A Tale of Two-Spirits: One on One with Performance Artist Ty Defoe

Written by | Art & Design

Ty Defoe

Ty Defoe—photo courtesy Kate Freer.

An artist offers ways to understand his ancient and often misunderstood queer identity, along with insights on why he travels the earth sharing stories.

Interdisciplinary artist Ty Defoe has been performing since the age of eight. Known for sacred hoop dancing, Defoe has performed all over the world — including at the opening of the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. Defoe also won a 2011 Grammy for his album Come to Me Great Mystery, appeared in the recent season of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and is now at work on a wide array of new projects, including engaging artists from indigenous nations in the Hawaiian and Pacific Islands to create theater. Defoe identifies as Two-Spirit, and talked to us about what that means — both personally and in his work.

What does it mean to regard yourself as “Two-Spirit”?

The closest word that relates to it in English is queer, but also being transgender, not necessarily about going from one gender to the next gender but that you’re sort of transcending gender. Gender is unlabeled, so to speak. Being Two-Spirit also has a sort of cultural responsibility to society and the world. Many nations, as well as the Anishinaabe people, have a certain responsibility in the great hoop or great circle of life. Oftentimes, I find it falls on the Two-Spirit people to do multiple roles. There are other nations and tribes that have different definitions to it, but I’m just speaking about the Woodland Nations.

The English language has fairly limited terms to discuss subjects such as gender identity and gender expression.

I think that language is one of those unspoken tools that separate people from one another and also from identity. At the same time, it can also bring people together with a single word. Sometimes language can be limiting, but it’s the way we communicate. I like drinking coffee in the morning and in Anishinaabe, we say, “We like drinking makade-mashkikiwaaboo,” and people are like, “Ty, what is that?” And I tell them it translates to “black medicine water,” and they say, “You mean like, coffee?” And I’m like, “Yes, it’s like coffee!” [laughs] So my language provides more descriptive terms for what things are and oftentimes it can sound poetic in a variety of ways. We use language that empowers others to have a limitless expression.

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That’s one thing that we can do. We see it happening now in the queer community: we’re expressing individual selves. There’s more than one way to express who you are and what your sexuality is. That’s what’s so wonderful about the LGBTQ+ community. The labels are endless and bountiful. We need to uncondition ourselves and other people and stop thinking we only belong in a specific kind of box in order to be accepted.

How did you get started in the arts?

When I was young, I was one of those rambunctious kids. So my uncle gave me a hoop and it was made out of iron and another that was made out of willow and I was told to use then to do this sacred dance, like weave in and out of it. At the time I was like, “What are you talking about?” I did not want to do this; I wanted to be a kid.

In learning to do this, I started finding balance and movement, moving to the shapes of the hoop. It was quite interesting because I started dancing and was practicing and practicing until I met my mentor who showed me the ways of the world essentially. We started going all over the world doing these cultural exchanges. We traveled to so many different countries, and I was able to do story exchanges and learn about global myth as well as exchange stories and songs with youth from other countries. I was always able to come back home to Wisconsin and be an ambassador … by providing people on my reservation with information and stories that I had learned.

That’s how I was able to begin to travel, which was interesting. I think traveling and being in the world became a way of finding sense and finding place. I always have this joke because I’m also from the Eagle Clan so I’m used to taking flight with wings.

As an eagle — as you say — how do you think we can we be more mindful in our travels?

Well, indigenous culture is a living culture: we’re existing with the environment, so the highest priority is cleaning up after yourself. This is a simple thing you can do. If you see trash on the ground, you should pick it up. It’s great to see people not using plastic bags anymore. There are small things; how are you contributing to the fabric people are moving towards about taking care of Mother Earth. This is important. Sometimes even providing intentionality: if you are near water, there are beautiful, picturesque places you should acknowledge — the natural elemental forces of nature, like the weather. Acknowledge the trees, rocks and water around you. Regardless of where you are in the spectrum of what you believe, these are natural entities that are living and breathing. We hope we can have them for many years and generations to come.

METROSOURCE: What are you working on?

Ty Defoe: I just worked on this show Ajijaak on Turtle Island at LaMama Theatre in New York City. It’s the story about a little crane named Ajijaak on her migration journey, and she meets various nations of indigenous people on the way from Canada to the Gulf of Texas. It’s told in story and myth and metaphors and sort of centralizes indigenous perspectives and narrative throughout the piece. I’ve been working on it with puppet artist Heather Henson [daughter of Jim Henson].

