The term “cart burners” refers to the indigenous people who burned the settlers’ carts to protest the violent occupation of their ancestral lands. so when Illuminativea racial and social justice organization founded and led by Native American women, decided to put on a drag show that highlighted Native American drag performers, Wagon Burners seemed like an appropriate name for the event.
Wagon Burners: An All-Indigenous Drag Show comes to Charlie’s Denver on Friday, August 26, with seven drag artists using their art to dismantle false narratives that have been built about indigenous peoples throughout history. Mandy Yeahpau, Senior Communications Associate at IllumiNative, says the event is an important part of the organization’s mission to expand the representation of diverse Native identities in pop culture, politics and beyond.
IllumiNative was formed in 2018 by Crystal Echo Hawk, who previously ran the Reclaiming Native Truth Project — the largest public opinion research project ever conducted by, for, and about indigenous peoples. He created IllumiNative to address the study’s findings, which concluded that the removal of Native voices in politics, media, history, research, and education is one of the greatest threats to the Native community today. In the absence of accurate and informed self-representations of native identities, stereotypes and inequalities thrive and multiply.
Yeahpau, who is descended from the Comanche, Cherokee, and Tara Humara peoples, puts IllumiNative’s mission simply: “It is to build power for Native peoples in many different ways, including politically and [through] representation.” This includes grassroots organizing in communities, conducting your own research studies, mentoring native creatives, and writing informative reports. guidelines about how non-natives can collaborate with indigenous peoples to respectfully highlight their stories. Although the organization is based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, it chose to have Wagon Burners in Denver because of its central location, which is more convenient for its network of employees across the country.
The Wagon Burners program is just one step in a larger IllumiNative campaign that aims to highlight the many diverse identities within Native communities, including Two-Spirit and LGBTQIA+ people. “The event we’re planning is a small part of a larger campaign we’re working on this year. We haven’t officially announced it yet, but we’re calling it our ‘Good Kinds’ campaign,” explains Yeahpau. “It’s really encouraging all of our family members to come forward with different Native identities and be really inclusive. We have urban Natives, there are people who are maybe not enrolled but raised in a Native community, or vice versa: they are enrolled but not raised in a native community, and then also our Two-Spirit and LGBTQ relatives.”
Yeahpau, who identifies as bisexual, says that while homophobia and transphobia are still prevalent in some native communities, a specific issue IllumiNative addresses is a general lack of understanding or cohesion regarding the non-native terminology used to describe these identities. . Two-Spirit is a designation that is widely misunderstood, even within indigenous communities. The term was only coined in 1990 and its usage can vary by tribe.
“Two-Spirit can mean something different in different communities. It just depends, and it’s about asking people how they want to be identified,” he explains. “Basically, it’s an umbrella word used when someone has both a female and a male spirit. Two-Spirit is sometimes used as an umbrella term for LGBTQIA people, and it really shouldn’t be applied that way. Some people are LGBTQ and not identify as Two-Spirit, and some do. There’s a nuance there, so I think getting our other relatives who aren’t part of those communities to recognize and understand that, and be welcome and open, can be a challenge.” .
Yeahpau admits that he previously lumped native queer and Two-Spirit identities together, until Two-Spirit colleagues pointed out that including them as part of the LGBTQIA+ community obscures the fact that Two-Spirit identities predate current understandings of what is LGBTQIA+. queer and gender. “I used to add it when I was writing or speaking, like in ‘LGBTQ2S,’ and you’ll see people use it a lot, but what I’ve learned from being in community with more Two-Spirit people is that they prefer Two-Spirit to be separate. , and taken from that alphabet soup”, he clarifies.
Separating “2S” from “LGBTQIA” recognizes that while communities may overlap, they are not interchangeable, and the term Two-Spirit is just a rough translation of something that is actually much more complex and varied within indigenous languages. Says Yeahpau: “The terminology is newer, as far as that word goes, but being transgender or non-binary has been around before colonization. That’s why the Two-Spirit folks prefer it to separate from LGBTQIA, because they feel this it’s been in existence longer. There’s a lot of indigenous terminology to designate that.”
She continues, “We always include our Two-Spirit and LGBTQ relatives in everything we try to do, and that’s the whole point of the show. That’s a big part of doing this work and having this event, just being able to open up these conversations.” for people who have been around us or in the community. Maybe they thought they understood, and they really don’t.”
According to Wagon Burners cast member Miss Eartha Quake (known as Elton Naswood for drag), drag art is a way for contemporary Native peoples to explore and express their two-spirit identities. As a Two-Spirit member of the Diné tribe, she says, “My indigenous culture has influenced my drag with the personification of my feminine spirit allowing for the balance of my masculine spirit.” Performances and competitions provide Native transvestite performers like Quake with a platform to educate audiences about the complexities of their pre-colonial cultures, identities, and gender concepts. “Eartha’s dress and role as Miss Montana Two-Spirit 2021 has exemplified her Diné culture and the Two-Spirit and Native LGBTQ+ communities,” he adds.
It was important for IllumiNative to hire several different artists, including a drag king (Papi Churro), to highlight that indigenous drag is not a monolith, but rather an art form subject to individual interpretation.
“The diversity and talent of Indigenous drag performers are often overlooked. Therefore, it is important to showcase the Indigenous artistic expression and creativity that has been a part of our cultures, both past and present,” Quake explains. .
“We wanted to put our money and efforts into supporting their work by paying for their performances and giving them a showcase to showcase it,” explains Yeahpau. “We’ll have videographers and photographers covering it, so we can share that content and those assets with the artists themselves and also with our broader digital audience.”
Wagon Burners will be co-sponsored by Landa Lakes (of the Chickasaw Tribe) and Mrs Shug (Diné), and include performances by sage chanell (shwanee), royal pandora (Lakota Sioux) churro daddy (Coahuiltec and Nahua-Otomí), barbie buffalo (Diné) and Miss Eartha Quake.
In addition to highlighting the individuality among indigenous drag performers, the Wagon Burners show is also a way for IllumiNative to bring together Native peoples of all identities in the Denver metro area, which was originally home to the Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho and Ute before colonization. .
“For natives who live in urban settings, it can sometimes be difficult to find or connect with the community,” explains Yeahpau. “Everyone is a bit scattered and there are small groups of natives who know each other, but maybe not all of them are connected. We saw that it was a good opportunity to do it, because there is a lot of good indigenous representation.” in Denver. We just want to bring everyone together to build those community connections. That’s really important, especially as indigenous peoples. Our approach to things is a little different, it’s more relational. We place a lot of emphasis and importance on building relationships. .”
IllumiNative also wanted to connect newer drag artists with those who have been in the industry for a while, so newer artists could learn from their fellow artists.
“The artists that we select, some of them have been doing this for decades and some of them have been doing this for two or three years,” says Yeahpau. “So we did it on purpose to also create this mini-mentorship where newer drag artists can come in and perform alongside people like Landa Lakes and Lady Shug who have been in the game for a long time. They can learn a lot from her aunts.”
Come celebrate indigenous drag, learn about native cultures, and meet with Denver’s native people. Don’t forget to tip the performers!