For Many Native Americans, Embracing LGBT Members Is a Return to the Past

By Davis-Young, Katherine | Sunday Gazette-Mail, April 7, 2019 | Go to article overview

For Many Native Americans, Embracing LGBT Members Is a Return to the Past


Davis-Young, Katherine, Sunday Gazette-Mail


PHOENIX - The sound of drums, singing and prayers marked the opening of a powwow in Phoenix on a Saturday afternoon this month. Marchers carried the flags of the United States and some of Arizona's tribal nations onto the grass field, but the procession also included rainbow flags, and the pink and blue transgender flag. It was Arizona's first Two-Spirit Powwow, one of a handful of powwows that have sprung up across North America to celebrate LGBT Native Americans.

Among the marchers in the grand entry was Kay Kisto, the reigning Miss Indian Transgender Arizona. "To actually be here, to be at the first-ever [Two-Spirit Powwow] in Arizona - I've been having goose bumps ever since I got here, Kisto said.

Kisto, 35, grew up on the Gila River Indian Reservation, south of Phoenix. Growing up, she feared harassment or violence if she were to reveal her transgender identity. But to be able to celebrate her identity and heritage in an event on her tribe's traditional lands was an overwhelming feeling and a sign of change, she said.

Dozens of Two-Spirit organizations have formed around North America in recent years. California's Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirit Powwow is now in its eighth year and draws as many as 4,000 attendees annually. Canadian cities Saskatoon and Winnipeg have recently hosted Two-Spirit powwows. And in 2018, a Two-Spirit contingent took part in the grand entry at the Gathering of Nations, the world's largest powwow, for the first time.

Two-Spirit, an umbrella term for non-binary definitions of gender and sexuality from Native American traditions, takes inspiration from terminology in the Ojibwe language for men who filled women's roles in society, or women who took on men's roles. Many of North America's indigenous traditions include more than just male and female understandings of gender, but hundreds of years of forced assimilation stamped out many tribes' customs and oral traditions. Two-Spirit powwows are part of a growing movement among Native Americans who say rigid ideas of gender and sexuality are unfortunate remnants of colonization - participants say it's time to rethink native identities on their own terms.

"There's no way you can talk about colonization without talking about gender and sexuality, said Chris Finley, assistant professor of American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California, and member of the Colville Nation.

When Europeans came to North America, they brought patriarchal societal traditions with them, Finley said. Wrapped up in those gender roles were Europeans' understandings of land ownership and inheritance, ideas that were crucial to the process of seizing the continent from indigenous people.

Among the measures used to extinguish native customs in the United States was the state-sponsored Native American boarding school program, which forced generations of indigenous children to attend school away from their families to be educated in Christian, European traditions. …

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