Smokii Sumac is a Two Spirit and Queer member of the Ktunaxa Nation, and lives in Cranbrook BC, or ʔamakʔis Ktunaxa. He is a poet and a writer.
Smokii Sumac InterviewSmokii Sumac
Interpretations of their own teachings and opinions shared here are the responsibility of each artist.
Written transcript is below.
"I chose sobriety and I... And it took me many years to get there, but in doing that I started to ask the question: "what have I been running from?", and sort of, "what have I been..." you know, "when I am in my body, why don't I want to be here?" And that is what allowed me to find my gender identity and that was, again, much later on in life.
Interview with Smokii Sumac
Louis Esmé: Okay, so if we could just start off by, like, the first section talks about demographics, and if you're comfortable, could you share your name, age, Indigenous identity, gender identity, and sexual identity and also where you are?
Smokii Sumac: Sure, yeah. My name - I'm Smokii Sumac. I'm 31 years old. I am a member of the Ktunaxa Nation. I'm status First Nation. I identify as Two Spirit and the sexual identity question is hard. But I guess I - 2SQ, or, you know, I'm kind of - Queer is something that I use. And then I am in Cranbrook, British Columbia, or ʔamakʔis Ktunaxa. And if you ever need the language spelled out, I can send you any of the words that I've used in the interview.
Louis Esmé: Cool, great, thank you. So what is your method of artistic expression?
Smokii Sumac: I'm a poet, a poet and a writer.
Louis Esmé: And why is it important to you?
Smokii Sumac: I think it's just poetry is life, like, I think it gives me an outlet. I think I got into doing it when I was pretty young, just writing all the time. And for me, it helps me work through whatever I'm going through. Sometimes it helps me talk to people without having to talk to them directly or deal with things that I'm dealing with and emotions. So, yeah, it helps me, helps me figure out what's going on in the world to put it on paper.
Louis Esmé: And which piece of work are you most proud of and why?
Smokii Sumac: I am super most proud of my book that is out: You Are Enough: Love Poems for the End of the World. And I am most - it's my baby, it's my first book. And it's... I think as artists we know that we're - nothing's ever perfect or ever quite done, but with having a book out in the world... I think it's most important to me because it just helps people, and when I have an audience member or a reader say to me, you know, "this poem spoke to me," or "your book was incredible," or these kind of things, then it connects me to them in ways that I couldn't have dreamed of before the book was out there. So it's connecting me to people who are not connected to me personally in any way. So that's really exciting for me.
Louis Esmé: Cool, thank you. Which artists or art movements have you been influenced by?
Smokii Sumac: Oh, my God. Indigenous artists, always, and Indigenous Two Spirit artists. So yourself and Indigenous literatures. So some of my - the Aunties and Uncles I think of are: Maria Campbell, Richard Van Camp, Gregory Scofield, Chrystos, and then a lot of my siblings, or cousins I would call them: Billy-Ray Belcourt, Alicia Elliott, Joshua Whitehead, Tenille Campbell, Jordan Abel, Tanner Menard. So a lot of - I feel like in general what I'm seeing right now in the Indigenous art world is that our young people and our 2SQ people are leading the way. And I use 2SQ as an umbrella term for Indigenous people who are under the LGBTQAI2S labels I guess? So, yeah, that's really the space where I'm seeing the most movement and that excites me. So I don't think I would have a book in the world if it weren't for specifically Billy-Ray's This Wound is World, and Tenille Campbell's Indian Love Poems especially.
Louis Esmé: Okay, so the next section is about childhood reflections and I just want to say that I understand that this section or these questions could be - like, because they deal with memory, that sometimes people go into a different place or have different needs around it. So, you know, obviously, if there's anything that you need from me or if you need to pause or change the topic, that's totally okay.
Smokii Sumac: Cool, thanks.
Louis Esmé: So I'm wondering, how does the land and the water where you're from influence
Smokii Sumac: Oh, I think it's kind of neat to to think of this question because I think there was a time if you had asked me this in childhood or as a young person or even in my early 20s, I probably would have not had an answer, even though I think it was always a part of my work. I don't think I understood how it was. And then I spent 12 years away from my nation. And so a lot of my work being away ended up really connecting to this place that I'm from. And as Ktunaxa, we are people of the Kootenay River, so it's anglicized as Kootenay, and we lived along that river and we lived at the headwaters of the Columbia as well, and our sort of - one of our emergence stories talks of
when the Columbia and Kootenay were actually connected as rivers. There's about a two kilometre stretch of land, which is now, in our story, is part of a being who kind of sacrificed himself and so - themself. And so I...
When I think about water and I think about - I think anywhere I go, I go to rivers and I try to spend time with them. And what I can say is living away from the mountains, because we're also mountain people - our word for mountains is ʔakwukǂiʔit and that's home for us.
