Sunday, January 29, 2023

Drag queen Anita LandBack is a ‘love letter’ to Mi’kmaw culture


For a long time, Athanasius Sylliboy felt like they didn’t belong in Halifax’s queer community. 

Then they found drag.

Sylliboy, a two-spirit nurse practitioner originally from Eskasoni, started performing as Anita LandBack a couple months ago. Sylliboy’s pronouns are they and them

“I guess Anita is like this love letter and symbol I have for the love of my Mi’kmaw culture, my people, and my language,” Sylliboy told CBC Radio’s Mainstreet Halifax.

“Whether or not it’s wearing moccasins or beaded jewlery or clothing made by Mi’kmaw artists across Nova Scotia … I feel like these are things that people need to see.”

Sylliboy spoke with Mainstreet host Jeff Douglas about how Anita LandBack was born, and how they hope their performances educate people about Indigenous culture and sovereignty.

The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You can listen to the full interview here:

Mainstreet NS12:44The birth of Anita LandBack

Athanasius Sylliboy, a two-spirit Mi’kmaw nurse practitioner working in Millbrook, has been performing as Anita LandBack at drag shows throughout Halifax.

You said you’ve finally found a sense of belonging in the queer community. Is that something that was a while coming?

Yeah, like I moved to Halifax a year into the pandemic. I’ve lived here previously during my master’s degree … Like Halifax Pride does a great job in creating spaces and really celebrating who we are as like queer people. But at times, in certain spaces, I really never felt like I saw myself in them, or if I was in a space I didn’t feel this sense of belonging.

Sylliboy was inspired to try drag for the first time after watching Indigenous performers on Season 3 of Canada’s Drag Race. (Submitted by Athanasius Sylliboy)

Halifax Pride has done great things in terms of creating space for two-spirit gatherings and two-spirit events. And of course these are areas that I’m going to feel seen and I’m going to feel heard and know that I’m going to be understood. But the reality is we should feel like that everywhere, like we should feel like that in every queer space.

This is what I do on a daily basis in health care. I’m a nurse practitioner who often educates schools of nursing and medicine about how to care for Indigenous people and talking about anti-racism … I thought how I can do this when it comes to making space and creating representation of Indigenous people in queer spaces?

What really hit me, and as corny as it sounds, I was watching the latest season of Canada’s Drag Race, the third season. And there’s a couple people on the season, like Chelazon Leroux, Kaos, there’s Jeremy Dutcher, Lesley Hampton, Sarain Fox, all Indigenous people. And I thought, wow, like, that’s us. That’s us on TV. I thought, you know, younger Tanas would have loved to see this … So I sat down with a group of my friends from back home in Eskasoni and just was like, you know, let’s just think of some names and brainstorm, and then Anita LandBack was born.

It’s the best name. 

I feel that it’s a name that’s profound. It has deep meaning, but also it’s pretty funny. The meaning of land back, it’s about re-establishing Indigenous sovereignty, about recognizing treaties, rights, language and so there’s a lot of meaning to it. But at the same time, if an individual hears my name or sees my name and they don’t know the meaning of it, they’re going to look it up and be like, OK, that’s what that means. So you’re not only learning just by knowing my name, like, you’re doing some deep work that needs to be done.

Drag is a very specific type of performance and then on top of it you’re bringing in all these cultural aspects. Is there room for Tanas to just love it, too?

I feel this is something that I’m very passionate [about]. Even when it comes to being a nurse and sharing what we do, that doesn’t sound like work to me. That sounds like my responsibility. That sounds like what I like to do for fun and what I’m passionate about. And then when it comes to drag, like right now, it doesn’t feel like work … I’m just doing a couple shows here and there and what I feel safe in. Certainly, I feel very fortunate to be invited into the drag scene. 

Anita LandBack is both a profound and ‘pretty funny’ drag persona, says Sylliboy. (Submitted by Athanasius Sylliboy)

When I decided and I felt like it was ready, I put on Instagram, hey, if someone would love to have me, I would love to try this out. And [Halifax drag queen Zara Matrix] immediately messaged me and was like, ‘If you really want to do this, here’s a gig. I would love to see you at the show.’ And the rest is history. 

We’ve had conversations on this program in the past about how white, I guess, the drag scene is in Halifax. Are you starting to see more of a shift away from that? 

Definitely. You have the likes of Mya Foxx, who’s an Inuk drag artist, and Elle Noir, who is a Black drag artist and a trans activist just really changing the narrative here. [They’re] changing the mindset of individuals who may see us differently or may not make us feel welcomed or invited into these spaces. These are people who experienced things that we shouldn’t have experienced and because of it, you know, they wanted to make change. And I want to be involved in that too, for my communities, for the Mi’kmaq, for other Indigenous queer youth. We’re not as alone as it seems.

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The Editor

The Editor

I am the Co-Publisher of "The Native Press".