photos: Burlesque group Virago Nation formed in 2016. Flint & Feather Photography

Sovereign sexuality

Indigenous burlesque group Virago Nation uses explicit demonstrations of free will to dismantle colonial stereotypes and reclaim female eroticism.

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Six feisty burlesque performers are using their collective history, art and feisty feminism to reclaim sovereignty over their own sexuality.

Virago Nation is a Vancouver-based all-Indigenous burlesque group fighting against the damaging effects of colonialism by representing what healthy, fun, happy relationships with Indigenous women look like.

“Colonial images and stereotypes of Indigenous women cast us as highly sexualized objects—people to be used, people to be exploited, people to be consumed and dehumanized,” explains Virago Nation member Shane Sable in a phone interview.

Now the women are fighting back.

“By participating in an art form that is inherently sexual and doing it with an explicit demonstration of free will, [we are] dismantling internally damaging ‘whore- phobia,’ oppression and slut shaming,” says Sable. “What we are doing is undermining a patriarchal system. We return [our bodies] to ourselves and we return them to the Indigenous women who came before us who were unable to lay that claim.”

Sable is from the Gitxsan Nation with mixed heritage and performs alongside Ruthe Ordare (Mohawk Nation); Scarlet Delirium (Kwakitul and Irish/Scottish heritage); Manda Stroyer (Dakota/Sioux with mixed heritage); Sparkle Plenty (Cree and Métis) and RainbowGlitz (Haida, Squamish and Musqueam).

The six ladies were individually established performers when they joined forces in 2016 to form Virago Nation.

Sable was returning from a two-year performance hiatus and wanted to connect with Indigenous artists in the city. Her previous burlesque personality did not include her Indigenous identity and she was searching for women to reach out to and talk about it.

“Making art while Indigenous can be hard. It’s really fraught with politics,” says Sable. “So the group initially formed as an artistic-based community of support.”

But after two months of meeting for brunch, the group moved beyond a support system.

“Even though each of us has a really different relationship to our Indigeneity, we all share similar colonial experiences. We share a colonial history with Indigenous people all over,” she adds.

The women used this lens to start collaborating and reintroducing themselves as burlesque performers in their Indigenous context, creating Virago Nation to both celebrate their heritage and to tackle issues facing them as performers.

They debuted at Talking Stick Festival 2017, which Sable says is still her favourite performance to date.

There were nerves leading up to the performance as the group worried the Indigenous community would view their performance as further damaging to a people already marginalized by sexual violence.

“When your art form is taking your clothes off, the concern is that you are perpetuating that systemic violence against yourself and against your people,” explains Sable.

But their worries were quickly quashed. Looking out from the stage, Sable was overwhelmed at the many supportive faces of colour beaming back at her.

“Not only are we re-matriating our own power, but we are re-matriating our own bodies,” she says.

Virago Nation aims to represent the many aspects of female sexuality, too. Whether women feel most comfortable and sexy when silly, or when angry, the Virago ladies work on lifting up their differences to be as inclusive as possible.

The members also celebrate their distinct First Nations and their unique histories in their performances.

Scarlet Delirium celebrates the orca as her family crest in one number and Sable has an act entitled “Mother of Bilaa” (the Gitxsan word for abalone), inspired by both the language and the shellfish.

Since its 2017 debut, Virago Nation has performed in the first-ever burlesque show at the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology; were voted 13th best in the world for 21st Century Burlesque Magazine’s TOP 50 2017 competition; and did a showcase performance at the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. In late October, images of the group were part of the Testify: Indigenous Laws + Arts exhibit at the University of Victoria.

But Sable feels the group’s most important performance occurred in Fort St. James. Born in Smithers, B.C., Sable says she
has always felt a pull to return to small communities and bring the opportunity 
of joy and healing to women outside of city centres where access to resources and community support can be lacking.

Burlesque performers from these isolated areas often reach out to Virago Nation and thank them for their work.

“They were coming forward and saying 'thank you for being visible because I feel so alone. But I see you and I know I am not’,” says Sable. “It gives me goosebumps. If you ever needed to know you were doing the right thing, I feel like that is proof.”

Sable also remembers positive feedback she received from an elder while working on a radio show. The elder called in
and told Sable this was the right time  
to be having this conversation, that her grandparents taught her art is made from necessity, and that Virago Nation was creating art which was needed. Sable said she almost cried from gratitude—instead of a conservative pushback from the larger Indigenous community, she was given the most warm, embracing reaction instead.

Currently, members of Virago Nation are working on a new, yet unnamed, performance where each woman will perform to music by an Indigenous artist. They are hoping to debut the performance at Talking Stick Festival 2019 as a nod to where they got their start. Sable will perform to “Rumble” by Link Wray to convey the power she feels while on stage and to honour  the Indigenous influence on music.

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