When Ceremony is Not Enough

Since this essay was published, I have been in conversation with several people who have helped me to rethink some of what I have written here. I have come to realize that although I had hoped that sharing my experiences could help open a conversation about ceremony, gender, and healing, the way that I framed my story does not have that effect. I worry, as do those people who have helped me see this perspective, that it may discourage people from trying to get involved at all by portraying ceremonial spaces as entirely exclusionary. Ceremony may not be the magical cure I had hoped for and sometimes been promised, but it still has an important place in my life and in Indigenous communities, and both ceremony itself and the people involved in it deserve a more compassionate treatment than I gave them in this essay. More importantly, I also have come to see that I have been disrespectful towards those I have shared ceremony with in my depiction here, and I am working towards making amends for this, an ongoing process.


To those who have reached out to me to say they found something valuable in this essay, miigwech. To those who reached out to warn me of the impacts of my words, to call me out or call me in, miigwech gegiinawaa. I am learning every day. At this moment, I am choosing to leave this essay up as a form of accountability. In this short addition I have not touched all the parts of the essay that deserve reconsideration, but I hope that future readers will see this note and be aware of the troubling aspects that it contains within it.

“But he had known the answer all along, even while the white doctors were telling him he could get well and he was trying to believe them: medicine didn’t work that way, because the world didn’t work that way. His sickness was only part of something larger, and his cure would be found only in something great and inclusive of everything.” -Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony


Snow is a spirit, in my culture. I have been told four times now by Anishinaabe elders to be respectful of it, to not speak ill of the spirit that cares for grandmother earth by blanketing her for the winter. Despite their warnings, as I write here in the middle of a blizzard in April, I still wonder if I can ever live up to the standard of being a “traditional” Anishinaabe.

Healing, it seems, is the word of the day for Indigenous people, especially in Canada. While white settlers urge us on to the question of how to reconcile, Indigenous people are still reeling with the issue of how to heal from the centuries of violence enacted upon us. Intergenerational and historical trauma have become commons word in our communities, and everyone has their own best idea for how to heal our wounds.

If healing is the word of the day, decolonization may be the word echoing uneasily through the night. Though it is mostly academics and activists who invoke decolonization directly, the ideas behind it are alive among Indigenous people young and old. “Decolonize your mind” has become a popular phrase among Indigenous people and other people of color, almost to the point of cliché. In my language, some scholars have even coined a word for it: biskaabiiyang, meaning “to return to ourselves.”

To heal, these Indigenous thinkers argue, we must return to our traditional practices. Drums that were outlawed beat again. Sweat lodges are built once more. Across the continent, Indigenous people are bringing back ways that have been persecuted for a century or more. Even the medical industry, the psychiatrists and psychologists, have started to warm to the idea that Indigenous spirituality is essential for Indigenous healing.

I was not raised with much that could be considered part of traditional Anishinaabe culture or spirituality. My grandmother, born in the last years that Anishinaabemowin was still spoken by children in Wisconsin, was one of those stolen by the foster system, raised among white peers and tormented by the man who claimed her. Once, talking to a Stockbridge-Munsee elder who had been heavily involved in reclaiming Indigenous spiritual traditions in her tribe, I tried to explain my grandmother’s history. That elder suggested she attend a program held by a Native-based organization in our area, a trauma-healing three day workshop that blended modern psychological wisdom with a vaguely Lakota-inspired form of spirituality that culminated in a sweat lodge for the participants. I thanked her, but left convinced that my grandmother, skeptical of both medical psychiatry and “pagan” Indian traditions, would never go for it. “It would be good for you, too,” she added as an afterthought.

I wanted to believe her then, to trust that long-hidden tradition could be the solution to the problems that ailed me, my family, and my people. In that time I was emerging from a period of severe clinical depression that had lasted over five years, leaving my late teens and early adulthood spotted with holes of foggy memory and failure. Five years of the medical model had been unable to bring me back to life, and the tide only turned when I moved home and transferred to a First Nations studies program at the local university. The following two years living in an environment where I was surrounded by other Indigenous people who affirmed our Indigenous ways of knowing and being seemed to have accomplished what therapy could not. The road forward looked bright and decidedly red in those days.

My reentrance into an Indigenous community, after a lonely undergraduate experience at the University of Chicago where it took two years before I even met another Native student, was also a return to being surrounded people who believed gender roles could be something other than oppressive. My queerness and transness had been developed in a sphere of Indigenous absence—first in a hostile rich white high school and then an aloof rich white university. In the photograph on my first college ID I look like a young white man, an attempt to reach for a future that left behind my traumatized mixed-kid genderqueer past. When I moved to Chicago I introduced myself to everyone with the pronouns “he, him, his” like a mantra, right up until I became so bed-bound that I no longer had the energy to physically or verbally make myself an acceptable trans person.

Returning to my bordertown home, I found myself invisible. Neither my transgender identity nor my history of mental breakdowns were obvious to those around me, and I found it alarmingly easy to fall into a place as just another Native woman. At my first sweat lodge, the leader’s wife came up to me and asked me to help lay the cedar trail. “It’s the women’s responsibility,” she explained, and in my long skirt I was too afraid to say anything. I no longer knew where I stood. What do you call someone who likes to wear long skirts but resists being told to do so, who wants to call the hot stones Nookomisag but not to be called Ikwe? I had spent years searching for words in English only to realize it was never the English language that mattered.

