How Ms. Sage Chanell Learned To Shake Her Shells

How Ms. Sage Chanell Learned To Shake Her Shells

We are sitting in camping chairs on a Mvskoke Creek stomp ground somewhere west of Henryetta, Oklahoma; somewhere north of Thlopthlocco and the Golden Pony Casino; somewhere along a Rural Route that devolved into gray-cloudy gravel many miles behind us. Historically, stomp dance grounds are often secret and by invitation only: ever since the first Europeans established dominance over NDNs they have been banning their ceremonies and, often, dancing in general it wasn’t until this past February (2017!) that nearby Henryetta abolished an ordinance banning dancing in public. White American Christians saw the link early on between dancing and their dirty, filthy, sensual, darker-skinned lessers and it was the NDNs they found dancing here first.

~~~

from “American Sunrise” by Mvskoke Creek poet Joy Harjo
Sin was invented by the Christians, as was the Devil, we sang. We
were the heathens, but needed to be saved from them thin
chance. We knew we were all related in this story, a little gin will clarify the dark and make us all feel like dancing.

Here: grass, a dirt clearing, makeshift wooden bowers, and short blackjack oak for as far as the eye can see. Sage came to these stomp grounds to spend her 31st birthday weekend; for Sage, attending a stomp dance is a little like going to church for your birthday: a lot like coming home: “You know I could be drinking at the bars this weekend but I decided I don’t want to do that. I want to be here shaking my shells with my people. These are my people. This is my place.” Stomp grounds are ceremonial, but this is not white people Episcopal church ceremonial: this is noise and dance and song and food ceremonial: all night long and well past sunrise ceremonial. The chief of these particular stomp grounds decided Sage could dance as a woman even though, by his reckoning, Sage was born a man. How did she get here? Dancing: elsewhere: Sage:

“Well, when I started drag I was 21, 22, and being both trans and doing drag was not the thing at the time. Oklahoma makes a big stink of it but you go to the East Coast, the West Coast, you can be the ugliest queen but if you have an entertaining personality, you’re in the game. When I started I call it clown makeup I didn’t want all that clown makeup on. So when I first started drag, the only thing I had on was eyeliner, lip gloss, and bronzer. I didn’t even wear a wig I just pulled my hair up, I had a big bump, I had this pony tail on and I had some clothes I had from the mall. It was an open competition, so people who brought their crowd, or if you were just a crowd favorite, you won. You won a hundred dollars. I did ‘Just Fine’ by Mary J. Blige: I came out and I got tipped SO much, I remember I was laughing and I threw the $1s up in the air ’cause there were too many to hold and the crowd: went crazy. I was in this competition with all these queens well-polished, big old eyelashes, expensive makeup and after I won there was this hateful queen, she was like ‘um, this is not drag. You need to have nails on, lashes, and you need to wear fuckin’ makeup’ and I was like, ‘um, in case you forgot, I beat you. I won the crown. You can keep that advice.’”

When Sage was born, the doctor pulled her out between two tired thighs and pronounced: “he,” and everybody called her “he” for too long: 25 years too long: “he.” Tonight, Sage is sitting before us in all her woman things: all her tribal things. Look: a dozen re-purposed evaporated milk cans filled with river stone are tied to each of her legs just below a handmade skirt; above, Sage wears a simple black top, her fingers waving as she talks. Feminine fingers and strong, muscular, feminine shoulders: shoulders which roar: “she.”

When Sage was four, her Daddy died in car wreck and so it was that she and her brothers came to live with their grandfather, the chief of the Little Axe stomp grounds (the north grounds, north of Dirty Bird) and their grandmother, the chief’s wife. Mama was in and out of the picture and, by age 14, Sage was helping support the family by working at fast food restaurants: with three younger brothers so young the oldest was not even 10, Sage felt the weight of her three younger brothers on her shoulders: strong shoulders: fuck you shoulders: I can do this shoulders.

Grandmother: Sage remembers: all those attendant duties: all those glories: “I have all these old pictures of her grandma was always done up, and when she would shake shells for my grandpa it was the grandest time. She would fix herself up and she would wear silk blouses and a pretty dress and she would just shake her heart out and I always thought she was the grandest person. To go back in time and see that again: I wish I could.”

