Pink Breechcloths, Political Correctness and Pretend Traditions (Like Two-Spirits): We Can't Always Wait for Tradition

Gyasi Ross
8/14/12

THEN:
When I was just a wee, little, pigeon-toed lad at an elementary school called “Vina Chattin” within the great Blackfeet Nation, my male classmates and I were young gladiators, warriors, awaiting our day to fight for our people! Even at the tender age of 7 or 8, everything was a pissing contest—we learned early to be tough, to marginalize those who were weaker, and that we were rewarded for being stronger.

I don’t think my Amskapipikuni niskunis were alone in these power games—in fact, amongst the many Native homelands to which I’ve traveled, I see macho behavior is more the rule and not the exception. I see beautiful little Indian—sometimes hair braided, sometimes not—chests out, proud, and willing to take on any comers. The women are tough too! Still, this article is about young Native boys because old Native boys tend to run our tribal governments disproportionately; consequently, that male-dominated rule tends to continue the same power rituals that started as young Native boys.

This is when we first begin to learn about power, submission and dominance.

Anyway, during these elementary school days, we played a football game called “Smear the Queer.” The game was a free-for-all; the “Queer” was whoever had the ball. Everybody else’s job was to smash him—smear him. Of course we didn’t think about the consequences of the name—we just wanted to smash this guy onto the concrete.

Moving forward, we teased any boy that had effeminate characteristics. If a boy played with girls too much, he got teased too; the very worst thing that a boy could be called in our impoverished settings was “gay” or a “fag.” We learned to lie at a very early age about our sexual conquests to throw off the scent that we just might be gay. We knew who the gay community members were—we teased each other and would make jokes about that particular gay community member coming over to pick our friends up. “Such-and-such came to see if you were around…”

It always got a laugh.

As I got older and around my fifth community college, this anthropology professor told me about how homosexuals were revered in “Native Americans” communities; he said that there was traditionally a special place for so-called berdaches and so-called two-spirit folks. Of course, I had to call “B.S.” “I’m not sure which Native American community you’ve been to, prof, but unless ‘revering’ means ‘getting beaten and left in an alleyway,’ you’re way off base. We weren’t nice to gay kids back then. Heck, I still don’t have any gay friends to this very day. I’m all for equal rights professor, but old prejudices die hard.”

The professor looked at me like I spilled her vat of patchouli oil. How dare I utter this inconvenient truth that might contradict her studies?

The Thing About Skins

NOW:
The point is not my interaction with the professor. The point is not whether she was ultimately right or whether I was ultimately right; I hope that she is right. I’m pretty sure that, at some point, homosexuals were treated humanely amongst Native people—I know that Christianity and European traditions profoundly changed many of our worldviews. Still, in the past several hundred years, our modern traditions—because traditions do, in fact, change—gay people (and even those perceived to be gay) caught hell. The counteraction to this modern history has been propping up the idea of the “two-spirit”—a recent term, created to sound more traditional than “berdache.”

The point was not even whether homosexuality is traditional or not traditional amongst Native people. I believe that we had all spectrums of people within our communities—some accepted certain types of behavior and some did not. Just like anything else, to try to singularly define ALL Native people is a farce, an exercise in futility. Native people, just like any race of people, are not a monolith.

But even that is beside the point.

The point, instead, is…homosexuality undoubtedly exists within our Native communities now, in 2012. Those gay and lesbian Native people also undoubtedly deserve to be treated humanely and civilly just like any other person within our communities; that’s true whether being gay is “traditional” or not. Should homosexuals be revered? Well, hopefully their lovers worship them, I suppose, although the point here is also not false political correctness meanwhile continuing discriminatory behavior. Plus, I don’t think reverence is what gay and lesbian Natives are seeking—my guess is that they’re just seeking equality, and not to be the constant subject of so many jokes and persecution. I know many Tribes and individual Natives are softening perspectives—to wit, the Coquille Tribe and the Suquamish Tribe recently exercised their sovereignty and approved same-sex marriage. I suspect (and hope) that more tribes will exercise their sovereignty and provide progressive rights to their citizens in the near future. Heck, even most of my old friends are now in the social libertarian camp; they really don’t care who loves whom. Still, to those remnant skins that hold on to old prejudices…let’s get over it and start a new tradition of acceptance.

Ok?

