Prairie Pride: Sask. two-spirit artists illustrate messages of love and healing

From sneakers to clothing to public art installations, a rising generation of two-spirit artists and designers is taking Saskatchewan by storm.

As they fight stigma and honour traditional two-spirit roles, these young creators are bringing their vision of queer Indigenous life and community to the forefront.

Kamisha Alexson is one of them. She says this generation is leading a powerful upswell of change, healing and growth through two-spirit art.

“When I was younger, I would not have ever thought to see artwork by an Indigenous person — much less a queer Indigenous person — in a public place,” said Alexson, who comes from the Kahkewistahaw First Nation.

“These were all things you might have seen in dark corners or scribbled in a textbook.

“Now, we can showcase who we are and that we’ve always been here and that we always will be here.”

Wherever Alexson displays her art, she wants two-spirit youth to feel embraced by a rainbow of love.

Her signature installation, Dreamscapes, comprises dozens of dreamcatchers made from foraged medicines and recycled materials and dyed in bright colours.

When she hangs them up, they create enormous, eye-catching circles that people can enter into and experience Alexson’s vision.

“The rainbow represents us as two-spirit people, and all the medicines I entwined throughout the installation keep us protected,” Alexson said.

“So once you entered that circle — that sacred space — you were surrounded by nothing but dreamcatchers all the way from purple, pink, blue, green, yellow, orange, red and back to pink.”

Through her art, which she has displayed in Saskatoon and at Wanuskewin Heritage Park, Alexson wants to uplift the idea that being two-spirit is something to celebrate.

And she says the people who have come to visit Dreamscapes have heard that message loud and clear.

“When I’ve had visitors come and be a part of the circle, I would talk to them,” she said. “And for some of them, who were two-spirited people, this was a safe place for them.

"When you enter that circle, it feels like a whole new place. It feels safe. It feels warm.”

Others, who Alexson didn’t meet, left gifts of tobacco and other medicines woven into the dreamcatchers.

“Even though it’s different for everybody, people have felt safe in my spaces — and that’s why I created them,” she said.

Cody Montour, a multidisciplinary artist in Meadow Lake, has been building his brand at Okema Clothing for the last three years.

When he had the opportunity to collaborate with Meadow Lake Pride and launch a Pride collection of T-shirts and hoodies, he knew exactly who he needed to talk to — his nephew, two-spirit digital artist and animator Harper Dion-McGilvery.

“It was so special, being able to work with him because he’s really finding himself and embracing his talents,” Montour said of Dion-McGilvery. “I was so inspired because it takes so much strength, especially for our youth, even as they are finding their true self to be able to break out of their shell, break down the wall, and say ‘this is who I am, and I’m going to be this person I was meant to be.’ ”

For Okema Pride, Dion-McGilvery designed a round rainbow logo with feathers and sweetgrass, representing the role two-spirit people have traditionally held as healers within their communities.

“I felt it was important to show my voice within this design, and I wanted to incorporate what Pride means to me, personally,” Dion-McGilvery said.

Since the collection launched, Dion-McGilvery said they’ve seen lots of people out in the world — particularly in their home community of Meadow Lake — sporting the Okema Pride logo.

“Seeing it in stores and out on the street, it felt like people were supporting my work and a native-owned business,” said Dion-McGilvery. “It was being embraced, which I think is really cool.”

Montour said the designs were so popular during Pride Month that he is now working on screen-printing a new version of the collection so he can bring them back to the shop.

He says the collaboration with Dion-McGilvery and with Meadow Lake Pride is exactly what he wants his brand to be about — catching people’s eye, starting conversations and supporting Indigenous artists and communities.

“We are investing in our love for each other,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing, in all of this. It’s all about love and letting people in our community know that they are not alone.

“When we bring our energy, combined with our allies as well, it’s so overwhelming that people have no choice but to listen. They have no choice but to see us in action.”

Earlier this year, traditional and digital artist Ailah Carpenter had their work featured by eBay Canada and MARTK’D as part of a sneaker art competition. Carpenter, who was born in Regina and calls Prince Albert home, had never done sneaker art before — but they weren’t about to let that stop them.

“I’m the type of person who likes to try as many art forms as possible,” said Carpenter, who is currently studying Fine Arts at the University of Saskatchewan. “I don’t like preventing myself from doing stuff."

Each artist had 48 hours to attend a workshop and create Pride-themed art on a pair of sneakers.

Carpenter’s design, with a rainbow star blanket pattern on the toes and a medicine wheel and feather icon on the side, represents their two-spirit identity as well as the artistic heritage of their Plains Cree and Woodland Cree communities.

They hope their design might encourage more people to study and relearn Prairie Indigenous art traditions, as well as fight stigma against two-spirit people.

“Two-spirituality lets me embrace everything at once in a nice clean term that has relevant history to my people,” they said. “And I want to help boost that forward. I’m trying to help push the idea that two-spirituality is OK. It’s normal. It’s something that we should be embracing again.”

Since the competition went public, Carpenter said the reaction to their sneakers and their message of two-spirit joy has been overwhelmingly positive.

“People are saying, ‘I’m just so glad you talked about it.'"

Carpenter wants to see more young artists from Saskatchewan having those conversations — sometimes, they say, working in this space feels “empty.” At the eBay and MARTK’D competition, as well as at other Canada-wide opportunities and gatherings, they were the only person from Saskatchewan in the room.

But, as more two-spirit designers find their voice and carve out a place in the Saskatchewan arts scene, Carpenter says there is a lot of opportunities to shine bright and be heard.

“You can do big things — beyond your house, beyond your neighbourhood, beyond your community,” they said.

Julia Peterson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The StarPhoenix