Grandma knew. Grandpa knew. Mom, aunt, cousins: everyone knew. When Sage was little she and her cousin would play dress up and Sage was always the girl and her cousin, Keyah, the boy: the same cousin who, a few years ago, married her wife with Sage as maid of honor. Relatives: aunts, cousins would yell at Sage, their voices thick with contempt: “Boy, that is no way to act. Man. Up.” But grandma knew. At the stomp dances for the Bean Dance, the Friendship Dance, the War Dance the men and women had their roles: the men called their calls and the women shook their shells. Where would dress-up Sage fit? Grandma didn’t ask: said, “honey, you can stay back and cook with me.” Sage stayed in the kitchen cooking with grandma. Boys don’t often cook at the stomp dance but grandma’s husband was the stomp ground chief and nobody said a word when grandma let little Sage cook along with the women. It’s Sage’s role at her family stomp grounds still: to be “head lady cook” to take care, to prepare – in between space: already-negotiated space: Sage’s space, blessed by grandma. Blessed, maybe, by grandpa:

“When we would practice stomp dance, I didn’t want to lead, and my cousins would, and Grandpa would let me shake the women’s cans in my hand, so I would be shaking the footwork but doing it in my hands: you really can’t keep time with your hands like you can when you shake cans on your legs but I knew what I was doing. Grandpa let me do that, and when they wanted me to lead with the boys, well, I could never retain the songs I knew the songs, but when it came time to actually try to sing I couldn’t remember them, it would just leave my memory, and I told my grandpa, I was like ‘when I get out there with the boys, I can’t remember the songs,’ and he was like ‘well, maybe they’re not meant for you to remember.’”

Grandma found a space for Sage in the kitchen. Grandpa told her: maybe the men’s songs weren’t for her to remember: here, here are the women’s shells: you want to shake? hold them in your hands: shake.

 

A stomp dance is an all-night thing. A stomp dance is an improvisation thing: a procession: a church service: a parade. There are the stick men and there is the leader calling out the calls; there are the men calling in response and there is the sacred fire and there are the women: shaking shells. Listen! Look! one of the stick men picture him in a white cowboy hat, holding a stick topped by a white ball: conductor, circus tamer a stick man will choose a warrior to lead the dance. The warrior will shuffle up to the sacred fire surrounded by a broad circle of sand and he will begin to circle, alone, shuffling slowly; slowly, other warriors will approach and begin to take their place: silently, behind him: single file, their single file spiraling out from the fire: an inner circle bounded by two, three, four circles deep of men circling, shuffling, silently pacing around the sacred fire.

The women with their shells begin to approach the gentle, the quiet procession and take their places: between the men: two by two: man, woman, man, woman, man, woman and, suddenly, the leader calls his first call: maybe it sounds like: “oh hey ya hee oh hey” and the men answer with their voices, maybe like “hee” and the women begin to lift their legs a little higher as they shuffle their feet and shake their shells. “Shells” once upon a time: small turtle shells and now, usually, tin filled with stone and tied around the lower half of their legs: shaking: ch-chiiih, ch-chiiih, ch-chiiih. A stomp dance is a procession around the sacred fire: the leader is calling out into the night sky and the men are calling their response and the women with their shells are setting the tempo against the vox humana: ch-chiiih, ch-chiiih, ch-chiiih.

Like any gospel song at any spirit-filled church the pace is set by Spirit, and Spirit alone: two spirits: man and woman spirit: two spirits which, in concert, become Spirit. A stomp dance is all night long; an individual dance, five minutes or twenty. An individual dance can mourn lost warriors or it can merrily, cockily sing about cock: what does cock do in the world? cock finds its place. A stomp dance is a holy place: at the Tvlahasse Green Corn stomp dance danced in early July when the first green corn has borne its first silky strands the dancers haven’t tasted corn all year; alcohol has not passed their lips for four days previous and won’t for four days following. A stomp dance is a holy thing a stomp dance is a joyful thing: songs lifting up the hunt, the battle, the dead, the future, the place of a man and the place of a woman: call, and response: shells shaking, shaking, shaking: ch-chiiih, ch-chiiih, ch-chiiih. Man, woman; man, woman; man, woman: call and response, shells. As Sage transitioned, where would she a former warrior fit?

During their 24 hour fast the warriors will “take medicine,” receive “scratching,” and perform the Feather Dance

 

