Zhawa East


I'm Zhawa! My full indigenous name is Nigwigan Biinjibizo Waabani-Nodin Sa Zhawenim. It translates to: I have wings and fly about in the east wind carrying blessings. I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and, I just recently turned 23 years old this year (2023).

I received my name after spending 4 days and nights in the forest. The purpose of my camping was to connect with Creator in the mountains of New Mexico on Apache land. The aim of the trip was to advance my spiritual development in solitude with nature and the divine. Everyday my grandmother visited me, and we'd discuss my experiences. She drew from the most profound encounters I had in the mountains there and formed them into an Ojibwe name for me to use during ceremonies, fasting and spiritual questing. 

I love my full Objibwe name and shortened it to Zhawa East. That is my way to hold the power of my full name and yet, keep it quick for the mouth. I chose Zhawa from from the Zhawenim part of my name meaning: bless/having compassion, and I added the English word East to indicate the direction of the new day’s light or new beginnings. I wanted my daily name to encompass both languages I use and to reflect what I felt defined my life's mission. 

I have not yet made Zhawa East my legal name, but I plan to do that in the future. In the meantime, I use this name for any and everything that I can to incorporate it into my lived identity. I personally do not find it urgent to change my name legally. That is because the official paperwork, in my eyes, holds no authority over my being. Also, as someone who once before has changed their name and gender marker legally, it's a bit of an arduous process on all ends. So, I've decided to prioritize other ways of living Zhawa East. The importance of my name and the mission it entails is, for me, far more significant in my daily interactions than registering it with the state. So, all my personal and creative endeavors are under Zhawa East as well. 

As mentioned previously, I did my 4-day quest in New Mexico where my grandmothers reside. They both originate from the state of Wisconsin and helped to raise me since birth. My blood-related grandmother (Onde) is Blackfoot, she, and her wife (Ann), have passed down teachings from Onde's great grandmother and other elders. Their teachings hold a lot of Anishinaabe (mainly Ojibwe) practices and language which they have passed down to me while I was growing up. It means a lot that they trust me to pass their teachings down to others. 

On whole, my heritage as an indigenous person is mixed. It includes Mexican and African American descent, but the bloodline I most identify with is rooted in the Blackfoot tribal nation.

I also am transgender, aligned with the male gender. This is something I have always known about me but the gender language I learned at home did not include a word to describe me. I am clear that my spirit is male and I wondered as a youngster how I fit into the world, that is, until I came across a discussion of transgender on an online community at the age of 11. 

Was this too young for me to learn the term transgender and apply it to myself? Not at all. In fact, it happened right on time to prevent me from suffering confusion and possibly sinking into depression. I also knew enough at eleven to understand that my family and community initially would not feel comfortable with learning that I knew myself to be male when they did not know me that way but had just the opposite assumption about me. So, I kept my transgender identity to myself for a few years. I wanted this time to check in with myself and be sure this was my truth and grow out of my fear about how I thought I would be treated. 

Once I felt certain and strong enough to deal with harsh reactions, I fully came out and began my transition around the age of 14. It wasn’t just feeling strong enough at 14 to claim being a transgender person. It also is because I felt I could no longer hold onto the female identity that people had ascribed to me, had known me by, and had from birth perceived me as. I was like a snake shedding his skin to be healthy. I had to lose that presumed and imposed identity of conformity to adopt an identity that was true to my being. 

It became vital to my joy and survival to free myself. Coming out has also allowed me to find kinship with others who share this walk of life and find a deeper inner meaning of existence. Being transgender and indigenous, hand in hand, has played the biggest role in shaping my self-perception and growing knowledge of my purpose in terms of my relation to all life forms.

I have known all my life that I am a spiritual being put on earth with spiritual work to do, but for years I did not know what my purpose was, and what my work would be. I am still young, so my future work as a spiritual leader of people is still evolving. I grow each day spiritually and came to understand that my primary spiritual work is not with people but rather with animals who end up in a shelter. I realized this is my spiritual assignment or mission on earth because I am gifted in working with animals. This means that I can commune with their spirits. I generally allow my spirit to merge with their hearts to learn from them whatever they need. This helps them to calm down when they are distressed or dying, and my spiritual connection with them eases their transitions when they are passing. 

One spiritual goal I achieved was taking my "vision quest" journey of four days and nights in nature with the Creator. Preparing for and executing this quest helped me connect deeper with the indigenous side of my heritage. This is my way of helping myself to grow by practicing my spirituality. There will be more quests to come.

What I aim to achieve in human community life is working more with indigenous medicine and helping to heal community members through ritual, herbal knowledge, and creativity. I desire continually to build bridges of knowledge and compassion between humans and all of Mother Earth’s living beings. 

(This biographical profile written by Zhawa East and edited by Enoch Page.)

Biography Date: March 2023


Native American Spirituality | Trans activism


“Zhawa East | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed May 30, 2024, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/zhawa-east.


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