Why you should care
Tony Enos, an “urban Indian,” uses music melded with gender queerness to carry on Native American tradition in style.
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You can hear his Philadelphia accent immediately, and in case you’re still not clear he proudly wears a signature red Phillie’s hat. That is when he’s not donning his traditional Cherokee head regalia. Tony Enos, an Echota Cherokee, explains he didn’t know about his heritage and identity until one Thanksgiving when he was about 10 years old, and his great-grandmother told him “everything.”
“That’s when she explained that we were Cherokee,” he says. “In addition to that, being Puerto Rican, Italian and African-American and Cherokee. You’re always not enough of something for someone or too much of something for someone.”
Enos’ childhood was fraught with bullying, for a different reason. He came out to his parents at age 11. “My dad and I just had a really difficult time with it and a lot of really difficult and ugly years because he couldn’t deal with it,” Enos says. “He couldn’t accept it.”
Others couldn’t accept him either. Enos describes himself as a child as a “moving target” for other children. He grew up quickly and found music as a place to safely be himself.
“I wasn’t at the malls, I wasn’t in gangs, I wasn’t at the school parties or at the hip, cool parties,” he says. “I was down in the basement with my record player and my records, and that was my safe space and my safe haven.”
It wasn’t until Enos was much older he sought out information on the Native community and found that he was missing much more than a comfortable space to be himself.
“I’m male-identified, male-bodied,” he explains. “Again, very much identify as a male, but there’s a part of me that is very much a mother and there’s this mother instinct and way that I have.”
I wasn’t at the malls, I wasn’t in gangs, I wasn’t at the hip, cool parties. I was down in the basement with my record player and my records and that was my safe space and my safe haven.
After moving to New York City and joining the American Indian Community House, a nonprofit established in 1969, Enos found a place to call home. “We have the highest population of urban Indians, out of any urban city in the country here in New York,” he says.
The American Indian Community House also introduced Enos to Two-Spirit Native Americans, and it changed his life.
Two-Spirit is an umbrella term that Native American, First Nations and indigenous tribes use for gender-queer, gender-fluid and gender-nonconforming people in the community. It was historically an honored role in many tribes, and many have their own word for Two-Spirits in their language. The role, depending on the tribe, included naming children, going between men’s and women’s camps and counseling war chiefs.
“It was a life-changing moment. It was things that I never had before and had been longing for since I was a kid, but was either too scared or too traumatized to go and seek out on my own,” Enos says.
Now Enos uses pop music to speak on issues that have been ignored by or stigmatized in the Native community. He incorporates traditional elements to educate, inspire and bring comfort to other Native Americans.
“As a singer, songwriter and producer… it’s a blessing really to be able to speak truth, or to educate,” he says. “And I believe very much where words fail, music speaks.”