Perspectives: Artists Doane Avery and Jamie John on Pride, Visibility, and Living in the In-Between

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Artists Doane Tulugaq Avery (Iñupiaq) and Jamie John (Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians).

On behalf of the Sundance Institute Indigenous Program, we would like to wish everyone a safe, affirming, and happy Pride — not just this month, but every day until our Two-Spirit and LGBTQIA+ community members have the space and opportunity to exist fully and authentically. We also encourage allies to support and center Two-Spirit and Indigenous LGBTQIA+ stories and voices.

As Pride becomes increasingly commodified, we want to affirm the queer and gender-diverse Indigenous people who for the last five centuries have remained steadfast in challenging the imposition of this rigid binary system through their art, their activism, and their existence. Prior to European colonization, and within Indigenous communities, Two-Spirit, queer, transgender, and other sexual and gender identities not only existed, but were valued. The history and future of Pride is rooted in revolution, in the legacies and contributions of trans women of color, and in our concerted actions toward making the world a safer place for queer and trans people everywhere.

The Indigenous Program proudly reaffirms its continued support and gratitude for our LGBTQIA+ diverse Indigenous community members, as well as our commitment to maintaining a safe and affirming space for our artists to foster their craft and their community. Queer and trans liberation is both a manifestation of and requirement for Indigenous Sovereignty.

In observance of Pride Month, in this edition of Perspectives, we spoke with artists Doane Tulugaq Avery (Iñupiaq) and Jamie John (Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians), both recent fellows of the Institute. Avery recently brought Mama Dragon, a pilot about a 40-year-old queer ex-Mormon who begins to navigate the world as a recent divorcee — through the NativeLab. And John — a Two-Spirit Anishinaabe and Korean multidisciplinary artist living in their historic homeland of so-called Michigan — is a 2021 Full Circle Fellow who is currently developing a script for a short science fiction film.

Over the course of our conversations, the two talked about where they find their artistic inspiration, how their queer and Indigenous identities have informed their work, the current state of queer representation in mainstream media, and what Pride means to them.

Ed. note: These conversations have been edited and condensed for clarity.


A Q&A WITH DOANE TULUGAQ AVERY

Doane Tulugaq Avery is a filmmaker whose stories focus on feminine, queer, and Indigenous character-driven narratives. She was the recipient of the LA Skins Fest Emerging Filmmaker Award and the imagineNATIVE Jane Glassco Award for Emerging Talent. Her short films have screened at Outfest, Oaxaca Film Fest, Seattle Queer Film Festival, and Māoriland.

MOI SANTOS: What or who inspired you to create stories?

DOANE TULUGAQ AVERY: I started writing stories when I was pretty young. When I was in the second grade, I was chosen as one of two students from my class to attend a big writers’ convention that was held every year in Seattle. I was so excited that my short story was selected and that I was going to go meet all these real writers. But then I got the chicken pox, so my friend Grace Livingston went in my place. I always felt that I missed out on something by not going to that convention, because soon after that, my friend changed her name to Ember, served spiked punch at her birthday, and then moved out of state. But even before that when I was younger, I had two imaginary friends; I think my imagination has always been at work. Growing up, I had a speech impediment, so putting my thoughts down on paper and living in my head creating stories just became a place that felt more comfortable for me.

MS: What approach do you take with your storytelling? How did you develop that approach, and how do you hold on to it throughout your process?

DTA: There’s sort of a catalogue of themes, stories, moments, and ideas for characters that I draw from when I approach a project. They come from my own life or are connected to me in some kind of personal way. I feel like I’m constantly taking snapshots in my mind. I make notes of things I see, things that inspire me. And I make notes of dialogue or moments or even scenes. And then usually there’s something that has been stirring or that I start to obsess over, and I start to tease out what the overarching theme or journey might be if I put it into a story.