~~~

Before there was prairie there were hills and before the hills, great and terrible mountains: their teeth still lie in the ditch. Before there was “Oklahoma” we were dancing the men calling their calls and the women shaking their shells and the sacred fire was like unto a great thumb tack pinning the stomp grounds to the universe at large. All these things are true: all, and none. The terrible mountains are so long dead that, unlike their shorter, Rocky cousins, they never had any names. When “Oklahoma” was designated America’s first and final Final Solution, the land was given a Choctaw name: “Okla” “people;” “humma” “red;” but even that name was a lie: neither were those bodies “red” nor were they “people” granted possession of the great cock of manhood: the “all men” of the Declaration, the “mankind” of the fabled Constitution which enfranchised the cock and property-owning, straight white Christian cock alone. How many tears must a non-red, non-people swallow before they will call them a man? Too many.

But lo: look to the skies: a promise: “BRAUM’S BBQ BACON CHZBURGER COMBO 6.49.” Storm clouds breaking up and the sacred fire of the great sun’s glory pouring down: the inheritors of this red state are marching: it is the 2017 Oklahoma City Pride Parade and the NDNs are the first float in the great assembly. Breaching the top of the hill on 39th Street and parading down toward Pennsylvania Avenue, the roar of the great crowd could drown out thunder, and: it has. The spirits of the great American gods Nun’Yunu’Wi, Andrew Jackson, Donald Trump who regularly stalk these selfsame streets are in this moment exorcised: that tired, old man, cocksure pride: gone: just a dream nobody here ever had.

Sage Chanell, Ms. Two Spirit International, waves her queenly wave from atop the float and the queer people of this nation’s First Nations Caddo, Kickapoo, Comanche, Ponca, the Muskoke Creek, the Wichita, Osage, and Sage’s tribe, the Absentee Shawnee carry homemade banners drawn with rainbows and hearts: “Love Wins.” “NOH8.”

Out here, in this queer space, this proud Pride space, “Oklahoma” is a name our spirits are still dreaming up: my spirit, and your spirit, too hers and his and theirs and Mx’s, too out here, in this parade, we are all of us Two Spirits, all of us issued the great vag of womanhood and the great cock of manhood and the even Greater Spirits in between who don’t need “bathroom” parts to dream: where we are just spirit: Just Spirits: spirits inviting the stars to smile down on this our holy project. All her life, Sage Chanell has been dancing: asking the stars to bless her path: this is the story of an Oklahoma girl who received that blessing, and then some.

~~~

 

from “American Sunrise” by Mvskoke Creek and Okie poet Joy Harjo:

We were running out of breath, as we ran out to meet ourselves. We
were surfacing the edge of our ancestors’ fights, and ready to strike.
It was difficult to lose days in the Indian bar if you were straight.
Easy if you played pool and drank to remember to forget. We
made plans to be professional and did. And some of us could sing
so we drummed a fire-lit pathway up to those starry stars.

~~~

When Sage won her Ms. Two Spirit International crown, she argued long and often with the former queen about access: Sage, unlike her predecessor, wasn’t satisfied with Two Spirit participation in powwows: Sage wanted the hardest prize for a transgender Native American: to dance at stomp grounds as a woman. Because powwows are public performances, they are often more open to change; stomp dances, however, are held on sacred ground on private land – addresses rarely shared by anything but word of mouth. Sage wanted to dance in stomp dances, where memories of tradition are longest and where the past rarely if ever accommodates the present. That philosophical debate, however, was not the only drama at last year’s Ms. Two Spirit International pageant: what happened in Sage’s contemporary dance was worthy of Drag Race:

Sage: “When it came to my contemporary, I hadn’t really talked about transitioning with everyone so I chose the song “I Am Changing” from Dreamgirls and I was trying to go through it and the rule book on the music was, we had to have a brand new CD, couldn’t have no scratches or anything, and when I did sound check the night before I had no scratches, it played all the way through it was a brand new CD. Well the host, I didn’t know, was best friends with contestant number one and they were staying in the same room. She was like ‘I’m not gonna let it get any scratches, I’m gonna have your music, don’t worry about it,’ – well, come time to do my time and I got halfway through and the CD stopped. And I’m all getting into my drag, I had what I call my big ol’ Oprah hair, big ol’ teased hair on, I’ve got a gold gown on, and I was just gettin’ into it and- the CD just stopped. So I march over to the DJ and we pulled the CD out and it was scratched, it looked like someone took a key and was like ‘sksksks’ and I was like are you fucking kidding me? I wiped it off and we started all over and it played 5 seconds and it stopped. I got so frustrated that I threw my hands up and I walked off. And so, I was like: I just lost the fucking pageant.”