And so when I was living in places without mountains, I was always often thinking of them or I often say when I lived in Saskatchewan, as an example, I used to have to pretend that the mountains were there and it was just really like a cloudy day. So that's just my being and living and because my work is deeply personal, deeply from the moment that I'm in, a lot of that reflects on that connection to the land and the water; and I think also a lot of my work is about trying to find home, whether that's in my body, whether that's family, whether that's my nation and eventually my land. And so I think one of the poems that sticks out to me when I think about this question is I have a line about the mountains or the lakes teaching me what the mountains could not. And in that time, I'm talking about living in the Great Lakes. And so I think that wherever I go, the land influences my work, but the mountains and the Kootenay River - they'll always be home, and coming home, I think, now being here, my work has definitely shifted and changed. And it's exciting because I'm home now and I'm coming from a really grounded place and I am excited to see where the work takes me from there.
Louis Esmé: Cool, thank you. How do you feel that your gender identity and/or sexual orientation, like knowing that these are not Ktunaxa - sorry if I'm not saying that right.
Smokii Sumac: Yeah, no, that's good.
Louis Esmé: Thank you for your patience - knowing that they're not cultural concepts: how do you feel that they've influenced your work and also your early years?
Smokii Sumac: Yeah, so I think my work - I keep talking about the book because that's kind of the major piece of work that I put out in the world through two years of writing, and so when I think about that for like... I don't know who I'm talking to, so I'm going to talk to you, but you know, but also just if I was talking to someone who doesn't know my work at all, the cover of the book is all selfies over that two years and also the land that I lived on. And so transition is a very big part of it and there's a lot of poems about gender identity. And the two years that it came out I was definitely - I was coming out as well with the book and I was figuring out who I was, and I was trying on sort of different identities. And the interesting thing about this is that that was later in life for me, where I sort of found the gender identity and sexual orientation that I carry now. But my early years, and I actually have an essay that's coming out soon where I talk about this, but I was defined very early on as Indigenous woman and also, I think, as - in a world of heteronormativity where we're kind of defined from - I mean, [people] see toddlers [and say], "oh, he has a crush on her," or these kind of things, so we get defined in this way as like cis and hetero and as an Indigenous woman, and so in my early life that... I didn't really have a choice or an ability to define myself.
And in the essay that I'm putting out, and I will say that this is, you know, you mentioned that emotions come up and I'm going to speak a little bit about trauma and specifically sexual trauma, but in the essay that I wrote I talk about how the world defining me in this way, the things that happened to me because I was an Indigenous woman, because people saw me as that, that defined me from a very young age through sexual trauma and through the violence of white hetero cis men. And I felt that that - when I look back on the early years, or my early work, or any of that, I really went into a space of addiction quite young and I stayed there for quite a lot of my life. And so when I think about how that influences my work, a lot of my work in that time, sometimes I look back on it and go, "oh, it's just angsty teen stuff," but it's also just trying to get those emotions out. And those emotions were overwhelmingly difficult and anger and rage and sadness and grief and all those kind of things.
And so as I started coming into my own and really, first of all, recovery for me was about how I needed to - I chose sobriety and I... And it took me many years to get there, but in doing that I started to ask the question: "what have I been running from?", and sort of, "what have I been..." you know, "when I am in my body, why don't I want to be here?" And that is what allowed me to find my gender identity and that was, again, much later on in life. The other piece of this is that I identify as Two Spirit now, and I didn't know any Two Spirit people until I believe I want to say 20... Oh, it's been a while, it's been a while now but like I started identifying as Two Spirit, I guess, five or six years ago. And it was because I met a Two Spirit Auntie and her name is Karina Walters, and she is an incredible medicine person and also an academic who works at the University of Washington. And so when I met her I started talking to her, and so when I think about early years, I just, I didn't know; I didn't know that trans men existed. So there was no way for me to really know who I was. So, yeah, I hope that answers it.
Louis Esmé: Yeah. Yeah, I hear all that. Yeah. Are you okay going to the next question?
Smokii Sumac: Yeah, definitely.
Louis Esmé: Okay, thank you. What role did art play in your early years, and how do you bring that into your work now?
Smokii Sumac: So it's really interesting with this question because I actually have like a very specific story about visual art in general, and it was that I was - I used to, prior to when I was about 12 years old, I used to paint and draw and do all of this kind of work, and then I had a teacher, who was also the principal at my school, and we didn't get along very well at all. And I had some some major issues with him and he ended up teaching our art class and when I was 12, when I was in grade six, and because of that experience I can vividly remember just like, "I'm not an artist and I don't want anything to do with it,". The funny thing is he wasn't actually an artist either, and just the way that the education system works, and so - but in that way, there was this terrible experience for this year that led me away from visual art. And I would say I'm so grateful I found writing and I continued writing as I went on, but I think when I think about that, like how it influenced this one experience was something that changed for me. And I actually am sort of experimenting with visual art more now because I want to get back, like not even just to get back into doing it professionally, but just to try things, because I realized that I was so young and this sort of just stopped it. And it's been so many years and sort of recognizing that hurt around that and being like, "oh, actually, that person doesn't control whether I'm an artist or not,".
