Two spirits, one purpose 

Gay and lesbian American Indians look to the past to shape a better future on the reservation

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"She was a remarkable woman, a fine blanket and sash maker, an excellent cook, an adept in all the work of her sex and yet strange to say, she was a man. There never has been as yet, any satisfactory explanation given, as far as I know, of the peculiar custom followed by the Pueblos of having one or two men in each tribe, who foreswear their manhood and who dress as, act like and seemingly live the life of a woman."

A similar two-spirit history existed within the Blackfeet. A 1941 article in American Anthropologist points to "manly hearted women" living among the tribe. According to the article's author, anthropologist Oscar Lewis, these women were aggressive, independent, ambitious and bold.

"They are known to be more demonstrative, to take the male position in sexual intercourse," Lewis wrote.

Some consider the female Blackfeet warrior Running Eagle an example of a manly hearted woman. In the early part of the 19th century, she famously led war parties against the Crow. According to Canadian historian Hugh Dempsey, chief curator emeritus of the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta, Running Eagle refused to forego cooking and sewing duties while on the warpath, despite the protests of men who didn't want their leader performing menial tasks.

Before European fur traders came to northern Montana, Blackfeet hunted buffalo across the rolling plains. While traveling and camping in small bands, each member of the tribe had a job and contributed to the group's collective survival. That's largely why it didn't behoove Blackfeet to exclude those with differences, explains tribal member Rosalyn LaPier.

Homosexuals and gender blenders were sanctioned by Blackfeet society two primary ways, LaPier says. Families decided a child was born into the wrong sex and simply switched, or an individual would receive a mandate through a vision quest.

"They were spoken to through the supernatural and told to live their lives as a different gender," says LaPier who, while earning her doctorate in environmental history at the University of Montana, is researching Blackfeet religious views. "In Blackfeet society and a lot of native societies, if you're born different, you're looked upon as if you've been touched by the supernatural."

Anthropologist Will Roscoe estimates more than 150 North American tribes recognized gay, lesbian and gender-mixed people before Europeans arrived in North America. But as the new arrivals flooded the continent, colonialism and Christianity wreaked havoc on traditional communities. French arrivals dubbed Whe-Wa and men like him "berdache," from the Persian word "berdaj," meaning "kept boy," or "whore." And the phrase stuck.

As the United States attempted to bring American Indians into the fold, many native traditions were lost. Religious ceremonies like the sun dance—a celebration of regeneration featuring dancing, drumming and fasting usually during the summer solstice—were outlawed, punishable with jail and denial of rations. Berdache were forced to wear men's clothes and cut their hair.

As colonialists imposed their own ideas of gender and sexual ideology, modern reservation homophobia took root. Two spirits today face the challenge of overcoming the lingering hostility and fear imported during forced assimilation.

But people like Barrios have been working to change that, building the modern two-spirit movement for decades. Its origins trace back to Randy Burns and Barbara Cameron, who created Gay American Indians (GAI) in 1975, an advocacy group aimed at carving out a place on the reservation for GLBTQI American Indians.

Cameron, who died in 2002, talked about forming GAI in an interview with The Advocate published in 1976.

"I was really alienated," she told the magazine. "I felt trapped between my Indian culture and the society. That's the position of most gay Indians, because it's the position of Indians as a whole. I really align myself with Indians first and gay people second."

In the late '80s, HIV catalyzed the two-spirit movement. Limited resources and institutionalized homophobia hindered government-sponsored HIV outreach and treatment efforts, wrote Brian Joseph Gilley in his book, Becoming Two Spirit. GAI then stepped in and began providing medical and social services, creating a template for other indigenous advocacy organizations.

New groups soon popped up across the nation, rejecting modern Anglo-Saxon ideas of gender and sexuality. HIV outreach money trickled into reservations, funding testing and sparking a discussion about sex. Communications networks formed where none had been before.

Amid this mobilization, in 1990, during a Native GLBTQI summit in Manitoba, Canada, the derogatory term "berdache" was formally condemned and officially replaced with "two spirit." Two-spirit societies began forming in Denver, Oklahoma, Kansas and both coasts. The Montana chapter formed more than 13 years ago through the efforts of people like Barrios, John Hawk Co-Cke and Two Spirit Society creator David Herrera.

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