I’m also working on this piece called Hart Island Requiem with my collaborator Tidtaya Sinutoke, who is a composer and it’s about this mass gravesite that’s off the coast of New York City. There’s people who have been buried there since 1849 — we’re talking about people who were forgotten, missing, who were sick, people who were on the outside. [We’re] making commentary about marginalized voices as a historical place but also something that exists in our contemporary society and world. We hope to give voices to those people who have a place to be, rest and grow.

What drew you to working with these themes?

Being a Native, Two-Spirit person, growing up in a community where I could speak my language, and being tied to the land and the Earth gave me a sense of place at a young age where I could be brave and have a voice and expression. I was able to utilize these tools in art and realized then that I could inspire people. There’s something larger than the idea of self with this work, it’s on a spiritual and intellectual level that I’m drawn to.

ty defoe

Ty Defoe—photos courtesy Ty Defoe

Your ancestry is Ojibwe and Oneida, right?

Yes. These nations are from Wisconsin. My mom is Oneida. You follow the bloodline of the mother in your family, there are ceremonies and cultures you need to follow. On my father’s side I’m Anishinaabe which is very much from Canada and the North. There are also various cultural responsibilities that come with that. My parents got together ,and I’m the youngest of ten children, and sometimes people are surprised with that, but my mom actually worked in foster care, so I always had lots of brothers and sisters and grew up with a really interesting family. I feel like I was raised by a group of people.

Does your name have any cultural significance?

With regards to my name, Giizhiig (although with being Two-Spirit we transcend into different names as well) means “grass turns green” or “storyteller.” I was always looking for different narratives or ways to tell stories. Using those stories to activate and seek beyond what was there so I could also give voice to other people whether it’s through song, dance, theatre, film or things like that.

Come to Me Great Mystery: Native American Healing Songs won a Grammy Award in 2009. What was this experience like?

It was amazing. I met a friend of mine when we were making music together in another country, and [the album] didn’t happen until I got back to the United States, and we were talking about how to honor the Earth and land and bring some of these subject matters to people’s homes in urban area.

We thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could bring people together through song and the gift of music?” We started talking about how we as a society are archiving narratives. We’re archiving each other and we’re archiving moments. Song is one of the most powerful tools: it’s a gift that enters our heart and our lives unintentionally, the gift of sound.

We started brainstorming on things we could come up with, and I went to the mountains in Colorado, near Boulder. I was up in the mountains and went for a hike and had a great time there making music for about two weeks. I went on nature walks and spent a lot of time in silence and thinking about how to answer these bit questions.

Come to Me Great Mystery is such an interesting one. People always ask me what it means. There’s this thing that’s bigger than the environment and people, it’s this mystery that nobody knows. Maybe one day we’ll find out but we must have belief in the action we’re taking daily in order to live and exist in a good and peaceful way.

You just won a prestigious grant through TCG, the Global Connections grant, which also has a travel component.

A lot of people have been asking about land acknowledgement. I often travel to a lot of different indigenous communities sharing and learning and gathering. . . . My friend and business partner Larissa Fasthorse and I co-founded Indigenous Direction, and we started a website and small consulting company that helps guide people through the protocol of decolonizing work in their organizations and their lives. We go to different communities and find information to distill down and synthesize the material we’re learning in order to provide other structures and assisting systematic barriers to combat racism and oppressing people. WIth this grant, we’re traveling to Hawaii and Fiji to make time to talk to our relatives there as well as our friends. This work is inherent to our everyday living. I think, here in Turtle island (“Manhattan”) in North America, it’s definitely a process with many layers that involve politics and current culture that help guide people through those land acknowledgements and cultural competency and through decolonizing training.

How can we better acknowledge our land?

Indigenous people use a philosophy that everyone of all nations, races, sexes, sexual orientations [should] acknowledge the land of everybody and everything: the two legged, the four legged, the root, the fin. The way to acknowledge the land is by finding the original stewards or caretakers of the Earth. . . . Secondly, you have to find the nearest water area where you live. This is a huge indicator — where there’s water, there’s people to drink, and that’s the surest way to find the natural caretakers of the land. Oftentimes there are different landmarks and even if it’s trees and rocks, you can even go to the library and sometimes google search these. Sometimes even in our street names you can find the indigenous — street signs, buildings. You just have to dig a little beneath the surface.

What do you is the next step forward for the LGBTQ+ community?

What I hope and would like to see is this intergenerational learning that is starting to happen because of all of the activism that’s happening now. There’s a dialogue between elders and youth, and it’s incredibly fascinating. There’s more to be learned there — both in the Queer community and outside of that in our greater society. I’m enjoying being a part of those circles. The generations that are in between can serve as facilitators and also learn a lot.

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Last modified: April 5, 2018