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Know the West

What the gray jay taught me about myself

The authenticity and playfulness of the naughty, queer bird is something to celebrate.


I spent a summer in college venturing deep into lupine-strewn alpine bowls in Colorado’s Sawatch Range. As part of my duties as a hiking guide, I’d trek across the mountains alone, checking trails. During my lunch break, I’d sit on lawn chair-sized boulders overlooking the Eagle Valley. Most days, I was joined by a gray jay who alighted on a blue spruce branch like smoke from a struck match.

The first time Perisoreus canadensis appeared, the fluffy corvid crooned their unique “whisper song” from the canopy. It is a soft melody of clicks and mellow warbles, the sough of the Southwest’s subalpine. Suddenly, the jay snatched a cracker from my lap, justifying one of their many nicknames, “camp robber.”

I grew fond of the bird’s playfulness, curiosity and mischief over that summer. Whenever I left the meadow, the jay would swoop from fir to fir, following me like a shadow. Our companionship developed at a time when I needed it most. Instead of embracing my queer identity after recently coming out, I had retreated into the lonely box canyon of self. On my days off, I tried to bolster my low self-worth by climbing dangerous peaks alone. 

“If the natural world teaches us anything, it’s that it doesn’t adhere to the binary.”

As with any new friend, I took the time to get to know the cheeky borb. It led me to discover that the gray jay’s common nickname “Whisky Jack” comes from the Wisakedjak — there are many spelling variations — a shapeshifting spirit and culture hero in Cree storytelling. Artist Jordan Stranger — whose artwork appears alongside this essay — wrote that Wisakedjak is believed to be responsible for a great flood, as well as creating the moon. Niigaan James Sinclair, a professor of Indigenous Studies at the University of Manitoba, says that the Anishinaabe spirit Nanabozho once transformed into a gray jay, or Gwiingwiishi, to teach people lessons. “The gray jay is certainly queer,” Sinclair said. “If the natural world teaches us anything, it’s that it doesn’t adhere to the binary.”

Métis scholar June Scudeler says there are “differing views” of who Wisakedjak is. While she notes that the spirit has been gendered as an “elder brother,” some contemporary artists and writers have interpreted Wisakedjak as queer or two-spirit. In Tomson Highway’s coming-of-age novel The Kiss of the Fur Queen, two Cree brothers are forced to attend a Catholic residential school in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in the 1950s. A drag queen-like character named The Fur Queen flies into their lives and offers the boys guidance as they grapple with their own identities as well as with sexually abusive clergymen. In one passage, Gabriel, one of the brothers, refers to the Fur Queen as “Weesageechak,” a clown that bridges God and humanity. He contrasts the Catholic God, whom he believes causes suffering and guilt, with the benevolence and laughter of Weesageechak. “If Native languages have no gender, then why should we?” he asks. “And why, for that matter, should God?”

Like Highway, two-spirit Cree artist Kent Monkman depicts the legendary spirit as a femme in Weesageechak Teaches Hermes How to Trick the Four-Leggeds (2010). The painting displays Weesageechak as Monkman’s alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. She wears a thong and a pair of purple thigh-high boots, her eyes bearing the same brazen shimmer as a gray jay’s. A naked Hermes, the wily Greek god, lingers behind holding a birkin. Highway’s and Monkman’s depictions of Wisakedjak invoke positive portrayals of sexual and gender fluidity while simultaneously flipping the bird to bigotry.

“If Native languages have no gender, then why should we? And why, for that matter, should God?”

A teacher. A femme. And to some, a shapeshifting guardian angel: Both Indigenous and settler stories claim that gray jays have saved the lives of imperiled hunters, leading them to safety through dense forests with their songs. 

On one of my last days off that summer, I made an attempt of Ripsaw Ridge, a long, challenging knife-edge traverse in Colorado’s Nuchu Range. Looking back, I realize that every solo climb that summer became more perilous and remote than the last, putting myself in further danger. That traverse was no exception. I trekked up a loose talus field toward the ridge and felt indifferent about the risks ahead. I don’t think I was suicidal, but with the benefit of hindsight, I believe the danger I put myself in was a cry for help. Queer climbers and surfers have told me they have also imperiled themselves with similar exploits while coming to terms with their identities.

I was behind schedule as a violent thunderstorm built behind the ridge. Still, I pushed up the peak’s couloir, hoping the purple clouds would dissipate and the accomplishment of the traverse would compensate for my more feminine traits and earn the respect of my hypermasculine peers. But as I climbed the snowfield, I heard the whisper song beckoning me back to treeline. Its melancholic notes made my eyes well. Then it dawned on me: I didn’t have to put myself in harm’s way to respect myself. With this realization, I reversed course, abandoning the climb and shoe-skiing down the talus toward the music. There was a crack of thunder in the distance, and now the sound of the bird’s song became jovial and uplifting, like the final chorus of a ballad. In the evergreens I found Whisky Jack, cocking their black-capped head as they chided me from the canopy. 

I used to romanticize this story, describing how the gray jay, whom I like to imagine was my same lunchtime companion, saved me from a deadly lightning storm that was violently brewing like my own self-hatred, and taught me to walk through life with playfulness and authenticity. Now, I see that Whisky Jack simply tricked me into coming to terms with myself.    

Miles W. Griffis is a writer and journalist based in Southern California. He writes “Confetti Westerns,” a serial column that explores the queer natural and cultural histories of the American Southwest.

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