Without Reservations: Native American Lesbians Struggle to Find Their Way
PHOTO: JAMES PAULS/ISTOCK
Beverly Little Thunder has been issued a death sentence. Not by the government; by one of her own. Leonard Crow Dog, a Native American* activist, has sworn to kill the 55-year-old Lakota nurse for performing the Sun Dance, one of the most important—and grueling—ceremonies for Plains Indian tribes. Participants dance for four days, eight hours a day, without food or water, as a ritual of sacrifice, renewal and strengthening.
The U.S. government outlawed the dance in 1904 as a way to squelch Indian gatherings, but Little Thunder has danced the Sun Dance since she was 19 years old. Years ago, at South Dakota’s Standing Rock Reservation, she got a rude awakening: “I was told that women like me were taken out and shot. I was not permitted to participate in the ceremonies.”
Elderly women pulled Little Thunder aside and suggested she create a ceremony for her “own kind,” saying that if the Lakota people remembered their traditions they’d be honored to have her dance.
“I felt like they were telling me [to] go somewhere else and have the ceremony so it’s not around here,” Little Thunder admits. “I prayed about it … and decided that they were right.” The lesbian Sun Dance was born in St. John, Ariz., with 13 Native Americans and 87 other women participating. It was later moved to women’s land in Vermont.
This kind of activism is typical of Little Thunder, who, in 1993, helped coin the term “two-spirit” (to signify queer Native Americans) and in 2001 became the first Native American to serve as grand marshal of a Gay Pride parade. Still, it has not been easy for Little Thunder to claim her place in lesbian history.
She grew up straddling two worlds. Summers were spent with her grandmother at North Dakota’s Standing Rock Reservation, while winters found her back in a Los Angeles housing project with her alcoholic, abusive parents. Little Thunder later bounced from Indian boarding schools to juvenile hall, to two convents, and to an orphanage, and finally, at 15, was married. She would eventually raise five children before coming out as a lesbian.
What a difference those years have made. Little Thunder says her youngest daughter is an out lesbian who “doesn’t have any qualms about people knowing she’s a lesbian. When I was 25, I didn’t even know what the word was.”
Native lesbians existed long before the first European settlers stepped onto this continent. Some tribes had special roles for women who hunted, married women and took part in warfare. Queer Indians appeared in origin stories — our biblical stories, so to speak — until Christian missionaries gained influence and many tribes became dependent on them for money, food and survival. Missionaries did not understand, or approve of, gender diversity. They called us “berdache,” a demeaning Persian word for boy prostitutes. Within a generation or two, queers became the jokes of our people, and in many tribes, women became equally disenfranchised.
Still, not all were disregarded. Years ago, when I had just begun to research my own bloodline, I read about Kauxuma Nupika, a Kootenai Indian woman who in 1811 carried a message to fur traders 400 miles from the Spokane River. She was dressed as a man and was accompanied by a woman she called her wife. Though whites were concerned about her masculine appearance, she worked as a guide, courier, warrior and peacemaker for the next 25 years.
In researching Nupika’s legacy, my legacy, the legacy of Native American two-spirits, I found that tribal elders and reservation leaders weren’t interested in talking about their queer citizens. While working on this story, I contacted more than 100 tribal council members, museum curators and PR reps from reservations in Colorado, Connecticut, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Idaho and California, and none were willing to comment. Even gay organizations in areas with high concentrations of Native Americans had nothing to say about Native American lesbian life.
Native American lesbians, though, were eager to share their stories.
Yolanda Slivers was only 21 when her family gathered for the Beauty Way Ceremony. The ritual, a tradition among Slivers’ Dine’ (Navajo) people, was to balance all things in her life—family, school, work, health—and put her on the right path. She admits now that she was wary.
“My mother told me when I was a child that one of the main reasons why Natives have begun to turn away from the traditional ceremonial ways was because as a ceremony participant you had to be willing to be completely honest with yourself,” Slivers recalls. “She said…the roadman would be able to see…everything you are and what you stand for. I was afraid to find out what my grandfather, the roadman, would say. I was afraid that he would tell others what he saw. But that year…I was tired of pretending and hiding who I really was.”
Midway through the ceremony, Slivers’ grandfather received a vision of a chubby white girl—Slivers’ partner—who he said was taking her away from the path of the Navajo. Her mother gasped and began to cry.
“I was so confused, I couldn’t see. It was then that my grandfather…said, ‘Yolanda, I wish I knew more English words, so that I might tell you what it means to live as a Navajo woman and how to walk the path of the Navajo woman,’” Slivers recalls. “I was livid…. I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing.”
