Racial Equity - Funders for LGBTQ Issues
About the Toolkit
Supporting indigenous efforts

The systemic barriers facing indigenous/Two-Spirit people in this country have led to catastrophic outcomes—though data rarely captures these realities. Northeast Two-Spirit Society Co-Founder Harlan Pruden explains why and outlines what funders should consider when working with Native communities.

Tell me about yourself? How did you become involved with the Northeast Two-Spirit Society?

I am from northeast Alberta, Canada. As a member of the Saddle Lake Indian Reservation's Goodfish Lake Band, I am a proud member of the Cree Nation. After committing myself to sobriety almost 22 years ago, I became the first person in my family to attend college—and now devote my life to First Nations community organizing and progressive causes.

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, New York City is the home of the largest population of urban First Nations people living in a U.S. city, and, we think, the largest population of urban two-spirit people—although there are no numbers or hard data to back up this assumption, as we are rarely counted. In the summer of 2004, Melissa Hoskins (Cherokee), Kevin Van Wanseele (Kumeyaay), and I met to discuss the forming of a Two-Spirit group to fill a void in programs and services targeted to the two-spirit people of NYC.

For foundations that aren't familiar with the concept, can you explain what "two-spirit" means to you and to First Nations people?

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.

How have your experiences as a Cree and Two-Spirit person framed your understanding of LGBTQ rights? What's your read on the LGBTQ movement(s)?

Growing up Cree and two-spirit was, at times, very difficult—but has proven to be one of the best gifts bestowed upon me. For at my core I have always felt like an outsider. Being an outsider has its benefits for critiquing and challenging preconceived notions of the dominant society.

I think in the LGBT community's fight for "equality," many non-native LGBT people have contextualized this battle within the construct of "equal to whom?" If the struggle is to be as close to the white male-dominated oppressive movement where money talks, and we are all "straight-acting'," and we want to get married, then that is a fight that I am not up for; that system has not been kind to my people for the past 515 years. But if we are fighting for a return of the old ways in which we celebrate diversity, and accept and honor everyone as an equal, then I am there.

This toolkit is exploring how funders can better promote racial equity in this country among LGBTQ communities. Through your work at the Northeast Two-Spirit Society, or through other experiences, how have you seen racial, economic and gender inequities affect Two-Spirit communities?

Last year, a very important survey on LGBT issues was distributed by a well-known community program with whom we have worked for many years. Nonetheless, they left out any reference to "two-spirit" or "Native American" in the list of identity-based categories. It's kind of astounding.

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.

Our research on foundation giving to LGBTQ communities has found that U.S. foundations awarded only seven grants, totaling $45,000, to Native LGBTQ/Two-Spirit organizations in 2007. What explains this scarcity in giving? What has been the relationship between American philanthropy and Native communities in general?

I believe there are many factors that contribute to the lack of funding going to my community. Native Peoples are not a significant priority in any funding stream, both private and public, and this also holds true for two-spirit peoples.

The manner of the communication between grantmakers and our community may be a contributing factor and this happens on many levels. First, many Indian organizations do not have development departments or professional grant-writers; therefore the granting process may inhibit and may even penalize Native Peoples from applying for grants.

Second, when a grant is submitted, the translation of Native concepts into English can prove to be a barrier. Take for example a recent grant that we submitted, where we were asked to explain NE2SS's organizational/governance structure. We wrote of our "council members" and of our "council of elders." In our review, we lost significant points because we did not say anything about our "board of directors." The mere mention of a council of elders would have also sent the signal that we are using a traditional model of governance.

The other major barrier for the two-spirit community is the lack the data. All too often, funders want to see our numbers. However, two-spirit/Native Peoples are often not included in research projects. Of all the ethnicities, Native Peoples are one of the smallest groups; thus, when we are included in studies, all too often the sample size is too small to report. We have also been told that because our population is so small it would take too many resources to collect data on our people. As a result, we are caught in a negative feedback loop.

I've heard a number of indigenous/First Nations people describe how problematic it is when philanthropic and activist gatherings invite them to perform ceremonies yet exclude them as critical thought leaders in the actual discourse of the conference or event. What are your thoughts?

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. These requests are made all while other issues greatly impact our community, including:

  • 65-70% American Indians/Alaska Natives live in urban settings or do not reside on a reservation.
  • Less than 1% of the total number of HIV/AIDS cases reported to the HIV/AIDS Reporting System are American Indians and Alaska Natives. However, when population size is taken into account, this population in 2004 was ranked 3rd in rates of AIDS diagnoses, after African Americans and Hispanics. Since 1995, the rate of AIDS diagnoses for this group has been higher than for whites.
  • American Indian/Alaska Native life spans are, on average, 10 years shorter than those of the average U.S. population. This difference is related to significantly higher rates of alcoholism, tuberculosis, diabetes, pneumonia and influenza.
  • One-third of all American Indians/Alaska Natives who die before age 45 do so because of drug and alcohol abuse. Drug and alcohol abuse, in combination with high poverty rates, creates barriers to sufficient HIV care among American Indians/Alaska Natives.
  • The suicide rate for American Indian/Alaska Natives, ages 10-19, is 25 to 28 per 100,000 and is the highest teen suicide rate among all ethnic groups. In addition to the increased risk factors for ethnic groups, there is also evidence that gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens are at a high risk for suicide. In fact, suicide is the number one cause of death for LGBT teens.
  • 32% American Indians/Alaska Natives live below the poverty line, compared to the national average of 13%. Issues related to poverty, such as lower levels of education and poorer access to health care, has a direct and indirect impact on our people.
  • Complicating these challenges, two-spirit people also face racial prejudice and the stigma associated with being lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender and/or intersex.