She didn’t, however, lose the fucking pageant: maybe it was the traditional Shawnee dress her aunt made her for the powwow category; maybe it was her Bean Dance when she opened up the floor to audience participation: no matter: Sage Chanell, as seems to happen often, won her fight even if the former queen refused to stop wearing the crown the rest of the following summer. Sage just made her own crown: bigger: taller: more beads.

~~~

Close your eyes. You are dancing. Stomp dancing. Your elbows are bent and your forearms, out: your feet dancing on firm sand as if you are jogging around a great and silent sea. If you are near the end of the great spiral of dancers streaming out from the great fire, you are almost walking: like cars in traffic: slow lurch. The closer your body is to the fire maybe you are in the second circle, or the third, spiraling out your hips are beginning to rock: a hop in your steps to the rhythm of the call and the sound of the response: and, slowly, to the jig of the shells tied to your womanly legs a towel lining each leg and then 10, maybe 12 cans filled with river stone and tightly laced around the bottom half of each muscled leg: heavy!: soft: the leader is calling, faster: insistent: your pace quickens. At some point, in some stomps, the shells become like so many cicadas buzzing in the dark Southern night: an orchestral drone: a constellation of tambourines surrounding you until you are lifted up: close your eyes part way: see the flicker of the fire to your left as you dance: see the shoulders of the person in front of you: see the stars shining overhead: stars: shells: same: singing you know the line: “when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” you, too, are a star: a son, a daughter, of the Creator: your voice, echoing: call: response: your shells: shaking: ch-chiiih.

~~~

In Oklahoma, where more tribes were relocated than any other state, most tribes are getting smaller; many stomp grounds, disappearing. Although tribal traditions differ, many Oklahoma tribes welcome other NDNs in their rituals and Sage, who is Absentee Shawnee from the Big Jim band has now shaken shells at both Mvskoke Creek and Cherokee stomp grounds. But: she first shook shells in a private Two Spirit gathering an hour north of Tulsa:

 

Sage: “In 2013 or ’14 I finally went to Osage Hills. I was living in Tulsa, I had a different boyfriend at the time, he was totally into it by then, I was a pageant queen I was trans and Cory was like, ‘you’re living in Tulsa now, and Osage Hills is just an hour north of you. You need to get some shells and bring your bag.’ At that time, I had tried on shells before, I just never shook them out in public. A girl from another ground brought me some of her cans and so I went and, as soon as I got there, they were already doing their dance, the Friendship Dance, so I had no time to get ready I just threw my shells on and I got out there.

At that particular Two Spirit gathering a queer stomp dance in Osage County in August Sage was asked to give her testimony and she did, knees knocking: testimony: her short time living as a woman in Tulsa: her lifelong wish to shake shells: her thanks for her sister, Cory Taber, who’d encouraged her all along the way. Afterward, people came up to tell her personally: “Hey, we got your back: whenever you want to come back and be a part of this, we want you.”

Sage: “It must be four years now that I’ve been shaking shells ever since Osage Hills. Before that, I’d just stopped dancing. I’d told my ground: in order to go into my current stage now as a woman, well, see, we have a stickman who before every dance he goes out and picks the leader and at the time I stopped dancing, my cousin was the stickman and he said ‘Will you please come lead?’ And I said, ‘Brother, for me to be respected as I am now, well: I know I was raised not to say no to a stick man, and it hurts me to say it now, but for me move on to my next stage, I’m gonna have to say no from now on. I’m sorry. I apologize, but I won’t be leading no more.’ And that was hard to say, but they haven’t asked me no more. I told them, ‘I do all the women’s stuff already, I take care of the cans, I get to go shake shells at other grounds, and from here on out, I can’t lead as a man: no more.”

Though Sage has been shaking shells as a woman for four years now with the Cherokee, the Mvskoke, and at Two Spirit gatherings she still hasn’t shaken shells at her hometown stomp grounds in Little Axe:

“I think I have to initiate the conversation. I think they’re waiting on me. I actually asked for Ayokha’s permission at my ground and they let her. The War Dance chief is my grandma’s little brother and I’d never had a serious sit down with him, but, for Ayokha, I did, and I think he thought I was going to ask for me when I said ‘well, I have this friend-’ because he just stopped me. He said: ‘I just want to tell you, it don’t matter how you live your life. If you’re gonna live as a woman, live as a woman. If you’re gonna be a man, be a man. If your friend lives as a woman, then she can come dance as a woman.’ I got off the phone and I cried. He was saying that to me. But still: I haven’t asked for myself.”

~~~

 

from “Mother Field,” Joy Harjo –
Everyone had a name that could not be spoken.
Every given name harbored an origin story.
There was no doubt as to the root of the matter.
Spook got his name on the street,
Nez from an ancestor as tall as male rain,
And mine was from a grandfather who fought without thought
To return us back rightfully to our beloved homelands.

 

