The new exhibit at Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center in Grand Ronde has an unusual beginning for its curatorial statement:
“We wanted to start with the line ‘We are not historians’,” said co-curator Anthony Hudson. “This is history that is accessible by anyone, you just have to know where to look.”
Hudson and Felix Furby, curated ‘My Father’s Father’s Sister: Our Ancestor Shimkhin’ which explores the life of Shimkhin, a 19th-century Two-Spirit Atfalati Kalapuya healer. Born in 1821, Shimkhin lived through a time of enormous change for Indigenous people. The Indian Appropriations Act of 1851 started the forced relocation of tribal communities from their ancestral homelands onto reservations. By 1957, more than 30 tribal bands from western Oregon, northern California, and southwest Washington were forced onto land near the Oregon coast, creating what’s now known as The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.
“[Shimkhin] lived during a time of a lot of change, during her lifetime reservations were established and there were massive cultural shifts,” Furby said. “She was born in an era of acceptance from her community, [but] that was no longer the overall environment by the time that she died.”
During her lifetime, Indigenous children were also being taken from their communities and forced into boarding schools to learn English and adopt colonial ways of dressing, working and living. Furby explained that as part of the process of assimilation, one of the first things that white settlers attempted to control was gender.
“When Indigenous children were brought into a boarding school, one of the first things was ‘Line up, we’re cutting your hair’,” Furby said. “It wasn’t just, ‘be a woman an Indigenous way’, it was ‘be a woman our way’, ‘be a man our way’, and any other genders or gender expressions that we, from a settler’s perspective, don’t deem worthy of existing, cut it out or you’re in danger.”
Undoing Shame by Reconnecting to Culture
“Felix was the first Queer person from my tribe that I’ve met,” said Hudson, who met Furby in 2019 after a performance of his drag persona, Carla Rossi. “After the show, Felix walks up to me and he’s like, ‘You’re Queer and Grand Ronde, I’m Queer and Grand Ronde’ and then we just stared at each other.”
The pandemic caused the pair to lose touch, but they reconnected last year after a talk Hudson gave at the Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center as part of his Indigenous Place Keeping Artist Fellowship.
“[The talk] was about being Two-Spirit, being gay, making art that is drag but calling it contemporary native storytelling,” Hudson said. “Before my talk, [we] got together and Felix started sharing all of this information about Shimkhin with me.”
Furby doesn’t identify as two-spirit, but a national conversation about the term a few years ago prompted him to start looking into his own identity as someone Queer, trans, and Indigenous.
“At the time it was like, ‘Well, do we have any Queer history?’” Furby said “Because what I’d heard around the community were things like, ‘Well, that comes from a settler perspective’ [or] ‘That’s from the outside, pressuring us to change’.”
But through his research, Furby found that wasn’t the case. Queerness was part of the Indigenous history, but assimilation had tried to sever the community’s connection to it. Furby started by talking with people in his own tribal communities, but never got any concrete answers until he read through a history of early Grand Ronde Indians written by tribal elder June Olson.
“Right there, very plainly in the pages was Shimkhin – also referred to as Nancy Jack in this book – and it was just so completely obvious, like undeniably obvious, this is a transfeminine person,” he said.
Furby explained that the entry for Shimkhin used different historical sources which switched between different pronouns and talked about her assigned sex at birth versus her presentation as a woman. The information had been there all along, but Furby and Hudson said people just weren’t seeing it.
“When people that aren’t part of a specific identity or community, they don’t recognize themselves in the content that they’re analyzing,” Hudson said. “So sometimes look right past the thing that is right there staring at you.”
“It’s an example of the bias that can erase Queer people from our history,” Furby said. “When I laid my Queer eyeballs on the history, all of this jumped out and became so obvious I was like, ‘I need to share this’.”
Our Ancestor Shimkhin
The exhibit is a mix of historical text, artwork, music and more, all surrounding a 7-foot-tall, backlit portrait of Shimkhin illustrated by Steph Littlebird. Littlebird is a Grand Ronde tribal member who is also Two-Spirit and Atfalati Kalapuya, just like Shimkhin. Hudson explained that when they were creating the exhibit, they had a lot of text, but not a lot of images.
“It’s very likely that there are images of her hidden in collections, just documented alongside other women,” Hudson said. “And she just is missing in the middle like a “Where’s Waldo” of Queer history.”
Littlebird’s portrait features Shimkhin in profile surrounded by a halo of light. There are also coyotes and the image of water, tributes to some of the spirit powers Shimkhin was said to possess as a healer.
“We have at a record of at least four spirit powers being mentioned for Shimkhin, she might have had more,” Furby said. “Skiyup power [which was] the power to become women, coyote power which gave her clairvoyance, water power which we haven’t found a lot of description on and then dead person power which was part of her healing [power].”
In addition to the illustration, half of the exhibit is historical text pulled directly from the tribal members’ original accounts. But a crucial piece of this exhibit hinged on retranslating the text without a white settler viewpoint. That’s because much of the tribal history preserved today was collected by white ethnolinguists like Melville Jacobs, who came to the reservation in the early 1900′s in order to record the languages and traditions of Native American tribes. Jacobs thought he was capturing the last Indigenous peoples in the Pacific Northwest, Hudson said, “as a grave marker.”
One of Jacobs’ interviews was with Shimkhin’s niece Victoria Howard, which inspired the title of the exhibit.
“‘My father’s father’s sister was a shaman’ – that’s her words,” Hudson said. “But then in parentheses after that you see ‘and also a transvestite’ [which] was added by Melville Jacobs.”
As a Queer, Indigenous linguist, Furby was fully prepared to go back to the original texts to retranslate them without a white settler lens.
“Even in the original languages, this is still them talking to an outsider trying to explain things,” he said. “There’s multiple acts of translation, there’s them translating it for the settler and then there’s the settler re-translating it for other settlers.”
In one section of text pulled from a first-hand account by Hudson’s great-great uncle John “Mose” Hudson, Furby drew brackets around the male pronouns that were added in the translation.
“Those are all of the added pronouns that are necessary in order for English to function, that are not necessary in order for Santiam Kalapuya,” he said. “Santiam Kalapuya does not use pronouns the same way as English and it also does not specify gender most of the time.”
Furby said that when you’re learning a language with the purpose of revitalization, the goal is to step into that worldview, especially since many English words don’t have a counterpart in Indigenous languages.
“When we were trying to find a word for Queer – or like, what is the word for our identities for that our ancestors had – we can’t find a word,” Hudson said. “And when we find the precedent of Shimkhin being so respected in her tribe and in her community, we think we didn’t need a word... We just existed as people.”
Each wall of the exhibit shares that sentiment via three different Indigenous languages – Santiam Kalapuyan, Atfalati Kalapuyan and Chinuk Wawa – “We are always here”.
Hudson said a goal for the exhibit is to show a vision for the future that is rooted in the past, which is why the final section celebrates the Indigiqueer people who exist today and those that will come tomorrow.
“We’re circular people and that’s a big part of the idea,” Hudson said. “At some point, you go so far forward that you’re back at the beginning.”
“My Father’s Father’s Sister: Our Ancestor Shimkhin’ will be at the Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center in Grand Ronde until November 4, 2023.
Lead image: Co-curators Anthony Hudson, left, and Felix Furby sitting in their exhibit at the Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center in Grand Ronde on June 26, 2023. 'My Father’s Father’s Sister: Our Ancestor Shimkhin' celebrates Oregon's queer Indigenous history, focusing on the respected 19th-century Atfalati Kalapuya healer Shimkhin. Crystal Ligori / OPB