I started to write furiously while I was at CalArts, but it was all over the place in terms of genre and length, and it all came from an intuitive place. I guess it was a sort of purge. There are still a few of those projects that I started during that time that I want to see through, especially one that’s a western called Daughters of Longhorn; it follows four Native women battling cowboys in the Old West after one of the women goes missing. I had actually taken that script through a Sundance lab with the Indigenous Program back in 2015.

MS: Who was the first character on screen you identified with, and why?

DTA: Annie, the 1982 version. I was adopted, and this is the first movie I remember watching and that I watched on repeat. I’m pretty sure that there were many times when I wore my Annie dress and locket while watching the movie. I think it’s also why I love musicals. Making a musical is one of my ultimate dreams.

MS: What does Pride mean to you?

DTA: It’s a time for self-love and a time to remember that there is a chorus of queer folks singing to the tune of love, acceptance, resilience, community, and equality. It’s a celebration of all the beautiful queer people living, past, and of the future, a moment for us to give power to our queerness and our visibility, while remembering and honoring the queer leaders, artists, activists, and disruptors of the community who fought and continue to fight for our rights. There is a legacy to continue; Pride is about activating the spirit and armoring the heart with love.

[Pride is] a celebration of all the beautiful queer people living, past, and of the future, a moment for us to give power to our queerness and our visibility, while remembering and honoring [those] who fought and continue to fight for our rights.

—Doane Tulugaq Avery

MS: What are your favorite queer and Indigenous projects, and why?

DTA: There are so many. Queer as Folk and Six Feet Under were the first shows I ever binged. I lived with two gay friends in a big old house in Portland, Oregon, in the early 2000s, and we would call up Blockbuster locations to see if they had the next DVD we needed to get through the series, and we would crisscross around the city late at night to pick them up. Those are the days when I would watch The L Word at the Egyptian Room, which I think was the biggest lesbian bar in the country in its time. It has sadly closed down, as most lesbian bars in the U.S. have. I also love Pedro Almodóvar, Todd Haynes, Alanis Obomsawin, Taika Waititi, and Gus Van Sant, and I get nostalgic for But I’m a Cheerleader, Bound, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

John Cameron Mitchell’s "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."

MS: How is your cinematic language shaped (or not shaped) by your queer and Indigenous identities?

DTA: I feel that as a person who always lived in the in-between — I’ve always thought of myself as being gender flexible, and I’m Native, but the first half of my life I was only around my non-Native family, and for the second half of my life I’ve had connection to my Native family — I can’t help but acknowledge my vast constellation of ancestors. And a part of living in that in-between space is about seeing, reflecting on, and magnifying the gray areas rather than the black-and-white. I find that if I allow myself to explore the in-between spaces, it’s a place of natural curiosity and empathy.

I find that if I allow myself to explore the in-between spaces, it’s a place of natural curiosity and empathy.

—Doane Tulugaq Avery

I didn’t realize that I sometimes had a changing POV, or it was at least not my intention. It’s just how the stories come out for me. My own mapping and overlapping gears of memory and identity seem to lend to a circular, nonlinear way of storytelling. I’m not against having a singular protagonist or having a more singular story. I’m trying to figure out how to wrestle with this linear, colonial way of telling stories. I’m trying to find that in-between.

MS: What or who has helped you tap into claiming your identities?

DTA: There have been so many people. I both came out and met my birth mom within the same year, so there were waves of identity crisis and joy flooding over me while I was working through some real deep shit about identity. There was a queer community that took me in when I came out in Boise, Idaho, which was vital being in a small, conservative, very white city. I was fighting against my family’s religious views and dealing with my abandonment issues; if I didn’t have that queer community, my depression and panic attacks might have gotten the better of me.

I met my birth mom for the first time in Mazatlán, Mexico. We had spent an afternoon in Tijuana, and when we were on our way out, the guards at the checkpoint separated me from my family because they thought they were, I don’t know, kidnapping me. They didn’t believe that I was a part of my white family. It was actually a terrifying experience that was luckily short-lived, but I found it funny that I would be meeting my birth mom in Mexico. Looks-wise, I’m basically a carbon copy of her, so no one was suspicious of us being together.

