SHIFT discussions: An interview with Harlan Pruden
Douglas College will be facilitating discussions on sexual violence, intimate-partner violence, masculinity and more with SHIFT: Let’s talk gender violence Sept. 24-28 at the New Westminster Campus.
The four-day event will engage attendees through film, dialogue and interaction with community stakeholders in a safe and inclusive space. Each night will feature a documentary that addresses themes related to gender violence and will conclude with a discussion facilitated by the filmmaker or a faculty member.
On Sept. 28, Douglas College will host a panel discussion on Violence against Women: Divisiveness, Power and Control, the Legal Landscape and the Role of Men.
Among the panelists for this discussion is Harlan Pruden. Harlan – a proud member of the Cree Nation of northeastern Alberta – is a board member for Qmunity, the home for Vancouver’s LGBTQ2S+ community, a member of the Board of Trustees for the Vancouver Public Library, and a representative to the International Indigenous Peoples Working Group on HIV/AIDS. Harlan is an educator with the BC Center for Disease Control’s Chee Mamuk (Indigenous public-health program) and the Managing Editor of Two-SpiritJournal.com
Prior to the panel discussion, Harlan sat down with Douglas College for an interview about work, goals for the future and insights on the conversation surrounding gender violence.
Tell us about the work you do in combating gender violence.
“I am so honoured, privileged and blessed to primarily work with and for the Two-Spirit community, or what we would know today as LGBTQI+ native, First Nations or Aboriginal people.
The broader (and non-Native) LGBTQI+ community focuses primarily either asking/demanding for new rights and privileges or an expansion of Western rights and/or privileges, such as gender-inclusive washrooms and same-sex marriage respectively. This is not a criticism, but is offered as an observation. I totally understand and fully support this vital work of and for the non-native LGBTQI+ movement.
However, for us within the Two-Spirit community, where we begin our conversation is one of reclaiming and restoring, our collective and individual place of honour, and respect and dignity within our respective nations. It is important to note this is subtle but, at the same time, radically different focus than that of the non-native LGBTQI+ movement. Additionally, key to this work and conversation(s) is de-colonialization and also the centering of one’s Indigeneity.”
What brought you to this sort of work?
“Way back in the 90s, I read a book about Two-Spirit people and communities and was like ‘How is this possible? What are they talking about? And why don’t I know of these teaching and ways?’ That prompted so many questions, and as I began finding out the answers to those questions, it sent me on my healing journey. In 2004, I went to my first Two-Spirit gathering in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Not only was I blown away but I found my community.
My entire identity as an Indigenous ‘sissyboy’ was completely affirmed at this Two-Spirit gathering. I felt fully present for the first time by being in that space and place. At that gathering, I experienced what [Academic Director of the Aboriginal Education Research Centre at the University of Saskatchewan] Dr. Alex Wilson calls the “coming-in process.” After that gathering, I committed myself to working to create other spaces, host conversations and to help facilitate opportunities for others to experience their ‘coming-in process.'”
What are the key points that you think we need to talk about to move forward?
“We need to create spaces that are more inclusive and safe for the Two-Spirit community with much greater attentiveness and focus on how our Two-Spirit discussions and work is different than the non-native LGBTQI+ discussions, movement and work.
When this happens, it opens up the possibility for new ways of being and at the same time acknowledges the violence the Two-Spirit community faces minute by minute, day to day, year by year and decade after decade. Unlike everyone else, the Two-Spirit and Native/Indigenous people of Turtle Island are unique – as we are of this land and territory – that is what is meant when we claim our indigeneity.
When we are made and viewed just like everyone else our distinction is erased and made invisible. Any discussion of social justice should and must begin with the Two-Spirit and Indigenous peoples and communities. If not, then the discussions, and resulting actions, are acts of continued colonization. When these discussions begins with this way, it will unsettle the settler’s frameworks and ways of being and may bring about better relations with Indigenous peoples and communities, or what we would say ‘in good relations’ or relationships founded on mutual trust, respect and maybe, even one day, love.”
How has the conversation changed in the last year?
“Oh, my goodness. It’s so amazing what is happening today and it fills my heart.
I remember when I started this work, I would have to go to urban settings and service providers and community members would have to come to me.
Literally, community members would leave their community and go into an urban (and neutral) setting, so we could have conversations on Two-Spirit. Fast forward to now, I am going into communities and reservations that are hosting and holding conversations around Two-Spirit. When you go to a community, and you go onto that community’s land, you’re striking at the heart of the community.”
Are there things that make you hopeful?
“While I acknowledge that this is still a lot of work to be done to address racism, discrimination and colonization native people face, I live and dwell in a land of hope. I am so incredibly hopeful, like look at this conversation we are having at this very moment! Let’s stop and pause to reflect, acknowledge and honour that five or even ten years ago this would not have happened. This is the work. And it makes my heart sing!”