When Slivers returned home to California she withdrew from her partner, cut herself off from her family, stopped attending ceremonies and stopped talking about God. Six months later, she realized that it wasn’t plausible to be happy and living “in a world that did not allow me to love who I loved. If balance [is] the Navajo way of life, then how could living without love be balanced?” she asks.
I understand Yolanda Slivers. We’re both Native American lesbians, or two-spirits, struggling with homophobia, racism and invisibility.
Slivers, a 24-year-old marketing assistant in San Diego, grew up on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona. Though the Navajo nation is one of the largest (with more than 300,000 tribal members), much of the reservation is akin to a third-world country. “No running water, no electricity, no jobs and no housing,” says Slivers, who has not lived on the reservation since she was in fourth grade. “We moved because of economics, survival,” she recalls. “Too many Indians; not enough food, money or shelter.”
Slivers has blood of the original four Navajo clans running through her veins. I, on the other hand, am a mixed-race Cherokee-Choctaw. Raised in rural Idaho by my beloved grandmother—who was related by adoption, not blood—I did not know much of my cultural heritage until I was the age Slivers is now.
Teddy Roosevelt said in 1886: “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of 10 are. The most vicious cowboy has more moral principle than the average Indian.”
Roosevelt made these comments the same year my great-great-great-grandmother was born to a Choctaw woman named Dollie Dollarhide. Unfortunately, back then Roosevelt represented the views of the average European colonizer. In the early 1800s, the Indian Removal Act forced thousands of Indians to give up their land and move West—some at gunpoint, some loaded like cargo into wagons. Many walked the entire thousand-mile march, which became known as the Trail of Tears, barefoot.
In California, where I now live, Indian populations plummeted as zealous miners swarmed into the state. Today the state contains mostly isolated rancherías, testimony to the fact that most of these Indians were not relocated so much as exterminated. Some Indians managed to escape into the swamps or mountains. Some changed their identity, claiming to be Black Dutch, Black Irish, Spanish, Creole, Italian. In the Midwest, English Quakers and German Amish adopted some. Others were classified as black, Negro or mulatto because some states
didn’t have a designation for Indians. Affluent Cherokee women, like my ancestors, were encouraged to marry white men.
WHO’S THE ‘REAL’ INDIAN?
Donna Luckett’s great-great-grandmother escaped into the Smokey Mountains while the Cherokees were being relocated to Oklahoma. “[She] lived in fear most of the time and became very cautious about what she said about her life,” Luckett recalls. “The family tried to blend into the communities, and marriage into the white community provided some safety for her children.”
Living today in Portland, Ore., Luckett is a mixed-race Cherokee lesbian who works as a vocational counselor to Native Americans. Raised in a predominantly white family, Luckett admits that she’s had access to education—she has two master’s degrees—that most of her Native clients don’t.
Census reports show that the number of people identifying as Native American is now 4.1 million (or 1.5 percent of the U.S. population)—which underscores just how complex and diverse Native Americans are today. For centuries, those who looked white dissociated from Indian culture; now Native celebrities straddle multiple worlds. Native director Chris Eyre was adopted by a white family; black actress Della Reese’s mom was Cherokee; blue-eyed, blonde actress Heather Locklear came out as Lumbee Indian years ago and has since received the First Americans in the Arts Award (the Native version of the Oscars).
When 24-year-old Elle McKay, a mixed-race Cherokee photographer in Oregon, fills out legal forms, she checks “Caucasian.” The Celtic influence dominates her pale complexion, curly brown hair and light green eyes. She admits to feeling jealous of her younger brother’s darker skin, thick straight hair and wide brown eyes.
“People look at me as though I’m lying when I tell them I’m part Native American,” she sighs. “I’m proud of my heritage, yet feel impossibly barred from ever fully experiencing it due to my whiteness. My brother could choose to live on a reservation and few people would think twice about why he was there…[but] I would be the source of much confusion.”
“Indians are largely erased in the larger American context, even in colored communities,” says writer-photographer Reid Gomez. The 31-year-old lesbian traces her black-Indian ancestry to the Congo, Zacatecas, Mexico and the Navajo nation. “The entire myth of America—and the immigrant and African American stories that are a part of it—largely rest on the idea that Indians no longer exist in this present moment. The general knowledge of our existence and contemporary situations is largely erased, ignored, rendered invisible.”
