Embracing identity and overcoming discrimination: bringing drag to Eskasoni First Nation

ESKASONI — By day, Eskasoni's Desna Michael Thomas is a cashier at the Eskasoni Foodland but a transformation happens when the sun goes down.

Thomas becomes their alter ego, drag king Cicero Crow. A character Thomas says is partially inspired by childhood dreams.


"He's a little bit sassy, he's very sarcastic and he's funny. The thing I love about Cicero is that he's a very free spirit," said Thomas. "He's something I always wanted to be growing up, so I kind of channelled that from my inner child into the character I play."

Thomas, 22, is one of the performers working to bring drag to the First Nations community. Thomas is hosting a "Drag Bingo" event at the Sarah Denny Memorial Cultural Centre on Friday night alongside fellow Eskasoni drag performer Dante Joe-Pierro (Nykitene,) 21.


Nykitene, by day, is Dante Joe-Pierro. She got her start in drag through the Indigenous drag trio "The Haus of Fierce," doing performances with well-known Indigenous drag queens like Regina Fierce. Now, she has broken off on her own, booking, producing and performing in her own shows. Joe-Pierro says although they've parted ways from the group, they give the Haus of Fierce credit for where she is today.

"I give them a huge homage in terms of my career. I spent three years with them until we all went our separate ways," said Joe-Pierro. "Now Nykitene is producing her own shows, taking her own bookings. I took all my experiences and grew on my own from them."

Nykitene has grown through a few name changes since Dante Joe-Pierro first imagined her. "Nikki" and "Nikita the Queen" before finally settling on Nykitene (pronounced nicotine). Joe-Pierro says they wanted a funny name people would remember.

"When I finally landed on Nykitene, I just wanted to have a little play on words. The best drag names are funny," they said.


Comedy is a significant way drag performers are able to reach new audiences. Joe-Pierro says finding acceptance in their community took time but they are proud of the growth.

"There is growth, I do see change, especially in our First Nations communities, especially in Eskasoni," said Joe-Pierro. "So, I'm proud to be from here."

Thomas says communities in Unama'ki (Cape Breton Island) weren't always accepting of their kind of art. But organizations like Pride Eskasoni have broken down barriers for 2SLGBTQ+ people to express themselves confidently and proudly. They say Pride Eskasoni was their original connection to drag.

"I have a lot of friends who are part of the Pride Eskasoni committee, like Geordy Marshall (Regina Fierce). That's how I started with the drag family and doing drag," they said. "It's a small community, everybody knows everybody. So, when I saw an opportunity to express my identity and my two-spirit, that's who I went to."

Thomas says the two-spirit identity is well-known and respected in Indigenous communities across Canada but they still face discrimination in their life and art.


"I've experienced bigotry in all aspects of my life. At my job, a lot of people will misgender me or refer to me as my dead name. I've just learned that you cannot control how people think," said Thomas. "I deal with discrimination and hate every day, but I've learned – this is my daily mantra I borrowed from Jinx Monsoon – 'Its water off a duck's back.'"

They say people grow at their own pace and some people won't change their minds.

"At first, I had the fight or flight response, but as much as you want people to listen, some people don't have the patience so it's not worth the effort. Racism, homophobia, transphobia, all of that is taught behaviour and some people don't want to unlearn the things they've learned," Thomas said.


But they say the growth they witness and the support they receive in Eskasoni is more impactful.

"In Eskasoni, they're getting familiar with drag and queer identity and becoming more accepting and loving of it. Our support system in Eskasoni is the best," said Thomas. "It fills me with so much joy and pride. I love performing, and I love the fact that I'm doing it in my community."

Thomas says the support they get in their community is the thing that motivates them to keep performing.

"My family always told me that the first people that will support you are your family. The second people to support you are your friends, and the last support you need is from your community. It's called the three main support systems," said Thomas. "It means a lot to me that my community sees how much I fought for this."

Mitchell Ferguson is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter covering Indigenous affairs for Cape Breton Post.

Mitchell Ferguson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cape Breton Post