But outside of that, I would say my family always appreciated art. We had art on our walls and we had some small - like, I'm from a small town, I grew up in a town called Invermere, B.C., and I can remember specifically this woman, Kimberly White, who is amazing and is a beautiful portrait painter, and also Debbie Eden; and so we would go to sort of the galleries and we would do this kind of thing, and music was a big part of my life, and the funny thing is the writing was... Kind of came just from me and is not necessarily my family - I guess we were big readers as well, though, so I think in that it was encouraged, it was around, it was present in my life, and so that was nice. And I think living in where I do live we were lucky because our small town was art-minded and there is a little gallery there, there is studio space, and we did have - and even in high school, we had a great art studio. I didn't, again, I didn't continue it, but it was like, it was encouraged throughout my life, so, yeah.
Louis Esmé: Isn't it funny how that works?
Smokii Sumac: Yeah!
Louis Esmé: Just art being around, yeah. I'm thinking about the generation that you grew up in and, you know, there's lots of different ways to identify what a generation is or how we understand that term in english; can you share a bit more about your generation and how does - how do they and how do you Influence your work? Yeah.
Smokii Sumac: Yeah, definitely. So I think when we talk about the generation it's so interesting, right, because I think I often look around and I'm like, "oh are those people - like, yeah, they're my age, but they don't feel the same," right? So one of the things I think about as I think about this question is: is the people that I was friends with in high school, the very close people, and one of them actually is an artist in Vancouver, who's doing very well for himself, and decided to pursue art full time. And - Jaik Puppyteeth for anyone who knows who that is, and he... Like I went to high school with him and he also - also a gay man, and so I think in this thing where we were queer kids, but we didn't know necessarily, or we knew but we didn't talk about it as much that we were queer kids. And so I kind of feel like I hung out with the artists, I hung out with the weirdos, right? To use the term - like, I, you know, we kind of loved that, we kind of owned it, and the punk rockers and that kind of stuff. And then so I don't know if that, like - if my experience of that can really talk about a generational thing.
But when I look around, I see - like, I connect with people who are connected to art, and I also had a lot of roommates and friends that went to Emily Carr when I first went to Vancouver for school. And I think I that was an interesting time because when I think about our generation, I think a lot of us in that time when we were young sort of were like: "well, we can't create anything new. There's nothing new to be created," right? Because there is sort of that, like, nihilist perspective and we had looked at, you know, when you study the history of art it seems like everything's been done before. And it wasn't until I was in later university, probably finishing my undergrad, that I started to really recognize and be excited about Indigenous art and when I look at our generation of Indigenous artists, I'm just blown away because I think that they're doing things that I could never... I couldn't have imagined, and I also think they're pushing back against colonial narratives and all these kind of things, I'm always so inspired by them. But, again, that's a specific population, so I don't know if I am in tune with what perhaps you would think of as the mainstream population of my generation and what they think about art, so, yeah.
Louis Esmé: Cool, awesome. Excuse me. The next section is about Indigenous identity and just thinking about what aspects of your Indigenous identity or identities influence your practice.
Smokii Sumac: Yeah, I think I kind of take this from Leanne Simpson and I remember the first time she said it, but she said, "you know, I write for Anishinaabe first," and I was so... To me, that statement was so revolutionary at the time because I spent a lot of time thinking about audience. And I don't know that I ever thought for writing for my own people. And so now, and in that time even before the book came out, I do and my most exciting times and the most nervewracking time is when I have performed in front of Ktunaxa people and when I have been able to gift my book to them... And especially Ktunaxa young people. But I also think ceremony in general has influenced my art practice in many ways, I mean, just in - it's the core of, you know, some people use those terms "the red road" or all these things, but I just say this is the way that I walk in the world. This is - it's part of my life, and doing ceremony has... And having a ceremony family, and spending time; and when I talk about this it's, you know, going to summer ceremonies and winter ceremonies and all these kind of things, but also the like, just relationships that that brings and being responsible to those relationships.
