Jessica Yee: Unleashing Youth Voice And Agency
FRIDAY FILE: The list of descriptors for 24-year old Jessica Yee is long but fitting: Two Spirit, Indigenous, hip-hop feminist and reproductive justice freedom fighter from the Mohawk nation with roots in the Canada-U.S. border region and residence in both countries. She speaks with AWID about sexual and reproductive justice for Native and aboriginal youth.
By Masum Momaya
As founder and Executive Director of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, Jessica Yee works for healthy sexuality, reproductive justice, cultural competency, and youth empowerment in native and aboriginal communities . In this interview, she explains how colonization suppressed Native understandings of gender, sex and sexuality; why Native youth are particularly susceptible to violence and HIV/AIDS; and why culturally-competent youth empowerment is the way forward.
AWID: Can you tell us more about the impact of colonization on understandings of sexuality and how you draw upon Native cultural traditions to reclaim what sex and sexuality mean?
Jessica Yee (JY): Native peoples did not wait for Christopher Columbus to come and teach us about sex. Why wouldn’t we assume that our ancestors had knowledge and power about something so fundamental about their own bodies? We didn’t wake up one day and say to ourselves “Hmmm – I think sex is important to talk about!” Aboriginal people have long believed in the sacredness of sex.
What were our people doing before the invention of clinical medicine and the written word? What do people think we used to do before sex toy stores and pornography? Not believe in pleasure? As if!
Often times we put culture and sex into two separate boxes when trying to live as healthy, pleasure-filled, sexual beings in this modern world – and I refuse to do that. My culture tells me so much about my sexuality - most of all, that I should be unapologetic for it.
There is so much knowledge and strength to draw on in our past with regard to healthy sexuality today, yet there is a great shortage of culturally appropriate resources available that actually includes our traditions. I get so tired of seeing my own people shown in an adverse light, especially when it comes to exploiting our sexuality and appropriating Indigenous concepts and teachings. We must become the stewards of the information going out about us, and not allow anybody to take claim on what our people actually started.
AWID: Are Native youth living in urban areas impacted differently than those in rural areas in terms of sexual and reproductive health issues?
JY: Of course – geography dictates access to a whole bunch of things. Urban areas generally have more services due to larger populations - but it also doesn’t necessarily mean that urban centres are entirely better off than rural areas and vice-versa. There are many things you can get in a home community that cannot get in the city, like access to specific cultural traditions.
Many people still have the stereotypical picture of Native people as living in remote areas, on reservations and in teepees. But in both the United States and Canada more than half of us live in urban centres, and we are invisible. 60,000 Native people live in Toronto, but you would never know that from walking down the city streets. Los Angeles has an identified American Indian population of more than 140,000, and there is an amazing urban Native community there. Now there’s talk of creating urban reserves – where you would be able to get more culturally and community based services like you might get on the reservation.
Recently, I participated in an exhibition exploring what being Native in the city means. It was called Concrete Indians and was put together by Anishinaabe photographer Nadya Kwandibens. In my photo, I sit on a stack of books at a women’s bookstore. When you live in a city, sometimes the representation you get of your own nation is from books. I sat on top of mainstream feminist books with my Haudenosaunee flag to say, “I deserve to know where feminism REALLY comes from. I don’t just want to learn about my culture from books.”
AWID: How are LGBTQI persons viewed within Native communities? Is there homophobia?
JY: One of the clearest examples of how sexuality was colonized is evident in how homophobia came to be in a lot of Indigenous nations and now in society as a whole. English itself is a confusing and demonizing language, which the dominant society here insists we still speak. It has created binaries like ‘gay and straight’ and ‘supremacy and subservience,’ which many of our communities simply didn’t subscribe to prior to colonization.
I’m a proud Two Spirit young woman. “Two Spirit” means having both a male and a female spirit in addition one’s sexual identity and preferences. Some people argue that the word was coined in the early 1990s when Aboriginal people felt like the mainstream queer rights movement wasn’t addressing our realities, but the meaning of Two Spirit has been around since time immemorial. In a lot of Indigenous languages there are direct translations of Two Spirit. Many indigenous languages don’t even have gender pronouns – people are just people, and that’s how it is.
Two Spirit people were revered as leaders, shamans and medicine people and were essentially very well respected in the community. We had specific roles in spiritual ceremonies. In the process of colonization, colonizers go after sources of power within a community – and in many cases this was women and Two-Spirit people.
