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Native identity & tribal sovereignty

The Two Spirit Society of Denver works with non-Native LGBT audiences to understand Native traditions and Two Spirit realities, and with Native populations to establish stronger relationships. Crisosto Apache (Mescalero Apache) and Richard Lafortune (of the Two Spirit Press Room in Minneapolis, MN) discuss Native/Two Spirit history and the dearth in foundation dollars to Native people.

Tell me about the Two Spirit Society of Denver. How did it come about? What is its vision for the community?

In 1999, the Two Spirit Society of Denver formed to confront and combat issues of homophobia, racism and oppression from the Native American community, the non-Native American communities and the GLBT community at large. Two Spirit people have a strong history with many traditions and beliefs that focus on the freedom of religion, the right to practice traditional ceremonies and the strength to overcome stereotypes and myths that are restraining our place in the sacred circle.

The Two Spirit Society of Denver has made progress in promoting social change by being actively involved within the Non-Native American community, GLBT community and Native American community. Some of our events include: Denver Gay Pride; Montana Pride; Human Rights Campaign Gala; Transform Columbus Day; Denver March Powwow (as well as other local powwows); Two Spirit Gatherings in Tulsa, San Francisco, Canada and Minnesota; PFLAG meetings in Evergreen, Fort Collins, Denver and a conference and presentation in Boulder; local church groups; building relationships with Native American communities in the Denver metro area; supporting Native American prayer ceremonies, and planning and hosting 21st Annual 2009 International Two-Spirit Gathering.

Maintaining membership is a top priority for the Two Spirit Society of Denver. Because we have many different indigenous tribes that make our contingency, when our members take an interest in their culture, we risk losing them back to their reservations. Even though we lose members to the reservations, it strengthens the Two Spirit presence in our Native communities.

Other organizations that our group works with are: GLBT Community Service Center of Colorado (The Center), Transform Columbus Day, Red Earth Woman's Alliance, Four Winds, United Christian Church's (UCC), Denver Indian Family and Health Services (DIFHS), National Native American Aids Prevention Center (NNAAPC), Denver Indian Center, PFLAG of Colorado and The Denver Indian Alliance.

What are some of its current projects?

Our focus is to dispel the negative stereotypes and misconceptions of Native people and Two Spirited people with an emphasis to confront and combat homophobia, racism and oppression in three specific communities in the Denver Metro area. These three environments are the non-Native American community, the GLBT community and the Native communities. We will provide a strong leadership in social change, advocacy and education of Two Spirited people and the community at large.

We have already received several invitations, including:

  • World Indigenous Pride 2008 has asked the Two Spirit Society of Denver to be the keynote speaker at their gathering in Los Angeles, CA.
  • The Two Spirit Society of Tulsa continues to ask for our assistance to host the Osage Hills Two Spirit Gathering. The gathering brings together Two Spirited Native Americans from across the country to share knowledge and history of Two Spirited people.
  • Build alliances with other developing Two Spirit groups across the country as well as major national foundations.
  • The Two Spirit Society of Denver has been invited by the International Two Spirit Group to attend the gathering being hosted on the Audubon Society Resort Center in St. Paul, Minnesota and various sites in Canada.
  • The Two Spirit Society of Denver will be utilizing our fundraising efforts because we will be hosting the 2009 International Two Spirit Gathering. The gathering is planned to take place in Estes Park Colorado in October, 2009. The goal of the event is to unite, educate and provide spirituality to all Two Spirited and Non-Two Spirited people as a community. We also hope to establish resources and programs for the Two Spirit community and its youth.

What can you relate about the histories of Native peoples in this country?

In North America, at a time before European contact, various academic estimates identify as many as 800 nations (with reference to modern "nation-state" definitions) in this hemisphere.

Scholars also place hemispheric population collapses that range from 2- to as high as 100 million people over the past 500 years—as a result of Western colonial military campaigns, local campaigns of systematic massacre, and the intended and unintended release of lethal biological contagions among populations with no natural immunities.

Linguists have identified some 150 language families and 1,500 to 2,000 dialects. In the United States alone, approximately 200 languages (as distinct from each other as French is from Japanese) continue to be spoken today; in Canada about 55 languages are actively spoken, and in Central America, upwards of 125 distinct languages are used.

In the U.S., over 370 treaties document the recognition of the unextinguished governmental power—and in many cases, unextinguished title to ancestral domain—since time immemorial.

There are presently more than 550 federally recognized tribes in 44 states, with approximately 31 state-recognized tribes in 11 states, and an additional 250 non-recognized tribes possessing federal-recognition petitioning-status.

Western science has estimated continuous habitation in this continent by human beings, using chronological parameters that establish timelines of 25,000 - 40,000 years. Native people assert our primacy and sovereignty in these lands.

And what's the historical take on Two-Spirit people?