That is really what my art is about, I think, and my work is about. And it (unclear) somebody - one of the best compliments I got on my book was somebody said, "you know, I could really tell you spent a lot of time on the acknowledgements page, it was like another poem," and I was so honoured that they saw that and witnessed that because to me, when I think about my Indigenous identity and something that I teach in my courses and all these things, is relationships are at the centre of everything and so my honouring of those relationships, I spent a lot of time thinking - I would wake up in the middle of the night going, "oh, no, I forgot this person," and then sometimes I would go back to the acknowledgements and go, "oh, no, they're there!" So I was very like putting work into that and then as well, my book closes with a "for and after" section of the book, which is all poems that are for or inspired by Indigenous people that I know. Actually, I think they're not all Indigenous, but people I'm in relationship to. So that is basically what I think what has given me the power to speak, given me the power to trust myself, to put the work out there. So that's what I really - my connection to ancestors, to the land, to my families, that's all at the centre of what I do, so. So I think even with that question of influencing, it's - I often think of something external influencing but this is, to me, it's just holistically part and parcel of everything that I do.
Louis Esmé: Amazing. I love it. Okay, are there cultural teachings around gender and sexuality that you feel comfortable sharing and how do they relate to your poetry?
Smokii Sumac: Yeah, sure, so I would say I... This is something I'm working on in my dissertation. I'm always like, "how much should I tell you?" No, I'm just kidding, but this is something I work on in my research and work as well. But I... When I think about Ktunaxa people and what I've learned, and this is very recently since moving home in the last four years since starting to practise ceremony more, and meeting my Elders and spending time with our Elders, and spending time in my community, because for a long time I hadn't. So, growing up, I don't think I was aware actually how many Two Spirit Ktunaxa there are. And then as I - even as I got older there are some people who - we sort of joke about this now in the community where, you know, there's sort of these Uncles or "confirmed bachelor" is this term they use, and I had - and it was a passing comment that one of my family members made who was like, "oh, well, you know, there's lots," and then started listing names. And I sort of went, "that person? What, that person?" and I was so amazed because what I see in our community since colonization is that there is a silence around it. And so it may be accepted, so if you ask people, nobody's going to bother those people that, you know, they named but it's not talked about openly, it's not shared - sexuality in general has been silenced and broken by colonialism in that way, Indigenous sexuality, so... And generations of residential school and all that kind of stuff, so when I started to come back and ask these questions, I was terrified to ask these questions.
And the most beautiful teaching that I can give is I can just tell this story that I was speaking to a group of Elders. We have sort of a research group we call - the Ktunaxa Specialists they like to be called, and so I was speaking to them and I was asking these questions and I was very nervous. And you have to kind of talk loud with the Elders and I wasn't quite doing that. And so first, a funny story where they were sort of, like, you could tell they were doing that loud whisper thing where they're like, "why are they even - what's going on? What are they talking about?", and then someone's like, "Two Spirit," and they're like, "what is that?" and then the other one's like, "it means gay!" And they did that sort of whisper thing that Elders do which where they're actually sort of yelling and so we were laughing about that and talked about that a little more. And then one of the men actually said, you know, he shared - he shared about being in residential school and his - the abuse that happened at the hands of someone of the same sex and so he said, "I always wondered if I was that way, and I always kind of struggled with that," and so he shared this story with me and with all of us. And then he said - he started talking about how one - because all of our Elders have healing stories, is what I started to learn, so a lot of them went through the Indian Residential School Society or they would go to healing conferences and all these different things. And so he said he was at a conference on the West Coast and he heard someone talk about Two Spiritedness and/or Two Spirit identity, and the speaker, he said, was saying that - was just sharing things that we often hear about how Two Spirit people were leaders, they would live by the Chief, how there are two sides of the road and Two Spirit people walk down the middle.
And so he said he came away from listening to this presentation feeling okay and feeling that even if he was "that way" that it would be okay. And as he was talking about this, one of the women sort of scoffed, she went, "ugh," and we have a very specific, with this group, we have specific, I guess you'd say practises we agreed upon. And so everyone gets their say before someone can jump in, so we made sure that, you know, she made that sound and I said, "you can talk next, but we're going to let him finish his story,". So I went back to her and I had that sort of like that red flag thing going on, the hair on the back [of the neck] - like getting ready for a fight, because I thought, "oh, no, this is going to be it, this is going to be when I hear the homophobia," and instead I said, "okay," I went back to her and she said, "it's not like that," she said, "you're not special. You're just Ktunaxa." and I can't tell you how much like I was in tears in that moment because that is what I have been looking for, is that, this, we have all these narratives and I don't think any of them are wrong but when we say, "what is Ktunaxa, what is the narrative around this as Ktunaxa?" and basically she said, "you know, there are two, three, five of you in every family. There always have been Two Spirit people and it's just normal,". And basically what I've learned from the historical records and from talking to our Elders and talking to other community members is that historically it didn't matter who you were, or I guess not who you were, but I mean what your sexuality, what your gender identity was, but what was more important was your role in the community and how you upheld that role and what you did. And so, for example, you know, historically male roles of going to war - if a woman, I was told if a woman wanted to go to war, that it was nobody's place to tell her she couldn't, but that she wouldn't be recognized as different or special or anything until - unless she started to do things. And so if she came home very successful and maybe with counting coup and had done, you know, done - achieved something, a goal of the war we were in or, you know, I can't really speak to that because I don't know much about about the history.
