A Two-Spirit Journey: The Autobiography of a Lesbian Ojibwa-Cree Elder by Ma-Nee Chacaby with Mary Louisa Plummer came to me via the Ottawa Public Library System. Thanks to my library’s interloans service for obtaining it. As far as autobiographies go, this was the most linear in structure that I had ever read. Chacaby told the story about her family from before birth to the present day (2014), without any deviation from the chronological timeline. I am used to autobiographies that don’t start page one with the story of their subject’s birth; usually a late-in-life event occurs at the beginning with a flashback that brings the reader back to the subject’s childhood. Plummer as editor thus made Chacaby’s story a simple read. Without an index, if I ever needed to refer to a past event, I knew exactly where to find it.
Plummer spent considerable time in the afterword explaining the process of transcribing Chacaby’s English recordings and in-person interviews into a structure that corresponded to her own narrative style. Chacaby learned from her elders the art of storytelling in her first languages Ojibwe and Cree. Plummer wanted to honour her subject without transforming her life story into an academic case study which did not seem to emanate from Chacaby’s own voice. Thus, in keeping with storytelling tradition, the narrative was strictly chronological.
Chacaby grew up in Ombabika, Ontario, north of Lake Nipigon in the early 1950’s. She never knew her father and her mother put her up for adoption at birth. It was only after her grandmother found out about the adoption that she attempted to gain custody herself, and succeeded. Chacaby therefore learned Ojibwa traditions from one generation removed. While children of her generation might not have learned their indigenous language and traditions from their own parents, Chacaby’s grandmother was a lifelong Ojibwe speaker and taught the language to her. Chacaby stated how fortunate she was to be one of the few people in her community who spoke Ojibwe since childhood.
From the beginning you will be shocked at the abuse Chacaby had suffered as an indigenous child and woman. It was hard to read about the sexual abuse, spousal beatings and even gay bashings committed against her by other indigenous women. In soul-baring honesty, Chacaby revealed her most intimate violations. As a teen she became an abuser of inhalants and later an alcoholic, struggling to deal with the abuse she felt she could not talk about:
“Two of my closest friends, Jane and Bonnie, knew about some of the difficulties in my life, and I knew about some painful things that had happened to them. But we did not discuss them. One of our ways of coping was to laugh things off–to pretend frightening experiences hadn’t occurred, or to joke about them–as if we did not take them seriously. I wanted to say more. I wanted to talk honestly about how I had been hurt. But I got a strong message from them that we did not talk about unpleasant things.”
Chacaby found sobriety in AA and after two marriages–the first of which she was forced into at the age of sixteen–she came out as two-spirited. With both the male and female spirits dwelling within her, Chacaby would have been revered within her indigenous community had she lived during her grandmother’s generation. Yet her Ojibwa family and friends, most of whom converts to Christianity, rejected her or abused her outright. I was struck by her ceaseless resilience, where in spite of rejection, discrimination and overwhelming stress and poverty she stayed sober. She even became an addictions counsellor after being told that she was “unteachable”:
“Given the discrimination and violence I have experienced in my sixty-three years, it would have been easy for me to become a hateful person. Even today, when I am grateful to lead a peaceful and happy life, there are moments when I feel anger, bitterness, and regret. But those feelings only make me miserable, and I don’t want to live like that. I have learned to manage difficult emotions, like the sorrow I experience when I am helping people who are dying, grieving loved ones, or struggling with addiction or a history of sexual abuse. I believe I am whole today because I confront and feel such pain fully. Sometimes, during a crisis, I have to function in the moment, but sooner or later I try to take the time to focus on my loss. I do not let these feelings take over my life. I try to work through them. I take long walks and express myself by writing, painting, or talking with a friend, a counsellor, or my Higher Power. That is the only way I know how to let negative emotions go and move on.”
The book is supplemented with personal photos of Chacaby from girlhood to the present day; a map; a family tree; a list of all the people mentioned as well as an Ojibwe glossary. I consulted the map frequently and found the other aids a welcome service, especially when people reappeared in the narrative and all you had was a first name. Today Chacaby lives in Thunder Bay and is active in the two-spirit and LGBT community where she is a respected elder and mentor. I might have even seen her at the start of a Toronto Pride parade.