-sex relationship, have been for over 33 years. I have grown children as well as grandchildren. And so for me, it’s important that they be able to develop their identity, whatever that may be, without having to battle all of these imposed social norms,” said Labelle.

Nicholas grew up in proximity to Labelle’s family, and she says that having examples of people who are unafraid to go against the grain really shaped her. 

“That’s kind of what inspires me to do the work… I’d love to be able to play a similar role in someone else’s life that these people have played in mine,” said Nicholas. 

“Thirty years ago, there was a group of us that had talked about the need to address some of the issues with the difficulties of Indigenous people affirming their identity either within their own communities or in the much larger urban area,” said Labelle.

And while the idea has long been front of mind for Labelle, it took decades to get off the ground because queerness and Indigeneity have until recently always been treated separately by grant-funding bodies.

Labelle is currently a regional pedagogical counsellor for the First Nations Adult Education School Council (FNAESC), and was hired by the LGBT+ Family Coalition a few years ago to research the needs of Indigenous LGBT+ families. 

“It was kind of disheartening to see that very little had changed in some communities,” said Labelle. This research underscored the need for a regional organization to foster and support queer visibility in Indigenous communities. 

Rainbow beaded hearts made by Kanehsata’kehró:non artists Alana Simon, Kaysun Oke, and Tekahentakwa Myrna Gabriel. Courtesy Kailey Karahkwinéhtha Nicholas

Nicholas has felt this compartmentalization of queer and Indigenous issues in her own life. She hadn’t fully grappled with her queerness until she left Kanesatake to attend Vanier College, where she studied environmental and wildlife management. At Vanier, she had access to queer community where she felt accepted. 

“The downside is that it was still predominantly white spaces, so there was always something missing for me,” said Nicholas. 

She felt caught between wanting to be in Kanesatake, and “feeling guilty for finding a sense of community with white people off the reserve.” But Nicholas knew that it didn’t need to be this way – that her queerness and her culture didn’t need to be at odds with one another. 

“I don’t think homophobia is natural and a part of our traditional communities. I think that was brought along with colonization,” said Nicholas. 

“It’s not anything new; we’re revitalizing. We’re reintroducing, reintegrating, and relearning a lot of history that was purposely hidden and kept away from us for the sake of consistency and assimilation,” she continued. 

The Indigiqueer Circle held its first gathering over two days at the end of January, in Tiohtià:ke. 

“We had representatives from eight different nations across the region that they call Quebec,” said Labelle. The group was also quite intergenerational, said Nicholas. 

They discussed what they want the vision and mission statement of the organization to be, identified different needs of Two-Spirit and Indigenous LGBTQ+ people in their respective communities, and potential resources that might meet those needs. 

The group also considered alternative and non-hierarchical governance models, online engagement, and brainstormed events around voguing and drag. The Indigiqueer Circle plans on having a presence at Montreal Pride this year. 

Each attendee received a beaded rainbow heart made by Kanehsata’kehró:non artists Alana Simon, Kaysun Oke, and Tekahentakwa Myrna Gabriel. 

Nicholas emphasized that the Indigiqueer Circle is in its early stages, and that those interested in joining can connect with the group through its Facebook page or by contacting her directly at karahkwinehtha@gmail.com. 

A lot of this is new for Nicholas, who before taking up this role, had worked mostly in the environmental sector, but as someone who has been thinking about the interconnectedness of all things since she was a teenager, she’s looking forward to exploring new intersections. 

“I am excited to see where these two worlds will eventually overlap, especially when it comes to conversations about queerness while on Indigenous land,” said Nicholas.

Labelle is excited to work alongside kin as the Indigiqueer Circle takes its first steps. 

“It’s been a pleasure watching her take on this issue and work with it within her own community, and within her perception also of a just world,” said Labelle. 

“It’s been a wonderful thing to watch (Nicholas) grow into the person she is right now, and knowing that she still has so much more that she will learn about herself and become.”

Nicky Taylor
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