~~~

“Two Spirit” is a not an orientation: not L or G, not T or i, not bi; “two spirit” is a role: two spirit is where you fit. Masculine men and masculine women; feminine men and feminine women: in many early North American societies these four genders determined how a person dressed and how they served the tribe. When Europeans encountered them, they zeroed in on “feminine” males: the French called them “berdache,” a term they’d taken from the Persians “barda (برده) sometimes designating a male slave or captive forced to submit to sex with men. “Berdache” among early French trappers became a kind of coinage: here is a man you can use for sex a colonial-era “Pocahontas” too risqué to mention.

What colonists called “homosexual” relationships among tribes were usually a traditionally-dressed man or woman whose partner wore the opposite gender’s clothing: but: as long as the couple represented two genders in dress and behavior, they were seen by the tribe as heteronormative. It was often only when a two spirit person stood alone as a medicine man, a midwife, as a pre-modern RuPaul that they were treated by the tribe as a thing apart; since 1990, indigenous people set apart often use “two spirit” to identify themselves.

A majority of NDNs today, like a majority of Americans, describe themselves as Christian. Many NDN Christians even describe themselves as evangelical: my grandfather, who otherwise shirked his Cherokee traditions, spent his last church service wheelchair bound in an evangelical Native American church south of Tulsa. Historical narratives suggest most “LGBT” tribal members simply lived inconspicuously with a same-sex partner; those who didn’t were often revered and held to have special powers; then, with white European Christianity, came condemnation. For Christian priests and pastors, the man apart was “homosexual;” “perversion;” for the flock, a word as satisfying in the mouth as the “fire” used to burn them: “faggot.”

Whatever the past, identity among two spirit NDNs is still a negotiation: Tim, a Kiowa man who rode the Two Spirit float in the OKC Pride parade, told me: “I’m white.” Adopted by white parents at a young age, when he came out of the closet they happily accepted him: so far, so good. When, later, he found his Kiowa birth mother and she learned he was gay, she said she wished he’d never found her. Thus: “I’m white.”

Sage’s Shawnee mother has been slow on the uptake as well: Sage: “She claims to everybody else that she accepts me but, well, sometimes I feel like she don’t show it to me. To everybody else she’s like ‘Oh, that’s my baby, I love her’ but with me sometimes she still tries to call me my boy name. Last year I took her out to the other ground and she kept calling me by my boy name and I was like: ‘If you call me that one more time-’ and she hit me and then she called me that name again. She said: ‘You’re always gonna be my baby,’ and I was like: ‘I’ve accepted everything you’ve done in your life, least you can do is just call me by the right name.’

For the most part, even though Sage spends much of her time in rural Oklahoma, few people have messed with her: “I’m a tall gal; no one really says much to my face. I’m sure they have when I’m not around.” Sage was harassed by her employer at a casino in Osage County the female supervisor watched Sage enter the women’s restroom and later grilled her about whether or not she had a penis but there’s no recourse for harassment of transgender individuals in Oklahoma. The employer’s solution at that casino was for Sage to use the unisex bathroom; eventually, Sage was fired. Since then, she’s worked for casinos owned by her own Shawnee tribe as a woman, as “Sage” with no trouble.

Five years ago, partly due to Sage and her trans sister Cory Taber’s work founding the Oklahoma City Two Spirit Society, the local Pride commission decided to let the Two Spirit float ride at the head of the parade, in perpetuity; further, unlike all other floats, the entry fee will always be waived. Because Sage was the reigning Ms. International Two Spirit “international,” in this case, means indigenous people of Canada and the U.S. Sage rode inside the truck pulling the Two Spirit float this year.

Although it’s rare to find an Oklahoman who doesn’t claim a distant NDN ancestor, the official native population hovers just below ten percent slightly smaller than the Hispanic community, slightly larger than the African-American community. But: even among non-native people, “two spirit” identification is growing: especially in academia, some are proposing a sort of pan two spiritedness, the idea that “two spirit” better represents what it means to be queer than the ever-growing letters in LGBTQia+.

Under the current nomenclature, Sage falls under “t” as a “transgender female.” But: is she gay? Straight? In high school, she dated a girl and, after high school, a boy, but says the girl was more about companionship than desire. Since high school she’s only dated men and, lately, only straight men: “The thing is, I’m not really attracted to gay men. I’m not attracted to feminine energy at all. Some women get upset when I say I’m dating a straight man ‘they’re not straight if they’re dating you’ but that’s what’s coming for me. I’m like, your husbands, your boyfriends, that’s what’s coming for me, honey. They don’t want to date a guy, it’s someone like me that they’re attracted to so, it is what it is.”

Sage Chanell: Ms. Two Spirit International 2017: dates who she wants. Is who she is.

Photography: R. Potts
Illustrations: Damien Cuyper


Sage Chanell