Two-spirit artist and activist Raven John feels quite comfortable in the role of a trickster. In fact, in Northwest Coast Indigenous mythology, the raven represents a rule-breaking, mischievous figure who changes the world and protects human life.
“My mother gave me the name Raven when I was born, not having a sense that it would dictate my life,” John told the Georgia Straight by phone. “I’ve very much embodied the raven throughout my life as a loud, goofy, transformative, chaotic being. It’s definitely part of my spirituality.”
John—who's of shíshálh (Sechelt), Chawathil, and Shxw’owhamel ancestry—has studied the role of two-spirit Indigenous people in various First Nations cultures. Prior to colonization, John noted, certain ceremonies could only be performed in some Indigenous communities with a two-spirit person participating. In others, two-spirit people settled disputes or engaged in mediation between more feminine and masculine groups.
“They were seen as somebody who had the gifts of both of these communities,” John said.
John will participate in Zee Zee Theatre Company’s Virtual Humanity initiative, which challenge biases about differences. It’s the pandemic version of the company’s community-based storytelling event known as Human Library, transformed onto a digital platform. The public can buy day passes and select two titles from the collection of 20-minute conversations with more than 30 “Virtual Humans”, including John.
One thing that John hopes to clear up in their presentation is public misconceptions about two-spirit people.
“So I’ll be going through describing what gender is, what sexuality is, and how they are on spectrums…as well as describing what two-spirit means,” John said.
In addition, John believes that homophobia is actually racist because it oppresses two-spirit identities within Indigenous cultures. But as a self-described “involuntary comedian”, there will also be some humour.
“Should there be an opportunity for a joke, I will make it,” John declared. “That is definitely a part of who I am.”
John studied jewellery arts at Native Education College and majored in visual arts with a minor in social practice and community engagement at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. As an artist, John’s practice includes storytelling, photography, sculpture, painting, and jewellery making, as well as comedy.
“My mother was just teasing me about how I need to try and hone in on at least three different things, not everything,” John quipped.
On a more serious note, John acknowledged that health problems—caused in part by sleep apnea, as well as being Indigenous and queer—have raised the spectre of a shorter lifespan than the norm. The sleep apnea has been so severe that John relies on a machine to pump their lungs full of oxygen at night.
“I have a pretty awful respiratory system. I get winded very easily,” John said. “So there’s an inherent sense of FOMO—fear of missing out—which manifests itself in wanting to experience as much as I can while I’m still alive.”