On the Dakota people’s homelands where I live now, I am surrounded by Anishinaabeg. We dominate the landscape—there are three Anishinaabemowin language tables a week, a sweat lodge every Saturday. The university where I study posted signs on the doors of one building the first day of classes, alerting students that there might be smoke in the halls from an Indigenous tobacco and smudging ceremony to begin the school year. Later that year I found a poster in the American Indian student centre. Sunrise ceremony, it advertised. People who menstruate are requested to please wear a long skirt. “It used to say women,” one of the student workers informed me. “But a trans guy complained, said it wasn’t inclusive, that he would be wearing a skirt because he menstruated but didn’t identify as a woman.” I was confused and more than a little angry at this person I didn’t know, someone who was supposed to be my Two-Spirit kin yet who missed the point so spectacularly. And I did not attend the ceremony.

A friend of mine, who follows the Midewiwin society of our Anishinaabe ancestors, once told me something a woman elder she knew had said to her. She said, “Men these days have an ego. They feel like they need to prove something. So they try to control women and Two-Spirit people, because it makes them feel powerful.” I have seen this, as have most of the Indigenous women and Two-Spirit people I know. The poisonous words and actions of certain Indigenous men in our spiritual communities are a secret kept alive in the whisper network of Indigenous women and Two-Spirits. It may be even harder, though, to hear my friend talk about women ceremonial leaders who instruct young girls that their duty is to be obedient to their menfolk. We police ourselves, replicate our own oppression against even our closest kin, like the Indigenous trans man who requested the poster in the student center be changed.

Usually, though, things are not said so blatantly. Instead we do it traditional-style, with judgment, side-eyes, and whispers. Instead of being told to wear a skirt directly, I am left with the decision, do I wear one and let my Two-Spirit identity go unseen, or do I wear pants and risk being read as an uncultured halfbreed? But maybe that decision has been made for me already. At a Big Drum ceremony, that same friend—a young Anishinaabekwe raised on a trapline, who has to mutter in my ear which way to walk around the drum and when to hold up the giveaway items—laughs at me one night walking back to our hotel room. When I ask, she says, “It’s funny to see you still wearing that ribbon skirt now that the ceremony’s done. It’s just, you’re not exactly traditional, you know?”

And the thing is, I get it. The sting still comes but I might be learning to be okay with it. I am not sure what the word “traditional” really means anymore, and I am no longer convinced it is what we should be striving for. Maybe nothing about me is traditional after all, and maybe that does not make me any less Anishinaabe or Michif than my friends who go to sweats every weekend. As for me—that first time I entered the lodge, I left halfway through because I couldn’t breathe. “It’s just anxiety,” the leader told me. But I know from years of intimate experience that there is nothing “just” about anxiety.

As I lay on the ground outside the sweat lodge, my heart next to grandmother earth where the woman who had helped me place the cedar trail told me to lie down, I waited to feel transformed. All my life I had heard testimonies from Indigenous people about the first time they heard the beat of a drum, the first time they’d entered the lodge. That epiphany moment. And here I was, face down in the grass trying not to have a panic attack.

The medical industrial complex could not find a way to cure me—therapy, medication, and partial institutionalization all failed to wrench me from the grasps of my illnesses. My own Indigenous people told me another story, made me another promise: that our traditions would bring my spirit back to me. But there is a different story that lies in the interstices of these seemingly separate worlds. A truth that none of us wants to look in the face, whether our mental state or gender or sexuality is privileged or not. It is told in the hushed voice in the back of my mind. It asks, what if there is no way to fix what has happened? What if the systems meant to help us harm us instead? What if neither the new nor the old is the right solution? What if it’s never going to get any easier?

I have become increasingly nervous about the way we talk about healing in Indigenous communities. There is a hierarchy we too easily create, where those who have healed are at the top, considered authorities and leaders, while the unhealed, the crazy, the addicts are only fit to follow in their footsteps. This rhetoric has implications that reach beyond interpersonal politics. In her book Therapeutic Nations, Tanana Athabascan scholar Dian Million describes how certain ideas of healing and reconciliation have become part of international conversations about Indigenous people. She warns us, “Healing from trauma begins to be narrated as a prerequisite to self-determination. If the Indigenous don’t heal, they may not be able to self-govern” (105). In other words: heal, and then you can have rights.

Within the industry of healing, the distinction between Western medicine and Indigenous spirituality has become ever more blurred. Medicine wheels, red roads, white bison, wellbriety. But if even combining these paths is not enough to heal us—was not enough to heal me—where do we go?

In the novel Ceremony by Laguna Pueblo author Leslie Marmon Silko, the main character, Tayo, seeks healing both from white psychiatrists as well as traditional Indigenous medicine people. He finds, as I did, that neither of them are able to heal him. What he eventually realizes, seeing the patterns in the world as he finds himself in a uranium mine on his reservation, is that he cannot be healed because his wounds are greater than himself. Only in the transformation of everything will he be transformed.

This year, my grandmother turns 78 years old. She has lived through decades of violence inflicted against Indigenous people at large, and she has found her own ways to survive. I do not know if she will live to see her people and homelands decolonized. I do not know if I, currently age 25, will live to see it. I do know that if we wait to decolonize until we heal, and if we attempt decolonization through healing alone, we will never get there. I am no longer waiting, these days, for the one true way to come and cure me. I am trying to tear down the world that makes me sick at all. And whether or not I am healed in the process, together we will find the next world regardless.