Cherokee and Native Philadelphian singer/songwriter/dancer Tony Enos is on a mission to bring his Two Spirit message to the masses -- and has The Ellen Degeneres Show in his sights.
Enos’s latest triumph is his “Two Spirit” single, released in October 2015. He describes it as “a song for the movement, welcoming Two Spirits from all Nations back into the sacred hoop.” The performer credits the East Coast Two Spirit Society with creating a safe space that enabled him to direct the “Two Spirit” music video.
Enos took time out of his schedule to offer more insight into his work and the experiences that have shaped his perspective via email.
What was your Urban NDN experience growing up in Philly?
As much as I love Philadelphia, it was difficult growing up there being "different" from other kids. I was outnumbered by bullies and I got teased a lot for being a native two-spirit with my body type. My father, who is part Cherokee, never wanted to discuss our Native lineage. Whenever I pushed the issue it turned into a huge argument, which is one of the reasons why our relationship is still on the mend today. I felt very isolated and being disconnected from my Native culture was hard, which is why I cherish it so much today.
How old were you when you realized that you're Two Spirit?
I always knew I was "different" from other boys as far back as I can remember. I just had an innate awareness of myself and everyone around me pretty much knew I wasn’t your typical kid. At 11-years-old I came out to my family and I can't say that anyone was shocked (lol!). Although once I confirmed who I was to them, there were some family members who found it more difficult to accept than others.
Like many a creative Philadelphian you've relocated to NYC.
There definitely was a need to get out there and see the world, and when it comes to the arts, you just can't beat the NYC arts scene. I had to find myself in this beautiful technicolor melting pot of artists and their amazing talents. NYC is a special place for having one of turtle island's largest populations of urban NDN’s. To have that community here is like none I’ve ever experienced before and I thank the creator for it everyday.
Again, I couldn't love Philly more, or be prouder to be a native born and raised Philadelphian. There's a pulse and a heartbeat that runs deep in that city and it's the heartbeat of it's people.
However, one of the things I've always found disheartening there is the disproportionate ratio of opportunities to recording artists. It is very difficult to be a working artist in Philadelphia, and considering the city's rich musical history it's a sad reality that just shouldn't be. It's definitely one of the things that I'm actively working to change.
I will say what keeps my heart in Philadelphia, aside from my own family and friends, is the sense of family and tradition there. I was raised in a neighborhood where you smiled at those who you passed on the street, saying "hello" or "good morning", and folks watched out for one another. If you did something bad your parents knew about it before you even got home (laughs) so there was a real genuine sense of community like no other.
You are also involved with EC2SS - how did that come about, what projects have you been involved with for them, and how did you connect with Sade, the org's 70-year-old Council Member who is also in your video?
I happened to be researching Two Spirit resources one evening online and came across an article about EC2SS. I reached out to them and got involved in the organization's activities, ultimately becoming a counsel member. I have to say what a tremendous blessing EC2SS has been for me and the east coast Two Spirit community!
East Coast Two Spirit Society (ec2ss.net) serves our Native Americans, First Nations, and Indigenous 2LGBTQ Brothers and Sister up and down the East Coast of Turtle Island. We offer various community events including Two Spirit craft nights, healing circles, and our annual Two Spirit gathering, as well as resources for our youth and teens including suicide prevention. Two Spirit youth suicide has been on the rise and an ongoing plague our youth face.
On the norm, if there's an EC2SS event, I'm there (lol) we also proudly march in the NYC Pride Parade, giving visibility to our native community, honoring our Two Spirit ancestors like We'wha who've paved the way for us, and proving our resilience. Not only are we still here, but we're growing and thriving!
I met Sade through EC2SS and it's difficult for me to talk about Sade and NOT get emotional. Sade is such a special person, her energy is pure love. She’s a cornerstone of EC2SS, a First Nations Mi'kmaq Elder who is a tremendous credit to our youth, and my Two Spirit Agiji (mom). We filmed the "Two Spirit" music video on Seneca land during the 2015 EC2SS annual gathering. She honored me by agreeing to be a part of the video and I'm beyond blessed to have shared that moment with her and to have the video as a time capsule.
She took me right in as her son, and after having my own Father repeatedly disown me for being Two Spirit, I don't take it for granted when someone takes you into their heart as family. She even gave me the hawk wing fan that I dance with. I adore her, and I thank Creator for allowing me to share time and space with her.
If you could change anything about the journey you're on, what would it be?
Wow, that's a tough question. A part of me wants to say I'd change nothing because I know it's all made me the Man I am today. But in the depths of my heart I know I'd have loved myself more and believed in myself more. My most painful memories are of things that have stolen my innocence because I didn't love myself enough at the time to say "I am worth more and better than this." I'd have learned to put a value on my love much earlier in life.
I also wish I had spent more time with my Grandmother (my Mom's mother) before she passed when I was 14. My uncles who lived at her house and my cousins were so cruel to me, that I detested even setting foot in that house. The problem is when I wasn't seeing them I also wasn't seeing her and she passed before I really understood the importance of relationships and the finality of death. That's why I tell everyone, let those you love KNOW that you love them. Don't wait.
I think it also speaks to the effects of bullying on the lives of our youth, and how it can change the trajectory of someone's life experiences. A youth in crisis is a family in crisis and bullying should never be taken as "kids being kids", it can change everything and quite possibly rob our children of so much.
You've been doing really amazing work, including performing at one of my fav Big Apple spots, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe (both individually and as part of the "Trail of Tears" docudrama), and gathering a Native team for your “Two Spirit” video [below] -- I know you are keen to perform on The Ellen Degeneres Show, so use this platform to pitch her.
Thank you for saying that. I write this response with a sense of, and weight of tremendous responsibility in my heart and in prayer to the Creator to be a vessel and get it right.
From when we decided to record and release "Two Spirit," my singular prayer has been that the song and video foster healing for our community.
As Natives we deal with the effects of intergenerational trauma and our painful history on a daily basis. When you think of what that means for our Two Spirit community who not only deal with those traumas, but with also the pain and shame of having our place in the circle taken away with colonization, the disenfranchisement and isolation can be unbearable. Our Two Spirit youth on the reservations can experience extreme isolation, internalized homophobia and so many other social plagues that too often lead to things like cutting, drug and alcohol abuse and related death, and even suicide.
For Ellen to stand as a Two Spirit ally and give us the opportunity to perform "Two Spirit" on her show would not only acknowledge Two Spirit and indigenous communities worldwide, but it would also give us the opportunity to reach Two Spirit youth around the world and give us the platform to say "you have a place in the circle right here with us, you have a family, you're perfect as you are, and we're here waiting for you to reach out so that we can reach back. The ancestors have bought and paid for your place in the sacred hoop of life. You have people who love you." I hope she'll give us the chance to save some lives that day.
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Tony Enos’s personal website can be found here.
EC2SS is raising funds for NYC Pride 2016. Read more here.
Follow ICTMN Correspondent Lisa J. Ellwood on Twitter at www.twitter.com/IconicImagery