Know your past live your future

Aiyyana Maracle by Morgan M Page

Aiyyana Maracle by Morgan M Page

Illustration by Elena Durey.

Morgan M Page is a writer and artist in Montréal, Québec. A 2014 Lambda Literary Fellow, her work has been published in The Globe and Mail, Buzzfeed, and Plenitude Magazine. She currently writes a dating advice column, Courting Disaster, for GUTS Magazine. Her art has appeared around the world, most recently at in the Brooklyn Museum's AGITPROP (2016) exhibit. She tweets too much @morganmpage on Twitter.

“There is no mirror for who I am. From necessity I became the mirror for all the younger ones.” – Aiyyana Maracle, 2015

There are certain people who make things possible that were not before. If you’re fortunate, you’ll learn about the lives and legacies of those who made your own life possible. And if you are truly lucky, you may even get the chance to meet one or two of those people who carved out space in the bedrock for you and those like you to grow.

For a number of years, I had heard about the work of one such living legend as I was coming up as a trans performance artist, but it had been hard to grasp hold of anything firmly. Much of the information I was able to find had to be pulled from defunct ‘90s websites I looked up on the Internet Archive – sites that detailed arts festivals like Mirha-Soleil Ross’ Counting Past 2, the “first transsexual & transgender performance and video festival.” It was on these pages that her name would appear, and I’d wonder, who was she? Did she still exist?

In summer 2013, I finally had the chance to meet the late great Aiyyana Maracle – a performance artist who described herself as a Mohawk “transformed woman” who loves women. We met at a panel discussion hosted by Maggie’s: Toronto’s Sex Workers’ Action Project, where I served at the time as a member of the board of directors. Aiyyana had been invited to give a traditional opening to the event, acknowledging the occupied territories of the Mississaugas of the New Credit upon which the event took place.

Before the event got started, a friend and I followed Mirha-Soleil Ross, herself a transsexual performance artist and one of my biggest role models, outside into the park. There she introduced me to Aiyyana as they smoked a joint on the grass. The only thing I really remember is that the 63-year-old Aiyyana was smiling from ear to ear.

Born on Six Nations territory in 1950, Aiyyana Maracle grew up in her Grandmother’s house. In a 2015 interview I conducted with her, she explained that for the first seven years of her life there was no hydroelectricity on the reserve. She spent the next decade or so in transit – moving between Canada and the US, on and off reserve, until she went on a visit to Vancouver and ended up staying for 35 years.

By the beginning of the 1990s, Aiyyana had been married and had children. She decided then to finally transition, becoming the “transformed woman” I would later come to know. During this time, she made a niche for herself in the Canadian arts scene as an Indigenous trans performance artist (she did not identify with the term Two-Spirit). In 1995, she performed a moving half hour piece titled Gender Möbius at Vancouver’s Grunt Gallery in which she moves back and forth through time and genders, juxtaposing through performance and video the colonization of what is now called Canada with her decolonization of her Indigenous gender identity. At one point she says to the audience, “As much as choosing a name says who we are, who we are as a person [is] much as we view the world in its wholeness.”

In an article for the Canadian Theatre Review, Aiyyana discussed how she had had to create every stage for her work to appear on. When she arrived, no one knew what to do with a Haudenosaunee transsexual artist – not only did she have to convince people that her work was important, she often had to do the extra work of creating the venues and events for it to appear in.

All of this effort would pay off, leading her work to be featured in galleries and arts festivals across the country for the next two decades – as well as earning her a visiting scholar position at McGill University, in Montréal before she moved back to Six Nations. After we met in 2013, we corresponded a bit by email and then had the chance to meet again at the 2014 Writing Trans Genres conference in Manitoba, where she delivered a keynote speech.

Before the keynote, I slipped out onto a balcony with her and we shot the shit about art and life. I wanted to soak up as much of her grandmotherly presence as possible before we headed inside for her speech. When it was time, we entered the small, dark auditorium at the University of Winnipeg. Though I’d read some of her writing and watched all the available videos of her performances online, I had no idea what to expect from her speech. Well, she really let them have it. In her speech, titled “Ruminations on The Tangled Roots of Today’s Garden of Gender Multiplicity,” Aiyyana railed against what she saw as the sidelining of trans women within the queer arts world and discussed her own place within this history. For me, it was thrilling.

The following year, Aiyyana gave her final performance at the Queer Arts Festival in Vancouver, British Columbia. In Death Under the Shadow of the Umbrella, Aiyyana – naked but her for skin of a coyote on her head and painted entirely red – invited mostly white audience members to use an eagle feather dipped in white paint to write on her skin. Behind her is the outline of a body labeled “transgender women,” and hanging in mid-air above it is the so-called “transgender umbrella,” from which dangle various post-modern gender identities. On the wall behind her, she asks “Safety – For Whom?” Taken altogether, it is a bold statement on what she saw as the whiteness of current gender politics and the exclusion of trans women.

In April 2016, Aiyyana passed away peacefully in her home. She left behind not only her own children and grandchildren, but also the dozens of trans performance artists in Canada whose work would not be able to exist without her. In a poem that accompanied her 2015 performance, Aiyyana wrote,

“Oh for the time when our lives matter, more than our deaths.

In this ongoing struggle for basic human rights, surely,

It is our turn to be at the forefront.”

By making things possible that had not been before, Aiyyana’s life became a mirror through which trans artists could see ourselves. And for this reason, among so many others, hers was a life that mattered. Perhaps more than most know.

Illustrator Elena Durey is an queer Irish illustrator, currently studying BA (Hons) Illustration in sunny Falmouth and would like to meet your dog.

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