STAKING A CLAIM
Suzanne Bates unwittingly forfeited her rights to the Native world when a white family adopted her 30 years ago. She’s now trying to connect with her indigenous Metis heritage, but it hasn’t been easy. “I called once for registration and they told me to take a hike,” she recalls. “I really struggle with my identity and place in Indian Country,” she says. “I often feel culturally stunted when dealing in traditional situations. That feeling of displacement and exclusion is enormous and far outweighs the success I have in mainstream society.”
Bates, who was afraid of other Natives as a child, began to realize that she could fully become herself only when she confronted who she was and where she came from. “It really became apparent that I had better get going on this journey, because the world was not going to let me forget that I have brown skin and am therefore distinct.” She has been searching for her biological family for 12 years. But she’s quick to say that what she calls her “cultural repatriation process” isn’t about proving that she’s Indian. Now she’s an activist of sorts—helping young people like herself as a First Nations Advisor with Camosun College in British Columbia.
In fact, many Native American lesbians consider themselves activists, albeit sometimes in a spiritual, rather than political, sense. For some, their demonstration is simply coming out—as Native, that is—to protest the degradation of Native American culture and show the world we aren’t relics of the past. For others, the revolution is as Indian as it gets. Little Thunder practices medicine at Indian facilities around the country; Luckett counsels disenfranchised Natives. All speak unabashedly about their queerness with sometimes less than receptive straights.
For Chrystos—Native America’s most well-known lesbian poet—her activism is part literature, part in-your-face. A 56-year-old, city-bred Menominee, Chrystos—like Gomez—gains strength from other urban queer artists of color. For Chrystos, too, this means recognizing the similarities between being queer and being of-color.
“The main similarity between being queer and Native for me,” admits Chrystos, “is the amount of hatred…we have to endure. Some…is genocidal but all of it is detrimental to our mental and physical health, not to mention spiritual health. For both groups, this hatred is a result of colonization and Christianity—organized religions intend to alter us to suit themselves, with no understanding that if we exist we are meant to be here exactly as we are.”
Chrystos, whose love-and-lust poems underscore her outspoken lesbianism, works alongside straight Natives to free imprisoned Indian activists like Leonard Peltier and Norma Jean Croy. (She does so while sometimes struggling with the same economic plight her less famous Native peers experience. For the last two months, she’s been trying to get running water restored to her home.)
S. Wolfe thinks queer Native coalition building is key to finding legitimization in the larger gay community. Wolfe, a 46-year-old mixed-race Apache lesbian, is on the board of Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits, and has had to deal with criticism about the male-dominated group—criticism she shrugs off.
“Do gay groups skew male? Yes. There are more of them and they get more funding for our group,” she admits. It doesn’t, she says, affect the politics of BAAITS—one of a handful of queer Native groups in the country. For her, the group helps her find solidarity, strength in being a butch Indian dyke—validation that didn’t come from her family. “Our parents … told us to keep our brownness quiet.”
The city-bred Wolfe now wants to help other Indians and raise lesbian visibility on the reservation—by going back to teach.
“When I visit the rez, I am an outsider…so I get treated with some suspicion. Although there is a tradition of acceptance of gays by tribes, it is now an embarrassment or something best left unsaid. So I defer to their desire to have me be quiet about being a dyke, but it is obvious I am and I will answer anyone who asks me about it.”
Of course, film and television, say some of these women, bring queer Native issues to the forefront quicker than years of protests. Last summer, Sherman Alexie’s film The Business of Fancydancing—about an assimilated gay man’s return to his reservation—gave some dykes a mirror they sorely needed, and it made straight Indians finally talk about our issues.
“I pay attention to the stories of the least powerful group in the country: gay Native women,” says Alexie. “We all feel lonely and isolated. Perhaps my work helps lesbian Native women feel less alone in the world.”
Feeling less alone in the world is, in fact, a common goal. Though we haven’t found clear-cut solutions to broad problems like racism and homophobia, we two-spirit women are banking on our outsider status—among gays, among Indians—to forge a new place at the table. Sometimes that means a lot of fighting, says Little Thunder, but they can always rely on each other. Indigenous queers in the United States and Canada have developed an intensely loyal bond—something that’s apparent at the annual conventions. “That’s the only time we can come together and sit and talk and joke and laugh,” says Little Thunder. “There’s a sense of humor in the Native American community that I don’t find anywhere else. There’s a sense of safety there.”
*I use “Native American” and “American Indian,” and “Native” and “Indian,” interchangeably, though many activists believe that only one or the other is accurate.
This story was produced under the George Washington Williams Fellowship for Journalists of Color, a project sponsored by the Independent Press Association.