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Erin Konsmo blends the sacred traditional practice of beading with lessons on safe sex and indigenous history. The Native Youth Sexual Health Network doesn’t ‘deal with sexual health in a corner and then land rights in another,’ she says.Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

This is one of four stories exploring culturally relevant First Nations sex education. Read the other stories:
A nature-based program provides a powerful First Nations metaphor for lessons on consent
-Indigenous languages recognize gender states not even named in English
-How this indigenous youth is making sex education sexy

Erin Konsmo, the media arts justice and projects co-ordinator at the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, is stitching a condom with red, orange and black beads. You might say she is crafty at taking the edge off risqué discourse.

Konsmo, 28, is one of eight front-line staff who works at the NYSHN, an organization dedicated to sexual and reproductive health rights and justice for indigenous youth.

In her beading workshop, Konsmo, a Métis from Alberta, is blending a traditional indigenous practice with a modern symbol of sex to open up sensitive but needed discussions. The beaded rubber sheaths are an expression of indigenous pop art – just like beaded medallions, key chains or mirror hangings – as well as conversation pieces.

It's one of the many ways the Network is breaking new ground and effectively breaking the ice, stereotypes and shame surrounding sex in indigenous communities. The impact of colonialization, with its attempted eradication of native cultures, has translated into troubling statistics for present-day native communities. Residential schools, the outlawing of life-cycle ceremonies, policies that enforced assimilation to pan-European culture – all contributed to a loss of knowledge and a legacy of trauma, Konsmo says. Indigenous people have higher rates of teen pregnancy, HIV infection, child sexual abuse and sexually transmitted disease and infection than the general population.

At any given time, the NYSHN has about 15 projects on the go, with hundreds of youth participating in indigenous communities and urban centres across Canada and the United States.

In her beadwork workshop, attended by youth of all genders and ages, Konsmo guides the conversation through such disparate but connected topics as safer sex and the history of native peoples in Canada.

"Beadwork is the artistic medium in which many of these difficult conversations change – from trauma and shame, to laughter, self-determination of our bodies and knowledge," says Konsmo from an Edmonton youth centre called iHuman. Though indigenous people represent about 5 per cent of the overall population of Canada, 9 per cent of all people living with HIV in Canada are indigenous.

In some Saskatchewan First Nations communities, the rate of new HIV infections is 11 times higher than the national average.

"A lot of what we do is about survival and supporting young people where they are at," Konsmo says. "We know young people are going to face harms, we just want to be there to support them without shame."

In addition to safer sex dialogue, the NYSHN leaders also guide discussions on difficult topics surrounding safe injection, reproductive rights and two-spirit experiences. The Network has two National Indigenous Youth Councils on HIV and Sexual Health and started the first indigenous youth HIV council in the world. The group also supports actions such as getting clean needles into prison.

"The model we have is really indigenous," Konsmo says. "So we don't deal with sexual health in a corner and then land rights in another corner, for example." The Network parallels many indigenous cultures' holistic way of thinking and being. Political, social, physical and even spiritual matters are viewed and treated as interconnected, not discrete from one another.

The tragedy of missing and murdered aboriginal women, the fight for environmental justice and the push for safer sex are all treated as one outcome of the other. "We understand how sexual violence is connected to increased presence of industry in indigenous territories, for example," Konsmo says.

Viewing all matters as interdependent embraces inherent indigenous worldviews. In Gitxsan culture, for example, matrilineal rights and responsibilities are connected to the relationship to and care for the land, which is connected to the spirit that permeates everything. Kinship is not just about relationships to each other, but to the land and water and the future that awaits in the spirit world. Those relationships determine political conduct in indigenous governing structures. For the NYSHN, seeing the interrelatedness of issues also helps to pinpoint root causes and chart new courses forward.

Konsmo admits there is still stigma around sex and sexuality in some indigenous communities, left over from the religious teachings and the abuse in residential schools. In some communities there are queries and apprehensions, for instance, about beading condoms. Some community members have raised concerns about blending a sacred traditional practice with a crude symbol of sex. But Konsmo says the conversations that arise from activities such as beading condoms are imperative for youth who may otherwise be wary or even fearful of talking about safer sex. Konsmo says critiques of what the NYSHN does are rare because the Network only goes to communities where it is invited. And they are summoned guests in many communities.

For Konsmo, whose work takes her into communities across Canada, further afield to Navajo country in the United States, and to Geneva, Switzerland, where she advocates for indigenous sexual health at larger bodies such as the United Nations, it's a bittersweet time. She's passing on the torch through a "rites of passage ceremony" as the older youth leaders "age out" and guide the younger ones forward. So instead of leading projects on the ground, she's going to take a step back and hold more of a mentor responsibility – what she calls "being an auntie." Konsmo speaks of it as part of a "life cycle" that is so prevalent and important in many indigenous cultures.

"I am older and so I see where young people are at in fighting for sexual and reproductive justice. In many ways they are generations ahead of me."

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