An Organization in Washington that is committed to Marriage Equality
WhyMarriageMattersWashington.org

www.nativeout.com

The Thing About Skins

Gyasi Ross is a member of the Blackfeet Nation and his family also belongs to the Suquamish Nation. He wrote a book called Don’t Know Much About Indians (but i wrote a book about us anyways) which you can get at DKMAI.com. He is also co-authoring a new book with Robert Chanate coming out in the Summer of 2012 appropriately called The Thing About Skins, and the website and publishing company for that handy-dandy book is CutBankCreekPress.com (coming soon). He also semi-does the twitter thing at twitter.com/BigIndianGyasi

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page

POST A COMMENT

Comments

tmsyr11's picture
tmsyr11
Submitted by tmsyr11 on
Interesting to note how groups can recite ‘traditional verses’ or ‘customary practices’ to suite THEIR political agendas, but yet disregard the other serious and/or critical parts of American Indian tradition and their customary practices. Why is it that these groups get to CHERRY PICK their way in applying ethical and moral standards while great many other people adhere to the full truth and meaning of tradition beliefs and customary values? While I agree that all people should be treated and handled respectfully, it is often difficult to listen and acknowledge their views when YOUR ONLY being given half the rationale while sometimes being given with smoke and mirrors. This response is in reply to the article ALREADY distinguishing apartness or separateness while seemingly rationalizing this is a customary norm.

skinu's picture
skinu
Submitted by skinu on
I WILL SAY WHAT EVERYONE IS SCARED TO,WE THE BLACKFEET DO NOT HAVE THESE TYPE OF PEOPLE OR PLACES FOR THEM IN OUR CULTURE!!! WE HAVE BEEN AS OF LATELY ACCUSED OF PUSHING FOR SAME SEX MARRIAGES BY THE OTHER 3 BANDS OF OUR CONFEDERACY,THIS IS SAID TO BE DONE IN SECRET MEETING BY 4 OF THE 9 TRIBAL COUNCIL,THEY ARE VIOLATING SO MANY PEOPLE WITH THEIR SECRET AGENDAS AND LOCKING OUT THE MEMBERS THAT THIS AUGARE,RUNNING CRANE,OLD PERSON,SHARP AND LITTLE DOG OF OUR COUNCIL HAS BROUGHT THIS GREAT SHAME AND ENBARRASSMENT TO OUR ONCE POWERFUL TRIBE AGAINST THE WISHES OF THE ELDERS WHO ALONG WITH ANY NEAR FULL BLOOD MEMBERS ARE THREATENED AND HARRASSED!! THERE IS SO MANY CIVIL,HUMAN AND CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS BEING IGNORED THAT WE NOW ARE LOOKING AT TERMINATION AS A VIABLE SAVE THATS HOW BAD IT IS HERE.HELP THEM IF YOU CAN AS THEY ARE LOCKED OUT AND VOICELESS,WE WILL HAVE A WEBSITE UP SOON TO GIVE THEM A VOICE AND WILL LET YOU KNOW

mdsal's picture
mdsal
Submitted by mdsal on
I appreciate this article's effort to dismiss the fallacy of "Indian" uniformity within all places throughout the continent, or for that matter within a single tribe. It is a dehumanizing act of fetishism to paint such broad and careless brush strokes. Perhaps this is the fundamental problem with much of the classical anthropological discourse. It is perhaps, however, worth noting that, indeed, some indigenous nations did hold particular special roles for 3rd gendered (or whatever term we want to use) individuals. As a case in point, when I asked my traditional Lakota auntie in her 70s what gay meant she corrected my vocabulary by referring me to the Lakota notion of winkte and explained that such people hold a special relationship in the tribe as persons with unique spiritual ties (she gave more detail, but I'll avoid that here). Whether that remains true today in its integrated role in society (rather than its "acceptance" or "tolerance") is another matter. For other indigenous nations those traditions might never have existed, or if they did, might have been lost in the rampage of colonization, both scenarios are certainly plausible. Perhaps the starting point for creating new traditions is still to turn around and consider the past. For whatever its worth, I would think that the oral history is the most vital and indispensable resource for trying to piece these things together.

rodvanmechelen's picture
rodvanmechelen
Submitted by rodvanmechelen on
Gays and lesbians have been getting married in Washington State since the 1970s. "Marriage equality" is not about marriage, but about the marriage license. In this regard, gays and lesbians have always had precisely the same rights as everybody else. For the law to be discriminatory and "unequal" would mean that only straight people could get a license to marry a person of the same sex. Ridiculous, but obviously not the case. Personally, I agree that every individual should be treated with a basic degree of respect and should be equal in the eyes of the law. But what the Coquille and Suquamish did was to defy federal law. While the current administration would never prosecute them for that, a right-wing administration might. If a right-wing government did that, the tribes would lose, which would adversely affect the sovereignty of all tribes. There is no tribal tradition of issuing marriage licenses. Indeed, neither the Coquille nor Suquamish issued marriage licenses before this. It's not traditional, it has nothing to do with tribal culture, it was nothing more than political grandstanding on behalf of the mainstream gay and lesbian community. Tribes that do that, invite attacks on tribal sovereignty. That's a bad idea. Just as the idea of the government issuing marriage licenses is a bad idea. A marriage license is a license to enter into a contract. We don't need to get a license to enter into a contract for a cell phone, or to rent an apartment, or to buy a car, or to do just about anything else. So why should we allow the government to intrude in this one area? We should not. But tribes should stay out of that issue, too. Again, it would invite attacks on tribal sovereignty, and that would be a bad idea. Leave mainstream political issues in the mainstream where they belong. Tribes have enough battles to fight without inviting more.