According to Native oral histories, emerging scientific consensus and comparative dialogue among our own communities, we have become aware of unbroken complexes of knowledge and intellectual traditions that point to prevalent international social constructions that encompass, embrace and celebrate multiple gender identities. These traditions currently present an opposing viewpoint to accepted models of biological determinism, construed by Western science.

Centuries of documentation by early European explorers, more recent field study, as well as continuously sustained indigenous knowledge systems, identifies two spirit people as accepted, respected, and in fact crucial members, of our societies.

In Canada, a recently completed federal level report provides one accepted definition of the term "two spirit": a popular cultural marker that emerged in Canada in 1990, near Winnipeg, Manitoba, at the 3rd International Two Spirit Gathering. The term served as an indigenous alternative to the highly inappropriate term "berdache."

Aboriginal people have recognized those who possess the sacred gifts of the female-male spirit, which exists in harmony with those of the female and the male. They have traditional, respected roles within most Aboriginal cultures and societies and are contributing members of the community. Today, some Aboriginal people who are two-spirit also identify as being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

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

The term "Two Spirit" was developed to coincide with the term "berdache." The name was given by anthropologists to depict the GLBTQ people before the settlement of this country. They were named by Europeans as berdache" from the Persian "bardaj," originally a derogatory term meaning a passive homosexual partner, usually a "pretty" or feminine young boy. Yet, Indian berdache are very different from the European view of "berdaj" as "sodomite heretics" as written about by the Crusaders invading Persia in the Middle Ages.

Instead, Native cultures seem to embrace the notion of an opposite gender identity, different from one's anatomical sex without any implied sexual preference. They were viewed by native tribes as having an almost "sacred" status for the most part.

Indian spiritual philosophy not only accepts a "third gender" status, but almost encourages it. With few exceptions by some of the more warlike tribes like the Apache and Comanche, the berdache are found to comfortably coexist in almost every single North American tribe, especially in the Midwest, great plains and the southwest.

In October 2009, you'll be hosting an international Two-Spirit gathering in Estes Park, Colorado. What do you hope comes out of this gathering? [Note: This Commentary was produced in September 2009]

The International Gathering provides an opportunity for all interested parties to gather in a traditional way of learning, sharing and supporting the reclamation and remembrance of Two Spirit people's rightful place in the Native respective societies. It is an opportunity to span the generations and celebrate the talented youth and elders from all over the United States and Canada. This is the one opportunity where Two Spirit people can form the solidarity that is needed and plan strategies to collaborate efforts for the future. This event does not just benefit Two Spirit people from throughout North America; it also brings together friends and family, drum groups, spiritual leaders, and artists from a plethora of Native nations.

The gathering will not merely be functioning as a social event, but will focus on the spiritual, cultural and educational areas of Native life. Throughout the multi-day event, participants can attend workshops ranging from community activism, personal health or Two Spirit history. It will also feature a Sunrise Ceremony, Stomp dance, Pow wow, sweat lodges, give-away, talking circles, and other means for individuals to connect with the spirituality and culture of their particular nations.

At the 19th 2007 International Two Spirit Gathering in Canada, the Two Spirit Society of Denver made a commitment to the International Native community to continue the success of preceding gatherings. We sent representatives to the 20th Annual Gathering in Minnesota this past August to initiate important contacts and begin the process of an International Board which will represent all Two Spirit Societies across the country and Canada. The future sites for the next three gatherings have already been determined; Denver, Colorado USA 2009, Winnipeg, Manitoba 2010, Hawaii USA 2011.

Your web site describes the need to "confront and combat issues of homophobia, racism, and oppression from the Native American community, the non-Native communities, and the GLBT community at large." What are some examples of racism and oppression from the GLBT community at large?

It is our mission to change the perceptions of the non-Native American and GLBT societies in general. These groups currently do not have any GLBT Native American people to inform them of our cultural challenges. The community at large actively invites the Two Spirit Society of Denver to participate in panel discussions, performances and community events. Education of the social, cultural and traditional structures of Native people and how to define the role of Two Spirit people is the focus of the education is our main focus and concentration.

Our goal is to continue to establish and improved relationships with our Denver Native communities and non-Native communities and promote some of the services they provide.

One of our negative encounters involves the annual Denver wintertime "Parade of Lights." One year they discouraged our involvement in the event and we stopped participating.

We also continue to be the target of ridicule from anti-gay religious organizations but rather then allow this to continue to be a set back, we've made it one of our main talking points at our educational lectures, particularly to church groups and other religious organizations

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?

Fund aising has been limited to private donations from members or other Two Spirit organizations. We have accepted gifts correlating to our presentations at local churches, PFLAG meetings and local foundations. We have also received some funding from the Human Rights Campaign, after they met some of our members at the grand opening of the Native American Museum. The community supports our organization through invitations for public appearances and group performances.