But once you started doing those things, that's what you're recognized for, just as any other Ktunaxa, just as a Ktunaxa man would have been recognized for his pursuits and what he did, or our leaders - our leaders would be recognized for the way that they walk in the world and the things that they did and how well they contributed to our communities. And the same goes for cooking; we had a very specific cooking society who were typically women, I've been told. But if a man, somebody who was born a man, or men wanted to go cook that was, again, none of our place to tell them not to. But of course, if you weren't good at cooking they might - if you weren't good at cooking, they might kick you out of the kitchen. I get kicked out of the kitchen all the time because I'm not a great cook, but these kind of things, and so to me, and for us, is that it all comes back to that statement, like, "you're just Ktunaxa,".
And so that to me is my goal for all of us, that we can just feel that we have a place in the community just by who we are and then that we are always looking for those roles and how to contribute and participate. So I just want to note also that I'm very lucky, I have lived all over. And I - lucky isn't the right word. But I've lived all over and in many, I know, in many communities I see things like the skirt protocols or even just very specific roles for men and women and that gender binary is very specific in ceremony. From the Ktunaxa ceremonies that I've practised that is not something that we have to deal with here and has not been something that I've seen here. And so that is something I'm very grateful for and I want to sort of pass that on, that we aren't - that there are nations and communities that don't have the same kind of issues and that it's possible to get around those issues. So, yeah, that was a long one, but...
Louis Esmé: Wela'lin, that was very generous. Thank you, Smokii.
Smokii Sumac: Thank you.
Louis Esmé: Some of the questions might also be like circular, like it may seem like we've answered them before or... So I'm going to ask them just to give you an opportunity, like if you want to share some more, but also if you don't want to, that's okay too, if you feel like it's been dealt with. So the next section is like more specifically about gender and sexual identities and expression. So how does your gender identity or sexual orientation influence your art currently?
Smokii Sumac: I think I did answer this a little bit, but I think... So, one thing, when I came out as trans or when I was deciding to medically transition specifically, I spent a lot of time, as many trans people will know and like probably identify with, watching a lot of YouTube videos and searching the internet, thank goodness for the internet. And I - what I noticed when I looked around was all white men, young, usually young, white, trans men. And I didn't see myself in that narrative and that was really, really difficult for me. So a lot of my art, not all of it, but a lot of my writing, including actually the latest essay that's going to come out, is really about me sort of rejecting - not rejecting that, I think it's important. I'm really grateful to all those young trans men who made those videos and who did that because I needed that, but I'm trying to put that - put my body out there, put my... Just be present in the narrative as an Indigenous trans man, as a Ktunaxa trans man, with the body that I have, because I... It would have been amazing for me to be able to see a body like mine out there. And so I know that there are young Indigenous people who my work can help and that - I think I do create with them in mind a lot of the time, so I think that's one of the influences I think about.
Louis Esmé: Do you identify as Two Spirit and/or Indigenous LGBTQ? And if not, or yeah, maybe you already answered this.
Smokii Sumac: Yeah, yes, so I do identify as Two Spirit and I do identify as a trans man, transgender man, and sometimes I say trans masculine. Those are the terms I like. And I don't usually use LGBTQ, I'm trying to centre and use 2SQ more when I specifically am talking about Indigenous people. That's just my academic brain coming out and and following people like Leanne Simpson and other folks who are using that terminology. I think maybe Daniel now is using that terminology, so to put 2SQ first. But, of course, you could ask one hundred Two Spirit people - I think actually somebody did recently on Facebook, sort of, "what do you use?" and everyone used different versions of Two Spirit, whether they use the dash or not, or use a number or wrote out t-w-o, and so, yeah, I think it's exciting that there are all sorts of diverse definitions of this. But yes, I do identify as Two Spirit.
Louis Esmé: Okay, how do you - how is your identity and, as a gendered person, as a cultural person, and a racialized body, and - is it consequential to your artwork?
Smokii Sumac: I feel - yeah, I think I feel that it is, I feel that it's part of my artwork. Currently, I don't think that - it's interesting because I also have heard - I've heard artists, especially like maybe later in their career, sort of say like, "why does this have anything to do with my art? Like, I just want my art to stand alone," and for me my art is very, very deeply personal. And so I sort of just... I think that it's just part and parcel of who I am. But I think the other thing about it is, when I think about it being consequential, I want to be introduced this way. The ways that I identify, the ways that I put in my own bios and I make those choices, because I want to be representing because I didn't have representation as a young person and I want to make sure that young people can see themselves, or at least be part of themselves, and then get to define themselves through that. But I can see that there are people like me out there creating and being vocal, so that's why I think it really matters. The one place where then this is sort of a double edged sword is with the romanticization from non-Indigenous and from cis hetero populations where that can be... That can also be, I guess, consequential, can also have things where I sort of feel sometimes tokenized or those kind of things. But in general, the positives of representing for young Two Spirit youth is outweighing any of that.