The first time I went to the village my birth mom is from was the first time I met my siblings and a lot of family members. There is no one feeling that I can ascribe to the experience; it is something that opened me in a way that continues to push me to the very core of my being and a centering of my soul.

MS: In your work, how do you honor or reclaim Indigenous Sovereignty and/or queer liberation?

DTA: I think the process of putting pen to paper is an act of sovereignty. At least within the confines of the page, there is a sense of freedom being a queer Native person creating. After it’s a living thing on the page, there are all sorts of hurdles that come up. But I just keep writing. And when I think about the things I’ve written, it all kind of comes down to elements of love. Thematically, a lot of work engages with ideas of Indigeneity and/or queer liberation, although I try to look at ways I can massage it into the story; I want to activate feelings rather than state things on the nose.

I think the process of putting pen to paper is an act of sovereignty. At least within the confines of the page, there is a sense of freedom being a queer Native person creating.

—Doane Tulugaq Avery

MS: Doane, one of the themes you explored in your project Mama Dragon is that of advocacy: advocacy for others and for the self. Can you talk a bit about why it’s important for you to explore this and how you advocate for yourself?

DTA: I’m really trying to shed my insecurities and anxiety around being a storyteller and advocating for my own voice. But I have been very lucky in having people around me that advocate for me. It’s one way I see Mama Dragon having a positive influence on expanding efforts around advocacy and lifting your voice for the rights of others. It was something that was really interesting to me as I was learning more about the organization from my mom, who is a mama dragon.

It took a long time after I came out for my family to be able to accept that I was queer — it also was just a different time. When I came out, there wasn’t as much visibility as there is today. It’s been incredible to see how my parents have come to a place where they are far beyond acceptance: They’re out there supporting, championing, defending, and educating for and on the behalf of queer folks. I think advocacy work like begins to change the fabric of society in positive ways.

The mama dragons say they want to breathe fire for their LGBTQIA+ family members. I love that sentiment. I’ve always had a fire in my belly. It’s in my nature. I am here to breathe fire for queer and Indigenous representation. I’m here to breathe fire for the voices suppressed and lives oppressed.

MS: There’s been a surge of onscreen LGBTQIA+ representation in the media in the last few years. What do you think we still need to see in terms of queer representation, and why?

DTA: I think there is still so much to undo or reframe. In a lot of the movies I grew up with, queerness — if it was represented at all — was used as a background tool for comedic purposes that had its roots in shaming or belittling. It felt so dehumanizing. Not only is it damaging, it’s also lazy and gross. There are plenty of more recent films that continue to do this, and as long as their audiences keep laughing, they’ll probably keep rolling along with it, which is all the more reason we need more queer representation at every level of filmmaking.

I wish that the gatekeepers would allow queer voices to shape the cinematic landscape rather than distorting queer voices to patriarchal, capitalistic views that too often shape storytelling. For a long time, queer filmmakers were niche, experimental, and underground. I’m happy that there are some queer filmmakers who have found wider audiences, and I feel optimistic that we are getting closer to a gradual, consistent growth that will support more positive, more inclusive representation of queer creators, characters, and stories. I think as storytellers, we are already here; we just need more producers, execs, and financiers to meet us where we are and get these stories made.

MS: What impact do you hope your projects will have?

DTA: Storytelling is at the center of cultural sustainability, and I find storytelling not only a useful tool in navigating life, but also a powerful source in strengthening one’s adaptability. In general, change comes slow. But I hope that my projects both inspire people to find the courage to consider something outside of themselves, and widen the lens of queer and Native people while humanizing our experiences and creating spaces for connectivity. I want my stories to be fun, relatable, and entertaining while inspiring others to be disruptors of oppressive systems.

MS: What are you working on next?

DTA: After the Native Lab, I’ve been focusing on Mama Dragon. The inspiration and support that came out of the lab experience has really helped center the heart of the story, and I’m loving spending time with the characters as I further develop the series. I’m also working on building a short film I made, Gently, Jennifer, into a feature script.

