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Fallon Andy, media arts justice facilitator with the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, advocates for gender-neutral pronouns.

Fred Lum/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
-How this indigenous youth is making sex education sexy
-How the traditional indigenous practice of beading can lead to frank talk about sex

"Back in the old days," Cat Criger, a Cayuga elder, recently told me, "our indigenous responsibilities were charted out for us like 'water carrier' or 'fire keeper,' but we wouldn't wait for a woman if we were thirsty or for a man to throw wood in the fire if we were cold."

The way he described it, gender roles had a sense of fluidity in many traditional communities.

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Non-binary gender conformity, two-spirit identity and gender queer issues are all topics being talked about at the Native Youth Sexual Health Network.

Fallon Andy is Anishinaabe from the Couchiching First Nation, in Treaty 3 territory. As the media arts justice facilitator, Andy's role at the NYSHN is to use art, memes and GIFs to talk about violence inflicted on two-spirit and queer bodies.

Andy's real passion? Pronouns. "What I want is a really drastic shift in the language – that being gender-neutral pronouns," Andy says.

Andy does not identify with a gender-specific pronoun such as "he" or "she," preferring the use of "they" or "them" instead, signifying that they do not think of themselves as male or female, but somewhere between or beside those two binaries. And while it may seem like a particularly modern gesture, Andy says that, in many indigenous cultures, gender neutrality was commonplace and only interrupted at contact with Europeans.

"It started happening to indigenous bodies during those institutional times where people were regulated," they say, referring to colonial schools that enforced gender roles.

Andy says that, traditionally, their Anishinaabemowin language was more inclusive of both genders. Instead of saying sister, brother, son, daughter, mom or granddaughter, people were simply "child," "sibling" or "parent," according to Andy.

Furthermore, in other communities, elders and knowledge keepers say two-spirit people were embraced as special and powerful, and were even honoured in some communities as medicine people or healers.

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Andy is part of a support circle under the umbrella of the NYSHN, which brings together grandparents, mentors and indigenous community members who identify as two-spirit and/or along the queer spectrum. Indigenous languages have words for gender states that are not expressed in English, as well, and the NYSHN allows for the exploration of these identities.

In Cree, for example, "aayahkwew" means "neither man or woman." In Inuktitut, "sipiniq" means "infant whose sex changes at birth." In Kanien'keha, or Mohawk language, "onón:wat" means "I have the pattern of two spirits inside my body."

Had it been possible, Andy would have opted for gender-neutral pronouns since age 10. "I spent many years of my life feeling different.

"Today my grandma just calls me 'noozhis,' which means 'grandkid,' or by my nation name, which is 'Waasegiizhigook,' meaning 'the light that shines through the clouds.' She really takes out all the gendered stuff for me, which I really like."

This gesture represents a slight shift in human consciousness, Andy says, as well as signalling a returning to the Anishinaabemowin way of seeing people for who they are as spiritual beings.

For Andy, changing language is about shifting an entire social structure.

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"There's so much potential in revitalizing Indigenous languages that have the power to shift how you think about the language you are using in English."

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