Louis Esmé: Cool, so the next section is about the mainstream, like art scene, writing scene, poetry, and what has been your experience of working within or with mainstream writing scenes?
Smokii Sumac: Yeah, I... Honestly, I kind of feel like I'm on the fringe, I'm on the outside, and I'm really grateful for that, because when I think about mainstream art scenes or the mainstream literary scene I think about Canadian literature, Can Lit, and I'm very happy that I haven't had to deal with as much as some of my colleagues have, some of my friends and those literary cousins that I talk about. So I have done a few events that are more mainstream, I did, as an example, Toronto, I think Word on the Street, and that was overwhelming. It was huge, this kind of huge festivals and I, you know, everyone has a half an hour and it's just very quick and you're running around. And I felt totally... I thought, "how can people do this all the time?" And so I sort of have a rejection of that mainstream, but at the same time really grateful, like as an example, I published with Kegedonce so that - with an Indigenous press because I wanted to sort of be... I wanted to support them, but that also... also not having a larger publisher, that takes me away from what is "mainstream" and those kind of things. So, we'll see as my career moves, what I will interact with but I'm pretty clear now that I don't want to do - I don't want to say yes to everything. And when I can have Indigenous audiences, that's when I'm happiest, so, or even partial Indigenous audiences. So that's - when I think about mainstream I'm really trying to push away from some of those bigger events and, yeah, and things that centre whiteness or centre heteronormativity; I don't want to be the only Two Spirit person or the only Indigenous person on a stage or those kind of things. So, yeah.
Louis Esmé: What's been useful for you in terms of solidarity and support from non-Indigenous writers?
Smokii Sumac: Oh, I'm trying to think if I have any relationships with non-Indigenous writers. Oh my goodness.
Louis Esmé: Maybe publishers or also like people organizing events?
Smokii Sumac: Yeah, yeah. Oh, I guess, yeah, that would be - it's just funny because I was thinking when [you] asked this, like, I was like, "oh," because I did send a message the other day to ask someone to help with the library thing, but it was also an Indigenous person. So I would say, what has helped, let me think. I think, really... Well, I would say learning how to say, like asking me how to say things early on, not right before they're introducing me, I would also say inviting other Indigenous people, also inviting Black people, inviting - okay, one of the best events that I ever did, actually, this is the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word, and they had a really, really awesome group running it. And they invited us to be on a panel and it was all BIPOC people, I think there was two of us that were Indigenous, and I'm trying to think of who is on it, but it was all - there were some Black artists, poets, and I think a Latinx poet. So they invited us to come and be on this panel and it was about love poems, so it was like one of the first events that I've done where I wasn't representing Indigenous - we weren't talking about being BIPOC poets, we weren't being forced into this box of talking about our identities. Instead, we got to talk about our work. And as I said, my work is very connected to my identity. So that allows me the space to talk about it. But I wasn't invited solely to speak about, you know, being Indigenous, so that was very exciting for me. The other part of that was, that festival, was that I was actually also invited to be part of the opening event, which was specifically Indigenous artists, which was centering them at the beginning for a very specific reason to sort of say, like, "this is really important,". But they didn't just have us open they also had us throughout the entire festival connected and doing panels like the one on love poems and getting to do different things that we don't always get to do because we often are on the Indigenous panel or even the queer panel, right? I'm in the Indigenous representation on the queer panel. So I think that's exciting: let us talk about, you know, other things other than just our identities.
Louis Esmé: So from what you just shared about what works, are there things that you feel like mainstream writer scenes can do to better support Two Spirit, trans, non binary people in the writing world?
Smokii Sumac: Give up the space! No, it's horrible, but - it's not horrible. But I mean, it's true, what I see so often is people holding their events and then wanting to invite us to them and then sort of going, "oh, well, we never get it, we don't get enough Indigenous participation," or, you know, "we send emails out and we're not sure how to get more people involved," and yet they have no relationship to us or they've invited no workshop leaders that are Indigenous or those kind of things. So I really think it's more than just an invite. I know that there are many people who have articulated this better than I am at the moment, but really, really having a relationship with us, creating a relationship with us, building that relationship before rather than inviting us to your event help invite us into the planning - pay us. And pay us! That's like, that's first and foremost: pay us and pay us appropriately because I get asked for sort of free labour a lot. I also have been asked to do things like, you know, do land acknowledgements and territories that are not my own, which is the same as any settler doing it. So really like learning and recognizing if you have no relationship to - if you, I mean, every Canadian has a relationship to Indigenous people, but if you don't really know what that is or you don't know any personally, Indigenous people, then you need to change those things before you're able to work with us. You need to put in the work to build connections and networks before just sort of cold calling us, yeah. And there are probably people in your institution that can help you with that. So go find them.
