By Alexa Lesperance
“Condoms in my birch bark medicine basket” Photo credit: Alexa Lesperance
I am thankful for wiigwaas (birch bark in Anishinaabemowin). Wiigwaas is versatile and like all things in creation, has many purposes. Wiigwaas can be used for baskets to hold delicious food to share, used to make canoes, and to make the little feast bowls I use for offerings and feasting of my namesake, spirit helpers and ancestors. Inside this particular Wiigwaasinaagan 1 (birch bark basket) are condoms, and dental dams.
Condoms & dental dams as a material item are often associated with sexuality, which even just the mention of sexuality (even without being descriptive) can feel taboo and uncomfortable. But what makes us disconnect certain ideas from each other? Why do certain thoughts in reclamation feel difficult and uncomfortable? Why might thinking of culture and sexuality in the same place feel scary? Often times it is because people have been forcefully taught, whether through systems or society, to feel ashamed of their bodies, and sexuality, and it is hard to unlearn that. On top of that, living in a fear-based culture where our identities, territories, and beings are continually under attack makes it extremely difficult to get to living and existing each day, let alone working through internalized shame about sexuality.
1. Wiigwaasinaagan: a semi-rigid or rigid container: a basket (especially one of birch bark), a box.
But we (mostly I), forget that helping to unlearn assimilation and work through shame and stigma anywhere it appears in our lives -and working through that with culture as a tool- is a part of the revolution. It nurtures our beings, strengthens our fight to keep going, and make our communities better places.
I understand the wiigwaas and the safer sex materials as advanced forms of technology that can double as forms of protection- literally and symbolically. Incorporating, wiigwaas, or culture, into my sexual health makes me feel protected. Allowing cultural items and things like safer sex materials to exist in the same place, makes things feel good for me, less intimidating, less scary, and less shameful. And an important step in reclamation is doing exactly that. Doing whatever it is you can, even in the smallest ways to try to transform shame and fear into something better.
This image to some might seem pretty commonplace, maybe weird, interesting, or outright uncomfortable. I’ll tell you though that in my community it’s definitely not an everyday occurrence. Young people including myself are often the people pushing the boundaries of culture and sexuality and this is a good thing. We need people imagining, building, and slowly creating worlds that we can see our future in. Sometimes that starts with something as simple as putting your condoms, dental dams in lube in a Wiigwaasinaagan.
Alexa Lesperance is Anishinaabe kwe, from Naotkamegwanning First Nation and is a Youth Facilitator at the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, and a first year medical student at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine.