A Little Bit of Spirit
Spirit is certainly not lacking on the fourth floor of the LGBT Center in the heart of San Francisco. Here resides the Bay Area American Indian Two Spirit offices. Gay and lesbian Native Americans who identify as Two Spirit are uniting there to prepare for the annual Trans March from Dolores Park to United Nations Plaza on June 22. They hope to provide the movement with a little more spirit.
The term “Two Spirit” is used by Native Americans to express their sexuality as well as their connection to spiritual traditions. This couldn’t be a better time for the Two Spirit community to participate in an LGBT event, they say, because they have just begun to gain some momentum. This is due mainly to the success of the first annual BAAITS pow wow last February. “The pow wow at the LGBT Center was such a triumph for us not only because we were educating those around us, but also the people of our own Native community,” said BAAITS Co-Director Ruth Villasenor (Apache).
Many Native tribes have lost awareness of the meaning behind a two-spirited individual, according to BAAITS members. “The word Two Spirit is a sort of umbrella term, where you can be anywhere in that [LGBT] spectrum, but not limited by it,” said BAIITS member Miko Thomas (Chickasaw). “What makes it significant is that it’s something that we as Native people can claim as our own.”
This sense of empowerment is exactly what BAAITS strives to instill. For years, two-spirited people have been struggling for acceptance within their Native community. “We’ve had to reclaim so many parts of our history since colonization, the Two Spirit tradition is one of those things,” Villasenor said. “The difference, though, is that we have to re-educate our own people.”
Villasenor said that two-spirited people were once revered in traditional Native society. According to various scholars, the term nedleehi was once used to identify a two-spirited person. Such people were esteemed members of the community because they could do the work of both a man and a woman.
After colonization, Christianity spread throughout the Native culture and brought homophobia along with it. Thomas explained that he was “tolerated but not accepted” in his hometown in Oklahoma. Thomas said the Five Civilized Tribes in Oklahoma -- Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole -- are an example of what he called “extreme assimilation.” In these areas, he said, LGBT issues are not always, but often ignored.
In a 2005 interview in the San Francisco Chronicle, Corey Taber (Cherokee), co-founder of an online education and media organization called Native Out, seemed to agree with this idea. “Traditional Native American culture was more accepting of people who had what was considered a different sexuality. So it’s an assimilationist perspective to think of homosexuality as taboo or evil … and that’s the kind of language that’s been thrown around,” Tabor told the Chronicle.
In the same article, Larry Anderson Sr. (Navajo) said that there is more to the story that some two-spirited people, specifically of his own Navajo nation, are leaving out. He sponsored a 2005 Navajo bill that outlawed same-sex marriage in the tribe. "When you listen to the elders and medicine people, many stories are told about the origin of lifestyles of the Navajo people," Anderson said. "But they point out that it is very important that we follow the origin of the way of life, which is man and woman bringing life into the world."
The division between the traditional Natives, who support the ancient ways of living, and the Christianized Natives, who are more assimilated to white culture, is a strong issue today. In the 2009 documentary Two Spirits, Richard LaFortune (Yupik) said, “The place where two discriminations meet is a dangerous place to live.” Regardless of this danger, Thomas expressed his desire to be defined by both his sexual orientation and his “Nativeness.”
This desire to have a connection with the Native cultural tradition as well as an LGBT identity is what sparked organizations like BAAITS. Although mostly a social organization, the members of BAAITS are extremely active in their Native communities. From drum circles to pow wows to marches, the queers in the Bay Area’s Native community are most definitely showing both sides of their spirit.
The Brush Arbor Gurlz, for example, is a Native drag group with a significant following in San Francisco. The group was founded by Miko Thomas as a way to gain more funding for BAAITS and to have a little fun. Thomas said, “We really do have a good time, it helps some of the girls get out of their shell.”
Villasenor said that BAAITS is planning to conduct the opening prayer before the Trans March on Saturday. The Two Spirit people say they feel many times as if they have to struggle for acceptance within a Native context, but the Trans March will be an opportunity for them to join the entire LGBT community.
One of the organizers of the Trans March, Danielle Castro, said, “It is a very diverse group of people at the march. But it is really powerful to get back to our indigenous roots and begin the event with prayer and tradition.”
At the same time, BAAITS and similar organizations continue to find their place in their own cultural setting. Thomas said, “We not only want to be identified by our gender, or our sexuality, but also by our Nativeness.” Thomas explained that their needs to be much more openness in the minds of all Native Americans. He laughed as he said, “It seems like a simple answer, but it’s not.”
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