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Two-spirit poet explores resistance to colonialism

by Michael Nugent

Doubleweaving is an indigenous basket weaving technique in Southeastern traditions in which separate inside and outside patterns emerge through one continuous weave.

Drawing on this concept as both a cultural practice and political framework, Qwo-Li Driskill, Ph.D., recently delivered the eighth annual Georgia Harkness Lecture, entitled, "Doubleweaving Resistance: Two-Spirit Stories, Theories, and Futures" at the Pacific School of Religion's Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies.

Giving a poetic, inspiring and unblinking account, Driskill explored Cherokee and two-spirit resistance to colonialism, amid re-telling stories and reclaiming the past, present, and future of queer/two-spirit peoples during the October 19 talk in Berkeley.

Driskill is a non-citizen/unenrolled Cherokee two-spirit writer, performer, and activist. Driskill prefers s/he and is also of African, Irish, Lenape, Lumbee, and Osage descent. S/he is a professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies at Oregon State University who authored "Asegi Stories: Cherokee Queer and Two-Spirit Memory," a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award.

"Reviving any lost art or tradition is a blue print for revival of a people," explained Driskill.

Doubleweave design not only allows for two unique designs to emerge, but also contains a third space between the basket walls - hidden but present. The metaphor of the third space as two spirit identity and a de-colonializing force was articulated by Driskill.

In indigenous cultures, there is a diversity of descriptions for two spirit. Significantly, these are not nouns or categories, Driskill said. They include "they feel and think like a (wo)man," "a different hearted person," "third gender" and "that way."

Doubleweaving deeply influences Driskill's re-imagining of stories, and disrupting stories about two-spirit peoples. Growing up in western Colorado in an indigenous household, s/he remembers the deep urge to access two-spirit stories.

"Archives have worked against queer/two-spirit peoples," Driskill said. "So I began beading together cultural fragments, imbuing ancient patterns with new stories."

The re-telling of these stories figured large in the re-imaginings of Driskill's lecture. One such story is of The Lady of Cofitachequi, who was the leader of matrilineal indigenous peoples in the mid-1500s at what is now Mulberry Plantation, South Carolina. She was captured by DeSoto when his army invaded, successfully escaped, and went back home to live with her people.

"Her queer presentation allows for a vision of two-spirit identities as chaotic to settler power," Driskill. "One of the original stories of patriarchy subverted, the Lady of Cofitachequi formed alliance and returned home. It is a homecoming of who we are as humans and evidence of our existence to exist."

Her efforts to subvert, negotiate, and resist colonialism remind queer and two-spirit people that they have been here all along. "None of this stuff was lost - we were never lost. Two-spirit bodies remain unruly, recreate who we are, and come home. We need to be the people we are taking on these roles, not focusing on the wrongs," Driskill said.

Driskill travels to Oklahoma annually for the Cherokee Stomp Dance, where stories figure prominently.

"Hearing people speak our native tongue, I imagine our spirits as splints of light banding together," s/he said. "When we dance, we unearth stories we didn't even know were lost."

S/he shared an oral history from Cory Taber, a two-spirit Cherokee.

"We are Cherokee people because that's what our grandmothers told us we are," Taber said in the oral history that was read by Driskill. "There's a generational doubleweaving of grandmothers caring for grandchildren. There's a lot of gay natives - that's what the medicine people taught us; we're not new. But identity is second to how you care and give back to the community."

Driskill said that the grandmothers' statements about who is Cherokee are also significant, as the blood question is the colonial holy grail. For indigenous folks, it's not a racial formation, it is a community and political one.

Taber's oral history noted that, "Assimilation brings disharmony and invalidation; we subvert it just by being here. And remember our ceremonial dress - we did a lot of drag back then."

Driskill said the two-spirit community is at a unique moment.

"We must tell our stories and imagine to take us out of the colonial past," s/he said. "If you can see that far in the past, you can see that far in the future. We're in an exciting moment as two spirits, engaged in lots of revitalizations, keys into deep, deep memories."

Looking at current times, indigenous communities offer hopeful models for how to survive.

"It's hard because it's not new; it's very familiar," Driskill said. "Natives have already experienced the apocalypse. In California, it was maybe the most devastating of anywhere with the Missions and Gold Rush. We know how to do this already. The world has not always been like this; we hold memories of times that are different."

S/he further painted a picture of two-spirit stories and futures.
"Imagine queer, two spirit, trans folks speaking their languages, our lives not constantly at risk, our selves celebrated," Driskill said. "I want it all back: plants, memories, land, lives, and ancestors. Reweave the past, honor the new, and imagine a gorgeous world.

"We shatter manifest destiny, becoming elders and ancestors teaching children to heal the world," s/he said. "We must mourn, smuggle our tongues across imaginary borders, laugh, weave a basket, and mend a wounded world."

After the lecture, audience members felt grateful for the re-imaginings of Driskill.

Naomi Azriel, 41, a queer dyke living in Oakland, said, "I felt deeply moved. I got an infusion of hope that wasn't sentimental or based on denial. It was much needed."

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