A Two-Spirit Journey: The Autobiography of a Lesbian Ojibwa-Cree Elder is a rare and stunning first-person account by Ma-Nee Chacaby who was born and raised in Canada. Although difficult to read at times, it is an inspirational story of courage, resilience, recovery and healing. “My earliest memories are of gathering kindling, making snowshoes, and hunting and trapping in my isolated Canadian community, where alcoholism was widespread in the 1950’s. In 2013, more than half a century later, I performed a healing ceremony and then lead the first gay pride parade in my city, Thunder Bay, Ontario. This book describes the extraordinary path that led me to that place.”
Her story begins in 1950 in Thunder Bay where she was born in a Tuberculosis Sanatorium. Ma-Nee was immediately adopted out to a French couple but her grandmother found her and brought her back to Ombabika where she raised her in the old ways. Her grandmother called her Ma-Nee because the name reminded her of a French painter whom she admired. “More than anything else, though, my grandmother said she named me after a beautiful miinika (place with many blueberries) because I had been born in the blueberry season.”
Leliilah, Ma-Nee’s grandmother, was a storyteller from the prairies of Saskatchewan and she was over 100 years old when she died. When she about three her village was burned by another Native group who needed children. Leliilah and her brother were discovered and adopted by a traveling Cree family. Although she had no formal education, she spoke Cree, Ojibwe and French.
She told Ma-Nee about the importance in the community of the two-spirit people and how their acceptance had changed. Leliilah was prescient in telling Ma-Nee that she would have a long and difficult journey and she would have to have courage. “When you grow up, you’re going to be a great teacher of our people. You will help others. You will become a medicine woman.”
Her mother returned to the small village remarried with step kids when Ma-Nee was five or six. Though Ma-Nee stayed with her grandmother, her mother lived next door and was involved her life, and not in a positive way. “I think she hated me sometimes. I have never understood why. Maybe my being born made her life worse. Once she told me she wished I had been a boy, because then her life would not have been so difficult. She may have been ashamed that I was a girl who acted like a boy, wearing pants and playing out doors as a small child, and later working with machinery, and trapping and hunting.”
Like many in the village, her mother was an alcoholic; and beat her often, leaving physical and emotional scars that lasted a life time. The sheer amount of physical and sexual abuse was absolutely shocking. Even the so-called ‘good guys’ such as uncles, school mates and Ma-Nee’s stepdad who took her hunting and taught her to make things that boys made, like snowshoes. As horrific as the assaults are it was a cultural taboo to speak of it. “Many other girls in Ombabika learned to keep heavy secrets like this.”
When she was fifteen her mother told her that she had arranged a marriage for her to a man who was twenty years older. Ma-Nee had two children by Gus. He beat her brutally breaking bones and doing damage that took years, surgery and therapy to repair. But she finally got away from him and moved with the kids to Thunder Bay.
There she became involved in Alcoholics Anonymous and got sober. Sadly the abuse was a constant throughout her life. She was raped by senior members of Alcoholics Anonymous who preyed on the vulnerable that had newly joined. And later she was assaulted by a doctor she went to for eyecare. She was going blind.
But she persisted in her recovery and one of the twelve steps of AA is belief in a higher power. Ma-Nee’s sponsor suggested that she attend a twenty-eight-day residential program that focused on the twelve AA steps. She had a break through during the program.
“My kokum (grandmother) told me that, If I didn’t believe in the Great Spirit, that I should find a tree growing on a wide, flat rock and ask myself who made it grow there. That day in 1976…I began to have faith in a higher power that created and sustains the world. Today I believe in a Great Spirit as my grandmother explained it to me, which is a gentle, loving, and healing creator who lives within us and all around us, and is neither man nor woman, but both. Over the years, the AA program has helped me to be sober and to live a healthy, balanced life, but my faith in a higher power has been even more important.”
Ma-non went on to attend a year-long training course to become an alcoholism counsellor. She participated in the translating of the AA Big Book into Ojibwe and Cree. And she traveled to remote communities to participate in AA events.
After a second marriage she learned of AA meetings for lesbians and gays and began to be more aware of her sexuality. She was still living with her husband, Nate, and invited him and the kids when she learned of a large womyn’s music and cultural festival in Winnipeg. At one point they came upon a performance that was womyn-only and Ma-non chose to stay.
“The women-only performance was mainly attended by lesbians but I did not realize that at the time. At first I just sat and listened to the musician, whose songs drew me in right away. Listening to her, I felt like I was coming alive in ways I had not felt for a long time…I felt like I was no longer alone.” There were several womyn in that circle who would become her friends and one who would become her lover.
She moved to Boston to be with Leah and got a job in a half-way house working with pregnant womyn in recovery. After her time with Leah, Ma-non was single for ten years until she met Grace. A relationship that lasted for 20 years.
I highly recommend A Two-Spirit Journey: The Autobiography of a Lesbian Ojibwa-Cree Elder. I read it in a single day, in a few hours. It spoke to me of the social and cultural markers that we share with our Canada cousins: the incredible ongoing violence against womyn; gender as a social construct dictating how womyn are supposed to behave, dress, wear their hair and makeup; Tuberculosis; and the introduction of AIDS to the Native population. But also the risk of coming out, potlucks and womyn’s festivals. I related to her story on so many levels and truly believe that you will too.
You can follow Ma-Nee Chacaby on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/manee.chacaby
You can get A Two-Spirit Journey here: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/27276875-a-two-spirit-journey