Louis Esmé: Maybe this is relevant, maybe not. But does your writing involve non-Indigenous people and does this - how does this impact your work?
Smokii Sumac: Yeah, actually it was interesting when I was just mentioning that last piece of my book and even my acknowledgements page, I am in relationship to non-Indigenous people. You know, one of my dads, one of my dads who raised me is non-Indigenous. So, of course, he's in the acknowledgements and I think about even some of the relationships I have that I've written to - poems to or for people that are - that I'm in relationship to. And so I'm inspired by non-Indigenous artists, I try and - last, in 2018 I was trying to read as many Black women authors as I could, and that was - that changed the way I think about the world. And it opened up new concepts and new worlds for me and so I really think that I'm doing my best to connect with other communities that are Black or people of colour, or I can - like, one of my incredible mentors and friends is Kai Cheng Thom, who - her work is absolutely incredible, super inspired by Roxane Gay. I really want to work... When I read her memoir Hunger, I was like, "okay, it's time for me to start doing some more digging and some more personal work," so I think that's really exciting. And if I think about settler artists, I think I've been - we had no choice but to be exposed to them through school and with their voices being the only voices lifted up. So I do have, you know, I have a tattoo with an E.E. Cummings line, I have, you know, I have an affinity to William Carlos Williams and these kind of like - I read all those works, I have an English literature degree, Shakespeare, all that kind of stuff, but I've been moving away from it later in life and doing my best to look for the voices that aren't privileged and that are actually, to me, doing more revolutionary work, so, yeah.
Louis Esmé: So on that note, what's been your experience with the Indigenous art scenes?
Smokii Sumac: Oh, we're a fun little clique, aren't we? No, to be honest, I've had a really great experience with - especially in the Indigenous literature scene. I think I look at our people that are, the people that are ahead of us. I would say, Daniel Heath Justice, I think is one of the people who I follow in how to be in relationship to one another, and he's always been an inspiration to me in the way that he interacts with younger literature, the way that he upholds and and supports Indigenous literature. I think Richard Van Camp falls into that category as well and with making other literature known, and then I think, as I mentioned, some of those, like, our young people were - or my my siblings, cousins, those kind of people were - like, as an example, I was invited to speak on a panel with both Tenille and Joshua and - Tenille Campbell and Joshua Whitehead, and it was as soon as we found this out we wrote each other and said, "well, let's get an Airbnb instead of a hotel room so we can all go together," and sort of - we had a kitchen table we got to visit around.
And so in many ways, I see us connecting and visiting. And also I'm just on social media all the time, and so to me it feels like they're family. And I... When I have the spoons, when I have the time and energy, we often reach out to each other and ask questions or connect with each other. And so I see - I think part of this is my own ability to create relationships but in general it's been a really great experience and I love and will always lift up other Indigenous writers. And I think what I see is that we have each other's backs, so, yeah.
Louis Esmé: Can you say a bit more about like specific things around solidarity and support that you've been able to offer each other?
Smokii Sumac: Yeah, so I would say, well, we have sort of a Auntie network, first of all. So when we talk about the Auntie whispers of even just trying to avoid people who are violent in the community or who are not acting in the way that they should, that is something that we we tend to do where we'll get a message or something that says, like, most recently, I shared something by a person who I didn't know has a reputation as an abuser. And somebody messaged me right away, said, "hey, you might not want to share that," and explains to me what had happened. And so we have those ways that we protect each other, but then also I think, as an example, like one of the best events I had was in Thunder Bay, where at the Thunder Bay Library, where Sam Bird, who works at the library as their Indigenous - I'm not sure what her title is, but she's doing Indigenous relations, I guess, kind of thing. And she had invited three new poets, three Thunder - three local poets to come and read at my reading. And that was so beautiful because we got to connect, so one of the ways that I do things is that I've reached out to - I'm now Facebook friends and I've reached out and sort of offered any help with, because I have now published, sort of saying, "hey, if you're interested in publishing, like, feel free to ask me questions," so I get messages every once in a while about that. I've supported community members in the poetry slam scene on like cultural competency. I've also supported younger poets through dealing with interpersonal conflicts. I know not everybody has the wonderful experience I have within the community and so, yeah, I try to basically be in it, be a relation like I would an Auntie or an Uncle in that scene as well, so... That's been elaborated on.
Louis Esmé: Cool, thank you. How do you offer support and solidarity to writers whose lived experiences are distinct from your own?