A number of documentarians, journalists and researchers have noted how indigenous communities around the world are threatened with extinction from factors such as disease, poverty, famine, violence and institutional negligence, among others. What does this mean for Native/Two-Spirit communities in the U.S.—and how can grantmakers help ensure the survival of First Nations people? What are some key steps?

As noted above, Native Peoples continue to rank at, or near the bottom, of nearly every leading social, health and economic indicator. As with any indigenous population, once we are gone we are gone. It is hard not to view our current struggle within the context of basic survival. It is really difficult to discuss this topic, for we have lost so many Nations and peoples: the Lenepe that once lived on Mannahatta (which we call Manhattan) or the Canarsie of what we now call Brooklyn. Sadly, these Nations and their bloodlines/cultures are no more. On the other hand, how do we discuss this reality without demoralizing the community?

A key first step for grantmakers is to meet the community where the community is. Second, meet with our community to get to know us—knowing that often we do not trust many outsiders for collective history reinforces this mistrust. Be aware that there on many cultural differences between Native and non-Natives—from hand shakes to eye contact to how we, as Natives, watch body posture and how this non-verbal communication often outweighs verbal communication. Face to face communication is so very important to our community.

What are some successes—in our society, in our political movements, in the media—that you'd like to see in your lifetime?

With unlimited resources, we would continue our goals of community development, preserving and celebrating our cultures, and advocating for Two-Spirit concerns—but on a much larger scale.

We would open one or more community centers, providing a one-stop shop for all required services, including free health care (both Western and Traditional); peer counseling; community spaces for art, events and performances; a Traditional Foods Restaurant; a library of Native and Two-Spirit works in both print and oral forms; language and culture preservation classes; and housing and other support and recognition for our Two-Spirit elders.

We would launch a national visibility campaign across media outlets and communities. This would include speaker series across the country, a series of documentaries telling our varied stories for mass distribution.

We would also carry out extensive networking with the larger Native community, work to link communities by hosting an annual Two-Spirit Gathering (powwow, conference), and serve as representatives in International forums (such as the United Nations), advocating for the human rights of Indigenous and Two-Spirit people.

We believe the best assistance allies can offer us is to honor our path and lend support to our voice. All too often history has shown us that non-indigenous people feel they know what is best for indigenous people or feel that they can speak for us. To remedy this, indigenous concerns must be moved to the center of the dialogue and not continue to be pushed to the periphery. We as people have survived more than 515 years of colonization, and we will continue this fight. Outside organizations can educate themselves about relevant issues, and strive to incorporate Two-Spirit peoples.

Two-Spirit people understand that services/communication must be culturally appropriate and these services should be provided by community members, not by non-native service providers. By providing services that are culturally appropriate, the community is assuring cultural preservation and promotion, as well as community leadership development and empowerment. Therefore, funders should look to support home-grown indigenous efforts.

Finally, what advice would you give to a grantmaker who's interested in exploring funding to LGBTQ communities of color? To Native LGBTQ/Two-Spirit communities?

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. In addition, services funded should meet the Native American community on their terms. For example, the evaluation of process of projects and/or people should be on Native terms. Questions are raised by the Native community such as, "why can't funders use a Native American elevation tool, like the give-away, rather than some outside foreign one to the community?" (A give-away ceremony is a time to stand in front of your community and offers gift(s) to those have given the most to the community, to someone "in whom the community dwells the loudest.")

Programs that focus on community pride and celebration of traditions have also been identified by the community as crucial. If a person feels proud of himself or herself then that person is less likely to engage in risky behavior, both sexually or with consumption of alcohol and other substances. Therefore, strategies that include community pride are obtained by supporting one's cultural identity and also by promoting self-sufficiency—but in this case self-sufficiency viewed in terms of one who can give back to the one's community.

In addition to the overall lack of funding from LGBT grantmakers, one of the key challenges we face is overcoming our lack of visibility within the LGBTQ community. The LGBT community, like most of this country, is white-dominated. As a result, we are overlooked and ignored. Unfortunately, when non-indigenous people want to "help," that often means we are placed in an infantile role and they take on a paternalistic role where they know what it best for us.

Funders must also remember that services must be contextual to the community in which there are being directed and ideally provided by the community itself. Unlike many mainstream LGBT groups, Two-Spirit people are still very much linked to our histories and traditions. Funders often want to separate our "LGBT" issues from other relevant and linked issues of poverty, environmental racism, colonization, self-determination, etc.

Additionally, if services are to be successfully delivered, they must be funded for multiple years to enable long-term planning and allow a maximum of resources to be focused on our work, rather than fundraising. When working with our community, the cornerstone of the relationship is trust. Trust is not gained overnight and will only grow over time; multiple-year commitments facilitate trust and working relationships.

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.

Harlan Pruden, Co-Founder, Northeast Two-Spirit Society (NE2SS) (New York, NY)

Harlan Pruden is a Co-Founder of New York's NorthEast Two-Spirit Society and a board member for the American Indian Community House, New York City's well-known urban Indian Center. As a member of the Saddle Lake Indian Reservation's Goodfish Lake Band, he is a proud member of the Cree Nation. His reservation is located his Nation's traditional territory located in northeast Alberta, Canada. After committing himself to sobriety almost 22 years ago, he became the first person in his family to attend College and now devotes his life to First Nations community organizing and progressive causes.

Northeast Two-Spirit Society