Gay artist finds acceptance in the past

Story weaves personal story with traditional Ojibway beliefs honouring two-spirited agokwes

Performer and playwright Waawaate Fobister recounts the day 11 years ago that he flew to the Whitefish Lake reserve in Ontario to reconnect with a young hockey player Mike whom he had met previously and fallen in love with.

Unbeknownst to Fobister the same day he flew to Whitefish with the hope of surprising Mike was the day Mike committed suicide.

“This was before Facebook. There was no Internet connection on the reserve no cellphones.

“I secretly got a job on the Whitefish reserve to renew that strong connection with Mike. I was looking around for him on the reserve hoping to bump into him at the store or at a hockey event. I was actually looking for him for a few weeks before I found out he had committed suicide” Fobister says.

That tragedy formed the basis for Fobister’s one-man show Agokwe now playing at the High Performance Rodeo.

“I wanted to keep the spirit of Mike alive. I loved him” he explains.

Fobister is Ojibway and grew up on the Grassy Narrows reserve near Kenora Ontario. As a teen he was the only gay youth on his reserve a situation that led to such a bad beating he ended up hospitalized.

“I didn’t know any other gay people on my reserve. I had no one to look up to no other youth to go through the experience with me” Fobister recalls though he says his parents were accepting of his homosexuality and that he “paved the way” for his little brother to come out as a young teen.

Fobister blames European assimilation and colonization for altering the Ojibway viewpoint on homosexuality.

“Our old society is kind of lost…. The contemporary Ojibway community does not look too highly on gay people but our traditional society was more accepting.

“Since our (traditional) society operated on a spiritual basis gay people were looked up to because they had balanced male and female spirits in them. They were the spiritual leaders the medicine doctors. They had a huge responsibility in the community” Fobister explains.

In Agokwe Fobister interweaves his personal story with traditional Ojibway beliefs and teachings regarding the two-spirited “agokwes.”

He embodies several characters in his one-man show which won six Dora Awards when it made its Toronto debut in 2008: the autobiographical character of Jake; Mike the teenaged hockey player who is the object of Jake’s affections; Mike’s mother whom Fobister modeled after his own grandmother; Mike’s female cousin Goose who also has her eyes on Mike; and Nanabush a trickster character present in traditional Ojibway folklore.

Fobister describes Agokwe as a story about desire love and loss. For instance Jake and Mike can’t openly acknowledge their love for one another as it would be too “damaging” to Mike’s hockey-player reputation.

“I think it’s a show that everyone can relate to” he says. “Everyone goes through those things at some point in their lives.”

Fobister acknowledges that social activism is part of his artistic agenda and to this end he has performed Agokwe for many First Nations youth. In fact following his performance in Calgary Fobister will perform the play in Maskwacis (formerly Hobbema).

Fobister also has a personal goal connected to this show: to tell Mike’s mother about Agokwe .

“I really want to develop a relationship with Mike’s mother but I’m kind of scared to do so. She doesn’t know this play is about her son and I don’t want to tarnish her memory of him” he says.

“But it’s one of my goals to go over there eventually and talk to her.”