Doane Tulugua Avery's short "Gently, Jennifer."

MS: What advice do you have for aspiring queer and Indigenous filmmakers?

DTA: As queer and/or Indigenous people, we are some of the baddest, most tenacious, wickedly talented, and funniest people I know. We’re more than survivors: We’re the ones that will lead with truth, uprooting false narratives that created a divisive, destructive foundation that only benefits some. That foundation will crack, and the light that seeps through the cracks will be the work coming from queer artists, BIPOC artists, and artists from other marginalized groups. So don’t be afraid — do the thing. Create.


A Q&A WITH JAMIE JOHN

Jamie John is a Two-Spirit Anishinaabe and Korean multidisciplinary artist living in their historic homeland of so-called Michigan. They're an enrolled tribal citizen of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, a graduate in interdisciplinary arts at Interlochen Arts Academy, and currently reconnecting to their Anishinaabe ceremonial way of life. Art has been used as a tool to carve out a space for Jamie, despite the impact of colonialism, intergenerational suffering, and gender violence.

MOI SANTOS: What or who inspired you to create stories?

JAMIE JOHN: Two moments come to mind when I think about why I tell stories, and both of these moments happened on Oscar night, aka February 9, 2020. I’m only half watching on my uncle’s couch since I’m expecting the same four only half-handsome white dudes to clean the house like they did years before. Worldly circumstances had beaten me down so badly, from COVID cutting my first residency short, to the rejection letters that outweighed any ounce of acceptance, to watching the Oscars on a couch in my uncle’s house because I didn’t have anywhere else to go.

The nominees are announced, little golden statues are given out, and rambling, nervous speeches fall out of open mouths. I sit on a couch imagining myself as a boxer who has taken his last hit before the knockout. That’s when I heard Taika Watiti win the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for Jojo Rabbit, the only movie I wanted to see out of everything Delta offered on my flight from Japan to Detroit. Toward the end of his speech, Taika says this: “This is dedicated to all the Indigenous kids in the world who want to do art and dance and write stories. We are the original storytellers.”

Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit.”

I know in my heart that I was meant to hear those words. Later that same night, Bong Joon-Ho his film Parasite broke records, becoming the first Korean movie to win in any of its nominated categories. What that night meant for me, a young Indigenous and Korean kid, was that people who looked like me were being seen.

MS: What approach do you take with your storytelling? How did you develop that approach, and how do you hold on to it throughout your process?

JJ: In my years of being a storyteller, I’ve found that the more personal I make my story, the more universal it seems to become. I strive to intertwine personal narrative with my knowledge of historical consciousness. The weight of the histories of my ancestors is something I carry with grace, but that doesn’t mean it’s not heavy.

My processes are often research-heavy, and this research is a way of putting my work in historical context, to inform material and execution, and the purpose of the story I’m attempting to tell. I address Indigenous knowledge, history, and ways of being with the utmost respect, and remind non-Indigenous viewers to keep in mind that we are not a monolith — that individuals can only represent their nation(s), not an entire demographic of peoples.

In order to tell our stories, we as Indigenous/colonized people must be unafraid to imagine a different world. I can’t help but dream of what the world would look like if our treaties were respected, if our sovereignty was implemented, and if we were listened to when we spoke.

—Jamie John

When creating, I keep in mind the generations that came before me and the generations that will come after. I’m conscious of who I carry and what I carry in this body of mine. In order to tell our stories, we as Indigenous/colonized people must be unafraid to imagine a different world. I can’t help but dream of what the world would look like if our treaties were respected, if our sovereignty was implemented, and if we were listened to when we spoke. This is the world I believe our stories can create.

MS: Who was the first character on screen you identified with, and why?