So a special note to Kinsey and all the other sexuality scholars who think they are revolutionary in their theories – gender fluidity ain’t a new concept at all! And it’s not enough to romanticize our history as Indigenous people and think that sexuality existing across a spectrum might have been so many thousands of years ago and “oh, wow, look at how the Natives used to do it!” It’s not that long ago that this was the norm, and we took it seriously. It’s time to do some real acknowledgment and honoring. Maybe our teachings can help us all in this extremely heteronormative, patriarchal world.
AWID: How are Native youth being impacted by sexually-transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV/AIDS?
JY: Native youth are drastically being impacted by STIs and HIV/AIDS because of “social determinants of health” or what I like to call “what we already know and have experienced for quite some time.” Poverty, racism and poor access to services all influence our health outcomes. In Canada’s Northwest Territories, we see Chlamydia rates in the aboriginal population at 11 times the national average. Also, over 25% of new HIV infections are in Aboriginal youth. In the United States, Native Americans represent just over 1% of the population yet have the third highest rate of HIV infection in the country.
This is precisely why we need culturally competent, integrated and relevant services – not just something that has a feather or medicine wheel on it and is labeled “Native.” Part of what motivated me to start the Native Youth Sexual Health Network was looking around and not feeling represented in sexual and reproductive health outside of disease control. Prevention and awareness are not just about controlling disease. Culturally competent services will include the things we already have in our culture to stay healthy and examining what we used to do to live with our sexuality positively.
AWID: You have spoken about the importance of peer-based health education. Can you tell us more about this, including what some of the core messages and components are?
JY: It means “by us for us!”
Adults and healthcare professionals should know by now that peer education is important. But there is a difference between expressing and implementing support, and a lot of that comes down to power. I often ask people “do you support youth to the point where we are taking up power and space? Or do you only support youth because it sounds good?” We’ve got a lot more work to do to EMPOWER youth where we don’t just incorporate one token youth in programs and projects – and ask her or him to speak for all youth.
AWID: The issue of violence against native women in the U.S. and Canada has been receiving increasing coverage lately. How would you characterize the levels of violence now?
JY: I’ve been reflecting recently on why violence against Aboriginal women is all of a sudden receiving mainstream media attention. Ask anybody from an Indigenous community or nation and you will hear that this has been going on for 500+ years. I certainly don’t feel like the violence is subsiding or going away. This violence is deeply entrenched in many of our communities, to the point of lateral and internalized violence and oppression.
It’s great that there seems to be a sort of heightened awareness regarding the degree of violence however that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t question why it’s happening all of a sudden and why, within and amidst the awareness raising, pigeonholing, typecasting, and blatant racism are still so prevalent today.
AWID: Are experiences of violence different for youth than for elders?
JY: Aboriginal people have a very high birth rate and youth are the majority of aboriginal populations today. So higher incidences of violence occur against young people because we are a larger part of the population. Still, abuse happens in the elder population, too, including violence and other intersecting realities, like HIV transmission.
AWID: You have been making specific efforts to work across gender lines, including men in your organizing and advocacy efforts and recently publishing Protecting the Circle: Aboriginal Men Ending Violence Against Women. Can you say more about this?
JY: Often when we talk “gender issues” we’re really just referring to women. Gender exists of course across a broad continuum, and the sexual and reproductive health world doesn’t have to solely be dominated by women.
If we’re not working full circle to address gender equality by working with men, it is going to continue way past my future grandchildren’s time! We have a responsibility to the current and future generations to do our best to try and stop these cycles of sexism, but most importantly to create spaces where men can talk frankly about sex, sexuality and gender stereotypes.
Many young men feel confined to fixed gender roles, and there is no alternative reality for them to grow up in. How much change could we affect if we work with young men so that double standards and machismo aren’t the accepted norm for them?
Read more of Jessica Yee’s ideas in the Racialicious blog, Bitch magazine and her recently released book Sex Ed and Youth: Colonization, Communities of Color and Sexuality.
Note: This article is part of the AWID’s weekly Friday File series, exploring important issues and events from a women’s rights perspective. To subscribe to the weekly Friday File newsletter, click here.
 “Aboriginal” is a term generally used in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. In Canada, it denotes three distinctly different groups of Indigenous peoples: Indians (or First Nations), Métis, and Inuit. There is a huge amount of diversity between the 3 groups and many argue that they are in fact lumped together in categories instituted and delineated by the Canadian government.
 American Indian, Native American, Native Hawaiian, and Alaska Native are terms generally used in the United States. Not everyone agrees with them.