The last time I saw them was in the ground.
It was a rainy day, the end of May. The clouds had parted just enough to let a sliver of sunlight through while we drove their coffin to the cemetery. There were horses in a nearby field, and as the cars followed my uncle’s truck to the gravesite, the horses galloped back and forth.
I was sitting in the back of the truck with my cousins, Shar, Jenny, Shawn, Lorne and his son Jordan. We were the pallbearers for my Grandpa, who was being laid to rest with my Grandma’s ashes in an urn cradled in his arms. It was the first time our reserve, Little Pine, had women act as pallbearers. Although all of us women were also two spirit, and for me especially the label of woman doesn’t always stick as neatly as it does on other people. Either way, two spirit people by definition bridged the genders, and we were supposed to have some cross over in roles.
Gender roles in Plains Cree culture, especially in ceremonies, can be very rigid, something I always bristled at when I went to things like funerals. I would feel left out, feel misplaced. Feel disregarded and disrespected. I’ve been asked to leave if I was on my period before, even though two spirit elders say people like me who are having periods should just be treated the same as the men, like we don’t even have any. I got rid of my periods in a medical procedure a while back for other reasons. But that doesn’t mean anything for the gendered positions in my community.
At funerals the women cooked the feast food, the men did the pipe ceremony and prayed and served food and usually gave away the deceased person’s possessions to the community. I have been constantly reassured by women that if there was a woman’s pipe the women could do a pipe ceremony too. Still I’ve only been in two pipe ceremonies in my life, and one was with another trans/two spirit person. The amount of times I have been on the sidelines watching men pray in a language I barely understand even though it is my ancestors, doing something I can’t be involved in, it’s difficult.
But this was my Grandpa’s funeral, so things were different. He wasn’t that kind of man in his life. He was an old Cree person, he knew a lot of things from how the old ways were. But he was also very modern. If he said something about what women couldn’t do, there was always a twinkle in his eye where you knew he was half lying just to tease you, or that even if it was a traditional belief he was kind of egging you on to challenge it and think for yourself.
I didn’t cry at his funeral. I know a lot of people did, and I wanted to, and I felt badly that I didn’t. I was having a hard time with crying at that point in my life, I’d gone through some psych related trauma back in my 20’s and that combined with some heavy duty anti-psychotics made simple emotional responses like tears hard to access. It’s easier now. Things changed, I don’t know how but I was able to cry again. But at his funeral, it was hard. And we had cared for him for a solid month, going to the hospital every day, cleaning out his apartment, cancelling his phone service. All the things that must be done to wrap up a life. Saying our goodbyes to him. He was delirious in the end, but there were two points he recognized me. When I first came home and went to see him, he looked at me and said he was so glad. Another time was in the hospital. We were sitting there watching over him and he looked at me and got such a big loving smile on his face, and I remembered all the things he and I had done together, fishing and camping and visiting and talking and watching him make jokes, and I think I did cry then. And I didn’t want to cry because I knew he was saying goodbye and that he loved me, even without words, and I didn’t want to make him feel guilty for leaving me or like he shouldn’t.
But aside from those two times it was like he was already halfway out of this world. He talked in Plains Cree again, telling nurses to awas when they tried to change him or give him injections. He shook hands with spirits and watching them coming to take him away. There were violent thunderstorms the night before he died, and after that he was still and left.
Grandma and Grandpa were good people. They raised me just as much as my mother did, and he was the closest person to a constant father figure I had, even tho I did know my father and he lived in the same province.
Carrying a coffin is hard, and I know people were nervous about half the coffin being carried by women. Everyone has to apply the same strength, the weight has to be distributed evenly. But it was good for me to do, and nobody dropped it, it was fine. We carried it out of the band hall and loaded it into the back of my uncle’s truck, and it all went smoothly. I was glad to be able to carry my Grandparents out of this world. To be one of the first women pallbearers, even though I only feel like a woman half the time.
Grandpa really wanted all his people, his relatives and friends and community, to achieve their dreams. He was one of the first Indians to go to University in Canada. He supported education. He listened to people and told jokes and when he was angry it was awful but I rarely saw him angry.
When I lived in Saskatoon I visited him a few times a week. He didn’t have a lot of his grandchildren visit regularly. I recognized how lonely old people got, how some of the people at his home felt so forgotten. After his wife died, he lived on his own for the first time since the 40’s. I wish I had been able to see him more, but I had moved to Toronto by then. I remember he didn’t want me to move away, and I was genuinely sad to leave him behind, even though I came back to visit him.
But I was there the last month of his life, every day, and I was there with his body, taking him to the cemetery where his mom and dad and grandpa and sister and brothers were. I was there to drop a handful of dirt on him when we finally said goodbye.
After a Cree funeral, there is a feast for the dead. Everybody sits around and the food is blessed and we all get a bit of everything, and then give pieces of what we have to a container to feed the deceased person. It takes a long time, and often the soups have really cooled when everyone can finally eat. Children get squirmy, and the men have a pipe ceremony. But this time I was one of the people who got to distribute his clothing and random things to the people in the hall. There was some rules about how close I could get to the men who were praying, which was a totally gendered thing and frustrating. But still I was able to participate in one more thing that normally I wasn’t able to.
Grieving as a two spirit person is just as hard as anyone’s grief, but being seen as my real gender made it easier. Feeling like I got to embody my grief and do things for the community and for my Grandfather made it easier. I didn’t feel slighted or bristly like I sometimes get. I felt recognized, and I really liked it. It might sound so strange, to feel touched by something that on the surface seems so simple. But gender in Plains Cree culture can be treated as a really cut and dried binary topic, and those of us who slip through the cracks of gender and want to be recognized are often treated badly. We can be seen as a bit of an irritant by people who don’t understand non-binary genders, like what’s the problem why don’t you wear a skirt is it really so hard to do that look everyone else with your perceived gender is doing it? Or worse, with outright scorn and hostility by the really hardcore transphobic and homophobic people.
But this was different, and it felt like love, and it made saying my final goodbyes to my Grandpa easier.