JJ: Lilo from the movie Lilo & Stich was one of the first movies I watched over and over again. I remember seeing a little Native Hawaiian girl with long hair who spoke her language and danced and painted pictures. I remember seeing her with her little blue alien and seeing her take pictures of all the tourists. I still watch Lilo and Stitch quite a bit because I still find myself relating to the same little girl. I’m still a jingle-dress dancer, I’m still an avid painter, and I’m working on learning more of my Native language every day. Another thing I love about this movie is that often when writers — particularly white writers — write about aliens, they fail to recognize the anti-Indigenous sentiments and the colonial parallels that influence their writings and storylines. Lilo & Stitch subverts these expectations in such a lovable and joyful way without othering Indigenous peoples or straight-up ignoring them as science fiction often does.

MS: What does Pride mean to you?

JJ: Queerness has historically been censored, erased, and buried by the persistence of settler colonialism and white supremacy. Pride is being able to be able to walk in this world as an Indigi-queer every day. It’s having my Indigeneity recognized in queer spaces and my queerness honored in Indigenous spaces. It means being able to stand up and show up for ourselves and our kin by making sure our trans friends get home safe, paying Black trans women, and making space for decolonization. It’s approaching decolonization and queer liberation as one and the same. It’s being able to call ourselves proud during the other 11 months of the year.

Pride is being able to be able to walk in this world as an Indigi-queer every day. It’s having my Indigeneity recognized in queer spaces and my queerness honored in Indigenous spaces.

—Jamie John

MS: How is your cinematic language shaped (or not shaped) by your queer and Indigenous identities? Do any other identities overlap?

JJ: Sugar and Rice was my first piece exploring my relationship to my gender through the lens of my culture and relationships with the simultaneous absence and presence of a father figure. My biological father is Korean and my mother is Indigenous. My mother later married my current father, who is Indigenous, to land we now call “Mexico.” My mom remarks often that I got to pick who my dad was and that I chose well. She says we have the same smile, and even my grandma Amanda says we sound the same.

Often when we talk about masculinity, especially for East Asian and Indigenous men, we talk about accessing the same masculinity white men exercise: a masculinity built upon the active oppression of those who challenge their place in the white cis-het hierarchy. Refusing to engage or participate in this kind of masculinity has given me a freedom to redefine my gender outside of settler colonialism and white supremacy.

The visual language I find myself using as a storyteller are influenced by my love of my culture(s), my connections to the land, and my desire to embody my histories in my work. I hope to show this not only through my cinematic work but in my paintings, activism, and writings. As someone whose gender and racial identity are so intertwined, I imagine that much of my other identities overlap and enforce each other as well.

MS: What or who has helped you tap into claiming your identities?

JJ: I sometimes think about how nervous I was to make Sugar and Rice about something so personal. But I remember when Sydney James Harcourt was on my high school campus, and he stopped me on my way out of my dorm and told me how it reminded him of his dad. Shortly after I started to gather more and more stories about how my little movie had made people cry, or think about their dads, or even just that it was beautiful. These affirmations that even the most personal of stories could still be universal was something that forever changed the direction my art went in, and when I started to think about my history as an Indigenous person, as Korean American person, as a Two-Spirit and queer person, and start to feel the rewards of being known and feeling connected to an audience I wasn’t aware of.

MS: In your work, how do you honor or reclaim Indigenous Sovereignty and/or queer liberation?

JJ: I choose to see every single piece of work as my way of taking up the space that is not allotted to me under settler colonialism and white supremacy. This act of taking up space and choosing to create something is an act of self sovereignty and liberation. With the space that I take up, I also make an effort to honor those before me, my community, my family, and my nation. Using Anishinaabe legend as the blueprint, incorporating our contemporary history, and respecting Indigenous knowledge as truth is an approach I find myself taking when discussing storytelling and sovereignty.

I choose to see every single piece of work as my way of taking up the space that is not allotted to me under settler colonialism and white supremacy. This act of taking up space and choosing to create something is an act of self sovereignty and liberation.

—Jamie John

MS: There’s been a surge of onscreen LGBTQIA+ representation in media in the last few years. What do you think we still need to see in terms of queer representation, and why?