While there is a wide perception in the general public that Native Americans = Casinos, Native people are too well aware that national philanthropy studies during the past decade revealed that only a little above 5 percent of tribes in the country have active gaming operations. Among that 5 percent of tribes, only 20 percent—or one-fifth—have gaming operations that could realistically be described as "lucrative." Most tribal gambling businesses produce enough revenue only to build or fix schools (promised but never fulfilled by the federal government), fund health programs (drastically cut by the federal government), pave roads and purchase emergency response vehicles (occasionally funded, but largely ignored by the federal government. Other programs that gaming operations support may include senior lunch programs, water utilities upgrading, housing stock improvement, youth summer programming, etc. Not all tribal communities with gaming operations receive per capita (individual profit distribution) payments. Those tribal governments that do disburse per caps generally do so at predictably low or modest levels.

Nationally, philanthropy has come to share a popular and widespread view of Native people, which is that Natives are not cultures—we are corporations. Not only is this conceptually untrue, it is economically untrue. Native communities seeking either public or private support for community programs are regularly redirected to tribal governments—or declined without comment—under the false assumption that all tribes have access to independent sources of wealth. This is a damaging fiction that has been largely perpetuated either by design or default by people who believe they are economically harmed by the competition, or politically threatened by Natives who are exercising a degree of social independence previously unattainable without discretionary sources of revenue.

Another possibility is that virulent racism is a motivating factor in redefining Native identity, quite apart from any economic or larger political motivations.

There is actually little available tribal philanthropy money, except for purposes of social and material infrastructure building that were never fulfilled according to treaty. And apparently if the Two Spirit community fears are realized, not only will our tribal governments not support our requests for program contributions, we have now witnessed internally originating, systemic discrimination against people who have always been regarded as leading spiritual and governmental members of society.

We are developing a two-year vision of continued, enhanced national community building and organizing, but in order to do so, we will need coordinated cooperation from national GLBT funders. Nationally, mainstream Native communities—and mainstream organized philanthropy—has responded with only a fraction of the resources needed to meet the often-dire circumstances of many of the poorest people in the country. Two Spirit people are no exception. Facing co-factors of housing, employment and education discrimination on the reservation, or in urban areas, Native people who are LGBT, as well as female, face compounding challenges to having or making a life.

What are some issues that you'd like to see addressed within Native communities, LGBTQ communities and broader society?

Two spirit communities around the country have expressed, with some dismay the general lack of coverage of Native issues. Where we do see treatment of Native issues appear in the news, there is a history of often a detectable—to shocking—lack of cultural understanding.

The same sex marriage issue in Native Country parses in our communities very differently than it does in non-Native communities. With community dialogue and consensus, it is becoming clear that the issue for Native people does not so much comport with same-sex marriage as it does with the much larger issue of tribal sovereignty. Community members are concerned that journalists are looking in the wrong direction on these matters, and perhaps more worrying, are distorting matters of internal community process. We are deeply concerned that the GLBT press might give an improper appearance of Two Spirit attacks upon our tribal governments, rather than our focus upon the enacting legislation (the Defense of Marriage Act) at the U.S. federal level at the core of the problem.

We need to discuss appropriate cultural resources for interested LGBT journalists, because we recognize that gay journalism is frequently the nexus for mainstream news coverage. In Two Spirit communities, we need technical assistance training, introductions to the pool of journalists, and we expect to be consulted for the vetting of stories.

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

Native and Aboriginal people of North America have inhabited this continent for thousands of years. We are at a critical place in time that could lead us to extinction of tradition and culture or disappear us into the scapes of the metropolitan lifestyle.

Most Native grassroots organizations do not ask for much in funding and give a lot in their own time. We would like major foundations to consider looking at the amount of funds that were allocated to Native American and Two Spirit organizations and answer the question: Why is so little focused on people that struggle socially, economically and culturally?

We want to help break the stereotypical molds and view points that do not allow us to move forward in progress. Understanding Native cultures and being aware of the cultures would help bring understanding to the majority.

We would like to have aide to promote that social change and education that is needed of progression.

Finally we want to continue to develop educational programs for healthy sexual relationships and healthy sexual practices in rural areas. We could do this if everyone in our organization had access to grant writing practices, forums and fundraising workshops.

Crisosto Apache (Mescalero Apache) and Richard LaFortune (Anguksuar), Two Spirit Society of Denver (Denver, CO)

Crisosto Apache is a member of the Mescalero Apache Tribe. He was born and raised on that reservation, which is located in the southern central region of New Mexico. He graduated from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe N.M. He has attended the Naropa University (Boulder), University of Colorado at Denver and is currently attending Metro State College of Denver. His occupation is in the field of education and works with disadvantaged youth. He joined the Two Spirit Society of Denver in 2001 and volunteers his time to conduct Two Spirit educational presentations. He is the current Co-Director for the Two Spirit Society of Denver.

Richard LaFortune is the Director of the Two Spirit Press Room 2SPR. He has worked in collaboration with the Two Spirit Society of Denver and various other Two Spirit organizations. His area of expertise is in the field of Philanthropy and is one of the founding members of the International Two Spirit Gathering.

Two Spirit Society of Denver

Two Spirit Press Room