Smokii Sumac: Oh, I like this example, yeah. So I think I haven't always been great at this, I'll be honest. I think it's always a place that I can improve. So for one example, what I've been experiencing or what I've been trying to work on, what a goal was in 2019 and it's even more so now this year, is to make my readings accessible. So for people that need certain accessibility measures put in place, and that is something that I really try to push for now or that I'm doing more work pushing for. And it's something that I recognize as something that I can improve upon. But I will say that in general I think that we can all - well, a lot of us can do better in supporting each other. So your example here talks about trans women and I do my best to lift other trans women - lift trans women up in our communities and our trans women writers, Indigenous trans women writers. But I think in general, I'm trying to consider more how I can provide opportunities, or now that I have been published, now that I am sort of at this critical point in my career where I am getting offers but so many offers that I can't say yes to, how can I pass those resources on? How can I support events that are lifting up voices? One lesson that I learned last year that was, you know, we're always learning was I had an event booked in February during Black History Month, and we didn't have anyone Black on the bill. And so we were - our event was called out for that and I'm really grateful to the energy that was put in to talk about this, and I can say that going forward, you know, that is going to be something in my mind. So it's something I'm constantly working on and doing my best, but I do feel that it's something that I can always improve upon. And I think continuously learning, which is what I encourage people who have different lived experiences than my own, right, is to just continuously be learning and be ready to be corrected, so.
Louis Esmé: So does your practice involve or include global Indigenous artists? And how does this or does this impact or influence your own writing?
Smokii Sumac: Those borders are - those colonial borders are strong. And I feel like I wish that this was... I was doing more with this and I wish that I had more access. So in general, I would say that this - that's kind of a new space for me to be thinking about. I would say that, like, we talk about North America, definitely like US artists or Indigenous artists are part of my sort of world, but as far as outside of that, you know, I think something like the New Constellations tour that happened with Lido Pimienta and Jeremy Dutcher and so many other people. Like I see these solidarities happening and they get me very, very excited, but I'm always - I, yeah, I sort of feel... Part of it, I think, is this small town, rural life that I'm living now, I'm sort of moving more inward. So it's something to think about.
Louis Esmé: Cool, how do you how do you use your art to address social and cultural issues?
Smokii Sumac: Oh, I just, I - well, I mean, I write... I am social media addicted and, yeah - and I say that like, you know, I also in many ways I'm also very grateful for it so I don't think it's necessarily negative. But I'm always constantly trying to work on my consumption of social media. But in that, part of the reason why I'm so consistent and constantly on there is because it is my news source and it is, especially when mainstream news doesn't talk about what's going on in Indigenous communities, it is a place where I get to find out what is happening. And so my poetry was also created typically, most of it, for social media, and so one of the things that I love about it is that when things happen in our communities, we all are connected. And so in my book, for example, one of the pieces is about the Colten Boushie trial.
And so, for me, it's like my work, my art is consistently addressing that stuff because when I see our communities grieving, when I see something happening immediately, I am jumping on it. And so I - and mostly because I have those big emotions that I talked about right at the beginning and I need to get them out in some way, and I need to usually write a poem about it to help. And I also feel like when I'm able to put voice or words to that that it resonates with people because they often can't find the words. So I'm - I would say that my work is often addressing what is happening in the world and addressing things that people don't always know. So often when I'm reading, I will read some of the fun poems, but I also read those poems that are very hard on colonialism and that go into those places of challenging social norms and cultural norms of like not knowing what's going on in Indigenous communities. So I really push people, often I tell people, "if you don't know the names that I'm reading, you need to go home and Google," so, yeah. So I think that it's, again, part and parcel of who I am, so, yeah.
Louis Esmé: How does your creative process involve community and can you share about that?
Smokii Sumac: Well I think in my writing practice prior to the book was very community oriented because I posted it all on social media. I was writing a poem a day on Facebook and some of those went to Instagram, and so that's - when I think about my community I think about those connections and then also my community that I was living in for the past five years, I would say that I connected by doing poetry open mic nights and doing those kind of things where often I would write new work for a night that was coming up. And our university community, I was sort of - I was always trying to invite younger Indigenous people to open for me or to do those kind of things. And now that I've moved home, I'm really new home, so I'm really trying to think about how I can do that. And basically, I'm in the groundwork of building relationships and figuring out who's here to be able to and what is going on here so that I can be able to support those things and also find ways to bring perhaps new practises to the community as well. So the goal is: I do have a pretty big dream of bringing an Indigenous artists and writers gathering here, but that is probably a five year plan. So we'll see.
Louis Esmé: Okay, cool. Thank you. And that's the end of the formal questions. Is there anything else that you want to ask or did we miss something?
Smokii Sumac: No, I think it's good. I think it's - yeah, I'm excited. They're good questions. I'm surprised that what came up 'cause yesterday when I looked at them I had, you know how it is, I had different thoughts. And then I'm like, "oh," but I also - that always helps because I like to do it from wherever I am at the moment, so.
Louis Esmé: Yeah, totally. Okay, well wela'lin and -
Smokii Sumac: Thank you, yeah.