JJ: I heard someone say that a lot of on-screen LGBTQIA+ media isn’t written for LGBTQIA+ people, and it made a lot of sense to me. My sister said the other day while watching Love, Victor that the show was bad, but that she was watching it because the main character was gay and Mexican. I thought, “God, are we truly so starved to see ourselves that we’re picking at scraps?” I struggle with feelings of being represented and feeling pandered to — especially when I see stories that end in us dying, being traumatized, or being used as plot devices, or to fill some kind of quota.

While we’re coming into an era where we can be seen on-screen and have our stories told, we also must be watchful of those looking to use our experiences for profit. Nothing is perfect and representation can only do so much, but I think we must remain open and critical of the media we find ourselves reflected in. I want the medicine we carry within ourselves to be respected and revered. Even with our representation across the media, we still have anti-trans bills being passed by legislation in multiple states, we see trans kids who are barred from sports and things they love because of their gender, and we still have pipelines being drilled on Indigenous land.

Works from Jamie John's series "Unceded."

If representation were a direct way to positive systemic change, I believe we would’ve seen it by now. We’ve got to see some more stories that center our joy and our cultures, and don’t cater or sell themselves to the cisgender heterosexual gaze. I want us as queer folks to stop being censored, sexualized, or made out to be the worst thing you could possibly be.

MS: What impact do you hope your projects will have?

JJ: I’m hoping that the work I put out into the world is part of “doing the work” it takes to decolonize our mindsets and worldviews, and challenges settler colonialism. The ultimate hope is being able to see the work I create take on a life of its own and have what needs to be resonate with those who need to hear it most. Ultimately, I’d like my projects to take on a life of their own and become a part of someone else’s story.

MS: What are you working on next?

JJ: This summer, while working as a visual arts teacher for Interlochen Arts Camp in the multidisciplinary arts department, I’ll be finishing up the first draft of my short film, Ogichidaa to the Moon. “Ogichidaa” is Anishinaabemowin word meaning “warrior” or “ceremony head,” and it takes place during the time of the ’60s against the backdrop of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.

To protect themselves and their way of life, Ogichidaa and Oshkaabewis (an Anishinaabemowin word meaning “helper” or “guide”) set up a camp to contact the star world. The Indian agents on the hunt for the technology and communication skills the Anishinaabe developed with the cosmos. I’m hoping to get the “puke” draft done by the beginning of August, and I’ll be able to get other sets of eyes on the screenplay.

I’m also hoping to dive a little deeper into video art, because as someone who’s painted all their life and continues paint now, this idea of moving images and doing more work like Sugar and Rice is something I’ve very deeply moved by right now. A new love which I’m crediting the uncovering of to Fox Maxy, another Indigenous queer filmmaker who I met through the Full-Circle Capstone.

MS: What advice do you have for aspiring queer and indigenous storytellers?

JJ: Someone needs to hear what you need to say. Every moment in the universe had been set in time so that you could be here and carry on our stories. The resistance of our ancestors to queerphobia and colonization lives within you, and no one should ever underestimate generational strength.

Decolonization, correcting our elders when they find themselves regurgitating colonial thoughts, and holding our sacred spaces in ceremony is how we find the way we’re supposed to live as Indigenous peoples. Our time to speak out is long overdue, and to change our material conditions, get our land back, have clean water, and secure a safe and free future, we must speak up. What other choice do we have?

Our time to speak out is long overdue, and to change our material conditions, get our land back, have clean water, and secure a safe and free future, we must speak up. What other choice do we have?

—Jamie John

Keep doing what you’re doing. Even when it’s hard, even when it sucks, even when it doesn’t even seem like anyone’s paying attention, I promise you that somebody is listening. Someone is paying attention and someone is looking up to you. You are someone’s future ancestor, someone’s elder — you are the medicine we need.


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Lead photo:

Artists Doane Tulugaq Avery (Iñupiaq) and Jamie John (Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians).