Supporting Indigenous Efforts


In "Supporting indigenous efforts," Funders for LGBTQ Issues asked Harlan Pruden, co-founder of the Northeast Two Spirit Society, to help frame work with Two Spirit communities for LGBTQ funders. The article is a part of the Racial Equity Online Toolkit -- A grantmaking toolkit on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities of color.

Pruden offers a strong explanation of Two Spirit as a term that transcends LGBT identity,

Two-spirit is a contemporary term that connects today's experiences of LGBT Native Peoples with the traditions from their cultures. In many traditional settings, certain individuals were considered to have a specific blessing through their uniqueness, which was manifested in many cultural responsibilities. Of course each tradition that prescribed to it had its own word in their language.

In my Cree language, I'd be known as an "aayahkwew"—this should not be mistaken as a sexual orientation but rather a separate and distinct gender not necessarily related to sexuality or sexual genitals. The modern connection with today's gay and lesbian Indians is that traditionally "two-spirit" people often had sex with members of the same sex, but that is where the connection ends. In traditional settings, two-spirit people would not partner with another two-spirit person, but a male two-spirit would take a 'heterosexual' male as a husband and, likewise, a female two-spirit person would take a 'heterosexual' female as a wife.

In many traditions, two-spirit people served their community as mediators, social workers, crafts-people, name-givers, shaman and/or medicine-givers. These roles were something that only a two-spirit person could fulfill—that's why they were viewed as another gender.

I find it very interesting that this tradition came into being for a number of reasons. It is an obvious manifestation of Native peoples' practice of preserving and considering diversity sacred. For many Nations there was always room at the table for everyone; it was the belief that differences were a strength and were needed for the community to thrive and prosper. The other major distinction for today's world was Indigenous people viewed everyone as equal. Therefore, it was not a threat or unusual for a male to act like a female or a female to act like a male or in any manner on a broad spectrum.

The interview goes on to explore a variety of dynamics that impact Two Spirit and Native communities. Ignoring history is one dynamic Pruden notes.

The fact of the matter is that our community is often overlooked and marginalized. For example, LGBT history usually only looks to the summer of 1969 as its beginning [Stonewall Rebellion] when in reality we, two-spirit people, had important parts of our communities for thousands of years. There was a time on this land when two-spirit people were accepted, honored, celebrated and full members of their communities. We had a model of inclusion and true equality that we believe would benefit the LGBT movement if non-Native people would take the time to truly understand it.

Pruden notes the way Two Spirit people are regularly treated as performers instead of stakeholders.

This is a perennial problem for our community. Just last year, NE2SS was invited to a very large conference to dance before the opening plenary but were not offered a seat at the table for the plenary. The other request we often receive is to talk about our spirituality or our relationship to nature. While these are very important to us, we often cannot and do not discuss our spirituality publicly.

Pruden puts the need for sustained relationship and cultural respect in context.

Historically, Indigenous people's way of life, language, culture and spiritual beliefs are constantly under attack (I.e. boarding schools, wholesale slaughter of indigenous people, especially targeting Two-Spirit people, and so on.) Understandably, there is then a great mistrust of outsiders. Service providers must work for this trust over time...

Finally, funders must accept Americans Indians on their terms. Americans Indians know that our culture is under attack, so anything, given enough time, which supports and promotes our culture, will be successful. This is the strength of the Native American people: support the individual's cultural identity and you support the community, for they are one and the same.

Read the full article online at Racial Equality Online Toolkit: "Supporting indigenous efforts" by Harlan Pruden