On Nov. 3, 2012, Orene Askew woke up in a house fire. Without even putting on her socks, she grabbed her DJ equipment and ran for her life. She then decided to become more fearless — with her DJing business, speaking at youth conferences across Canada, and traveling to different reserves to share her life experience and professional advice.
In 2017, she was elected as a councilor on Squamish Nation Council, which serves as a city council for the Squamish Nation. Askew, 37, says she values working for her community and still lives on the X̱wemelch’stn, the Capilano Reserve, where she grew up.
Being Afro-Indigenous and two-spirited, Askew incorporates her identities into her political work as well as DJing, her slogan being “Diversity makes beautiful music.” In the movement of amplifying two-spirited voices, Askew stands as a community leader as the role of two-spirit people within Indigenous communities is being reclaimed.
How has your experience been as a DJ and motivational speaker traveling around Canada?
After I started my DJing business, I ended up getting gigs at youth conferences across the country and traveling to different reserves. It was such a cool experience. And the reaction people had, it was just unreal. So many people could relate to me or were just like, “We’re so grateful that you’re still here.” The feeling of literally having to run for your life just changed me. I always say that — it’s kind of a bad pun — but that the Creator lit a fire under my butt like, “If this is what you really want to do, then you gotta bring it.” I love working with Indigenous youth, specifically. That’s where my business coaching comes in and that comes with teaching DJing as well.
What does intersectionality mean to you and why is it important?
It’s so funny because I didn’t really know what that meant a couple years ago. People would compliment me saying, “Oh, you’re so intersectional; it’s so cool,” and I would think, “What does that mean?” And then I did my research and I was like, “Oh yeah, that is me!” All these different spirits going on and for me, it’s been a different experience because I’ve grown up on the reserve my whole life, but I don’t look Indigenous at all. People are shocked when they find out. I look like I’m just Black. But the intersections are interesting, because I feel like four things going on 24/7 inside of me. It’s an interesting feeling. It is tough, but I wouldn’t change it because it’s unique. I think I’m the most intersectional DJ there is out there, to my knowledge. (laughs)
How do you define two-spirit for those who don’t know?
It might mean something for other people, but this is my definition. Inside of me, there’s a little masculine Orene and there’s a little feminine Orene. And they’re mixed in there together. One sometimes outweighs the other and they fight sometimes. That’s the definition that makes so much sense to me.
Why is two-spirit representation necessary and important?
I really learned that from being in politics for almost three years, if you don’t have someone representing a group at the table, things aren’t going to get done for that group. So, I feel like 2020 is really interesting right now, because I’ve done interviews over the past and it’s like “Meet Afro-Indigenous Two-Spirited DJ, Orene Askew” and everyone’s like “Oh, that’s cool.” But then what? What’s the content of that? What do I have to bring to the table being all of those things? And right now, I feel like there’s this huge Afro-Indigenous movement happening. I’m connecting with people on social media and I just feel like being Afro-Indigenous has been overlooked for a very long time and right now is the time for us to speak up.
How were two-spirit people treated within the Indigenous community before colonization?
We actually didn’t have a word for it because we just treated everyone the same. And before the gender conforms came, there were like five different genders. We were held up and praised because we could see double, basically, and that’s such a powerful gift. With colonization, they basically told us the opposite of that and kind of beat that into us.
That doesn’t just go away. And that’s the thing, people think, “Just get over it.” You can’t do something for 400 years and just be like, “You’re fine now, go do your thing.” It doesn’t work that way.
And how do the impacts of colonization and heteropatriarchy continue to disempower two-spirit people today?
Just the fact that within the LGBTQ+ community, it’s like the power dynamics are still the same as they were. I think it’s getting better, but when people say to you, “Oh my goodness, you came out of the closet. Wow, what do your parents think about that?” They don’t say that to straight people, like they don’t say, “Oh, you came out straight. How difficult was that?” I can’t wait for the day when coming out isn’t even a thing. I’m just thinking of the 50 years and still fighting, which was the 2019 Pride slogan, because it’s true. We’re still fighting every day. I’ll admit though: Things are getting better, but we have a lot of work to do for sure.
How has your experience been as an advocate for diversity, inclusion and justice?
This year specifically, I’ve seen the big changes since George Floyd was basically murdered in front of our eyes. And that’s not a new thing. And then the rise of [Black Lives Matter]. BLM has been around for a while, I was going to the rallies in Vancouver in 2016. It’s so hard to explain to people how I felt when everything was going on. People were like, “I can’t imagine what it’s like to be you right now,” and I was just like, “Well, why? This has been happening for a long time.” And then, with Indigenous rights with pipelines and land claims, it’s pretty tough being Afro-Indigenous just with everything going on right now.
And then the media was really wanting to talk to me about certain situations that I just didn’t feel comfortable with. Sometimes the media just wants that one Black or Indigenous person to give people advice on what to do, which is labor. I use this slogan all the time by Janelle Monáe, “You mess up the kitchen, then you should do the dishes.” So, they have to do the work, it’s not going to be me. It gets really exhausting. I think this year has been different with people facing the truth, and it’s hard for them to face with white privilege etc. It’s really changed for the better. I just think things are coming more to the forefront.
What change would you like to see for Vancouver’s queer community to become more inclusive of two-spirit folx and become better allies?
I’ve gotten really close with the Vancouver Pride Society and I’m actually nominated to be a board member for them, so I’m thinking that representation on the board will be really helpful. Honestly, my main thing will be bringing opportunities to my people and other BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] performers and DJs that maybe the Pride Society doesn’t get to see. It’s about getting more BIPOC people involved. And that’s what the bigger queer community needs to do as well.
It’s so interesting with pride because of the way it started with Marsha P. Johnson and the Stonewall riots. She was a trans Black woman and that basically started pride, but as time goes on, people don’t even know about that. It’s almost like history was erased and pride was basically taken over by cis white gays, and that just doesn’t make sense to me. I think it’s about bringing that history back to the forefront and you gotta pay respect to the people who started something, who started your movement.
What is a message that you’d like to emphasize for your audience and specifically for two-spirit youth?
Representation. I wish when I was younger, I had more representation in front of me because it changes lives. I don’t think people realize that because they’re already represented out there or they just don’t get it. It’s just a really good feeling.
Like when I get asked sometimes, “What would your ideal Vancouver building look like for you to feel comfortable in?” and I talk about it like it’s a dreamworld, but it can happen. Walking in and seeing portraits of my Indigenous ancestors who used to live in Stanley Park. They were successful. They weren’t savages, they weren’t unintelligent, and the architecture was unreal what they used to do with the longhouses. And Black people who were history makers, just pictures of them everywhere, that would make me feel really comfortable walking into a city hall or something like that. Something that acknowledges that there is Black history.
Representation is really important, and especially to two-spirited youth. When I was growing up, I felt like there was nobody portrayed in the media or the arts that looked like me or was like me. I’m 37 and I’m just figuring it out now. I wish I could’ve figured it out earlier because there was nothing out there that was two-spirited for me to see. So that’s why I try to be out and proud as much as I can, so they can see it and be like, “Oh, OK, that’s who I am and it’s OK to be like that.”
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Sian Shin is a social justice reporter at Medill, covering the LGBTQ2S+ community in Vancouver. You can follow her on Twitter at @sianshin.