hontasfarmer's picture
hontasfarmer
Submitted by hontasfarmer on
The biggest part of the myth has to be that being what is referred to as "two-spirit" was ever fundamentally about sexual orientation. A person could be two-spirit and not even be homosexual or bissexual. It was really about gendered behavior and a more spiritual thing. They were thought to have a special understanding of human nature and other things due to their masculine an feminine qualities. When anthropologist study similar practices in shamanistic societies in Asia, such people are considered holy. The role involved dressing as the opposite or mixing the dress of both. Learning the science and medicine as it was known at the time. Learning the stories and telling the stories better than anyone. Being able to do the work of both. Now it just means being gay and definable as an NDN in some way. :/ If two spirits were ever valued it was because they were thought to give benefits to society through their insights and actions that other people did not. Aren't such people who prove to be uniquely useful always valued by any culture? That's not a "special" thing about Amerindians.

hjwjc's picture
hjwjc
Submitted by hjwjc on
This article is kind of touchy. I have to agree with some of the other people who made comments about the sense of the word 'queer'. My mother told me that in the N'Dee (Apache) way 'queer' meant being odd or different, and that if a 'queer person', mainly male, gave you something traditional, pollen, smoke, or made something for you like moccasins that made it even more special because they, the 'queer' possessed certain qualities or something likened to a power. The 'queer' was not gay, and it doesn't necessarily translate to two spirited.

swkyle's picture
swkyle
Submitted by swkyle on
Well this is going to be news to the gay Blackfeet men I know. Sounds like your "culture" needs some house cleaning.

swkyle's picture
swkyle
Submitted by swkyle on
Sovereignty is only valid through its exercise. And pushing the limits of what is possible is precisely what needs to be done. Grandstanding or not, it hasn't proved anything other than just such an act. Besides tradition is what is practiced everyday, not what you've read in a book written by anthropologists, and as such, change is apart of our lives. And valuing equality and at the very least, to live free of being beaten down for being different is just the change I welcome.

swkyle's picture
swkyle
Submitted by swkyle on
Unfortunately as with all things Native in the popular imaginary, there is always a cognitive dissonace between what is written about Natives and the lived experience of Natives themselves. In this case, as a gay Native man, I appreciate the value of speaking about my difference in terms that recognize a different history, a history among my Navajo and Apache peoples historically present. But of course, these are specific Nations and there has not been any singular idea of two-spirit people across all Native cultures. But that doesn't mean that we cannot claim one through recognizing this difference in our own lives today, in the spirit of just not living in fear of being beat down by our own peoples. The call for human rights should always begin from within and if you cannot keep track of my humanity, then how can you keep track of yours? I appreciate the author's honesty regarding this subject, but why not ask a lgbt or two-spirit identified individual to right another as well?

gyasiross's picture
gyasiross
Submitted by gyasiross on
Thank you all for your comments--this is, for the most part, a very smart and respectful conversation about homosexuality in Indian Country. ALL of you take valid viewpoints. For example, even regarding the comment about gays in our Blackfeet Homelands, the stated perspective above is probably MUCH more close to the consensus than any thought that there is tolerance for homosexuality. Yes, there are gay Blackfeet, but that doesn't mean that it's widely accepted; to wit, that's why many homosexuals from Northern Plains tribes move to cities where it's more accepted. This conversation is about taking things as they are, not as we wish they would be. We want them to get better. SWKYLE, I agree with you that sovereignty is as we make it--I refuse to accept the safe scraps that others dictate are uncontroversial. If Tribes can only be sovereign over non-controversial topics, what value is that sovereignty? Still, I respect Van Mechelen's viewpoint and think that many subscribe to a similar thought. As for why this was written by me instead of a gay person, it is because I have a voice and some credibility and not everyone else has that. My guess is that many gay Natives have written these kind of pieces, but they didn't get this kind of attention for it. Therefore, I try to use that voice for what I think is good and right and just. E.G., I do NOT feel that only gays should write pro-gay rights pieces--that's kinda preaching to the choir. I'm not summarily dismissed as a "gay sympathizer"--I am a regular, straight, non-politically correct rez kid that grew up not understanding or liking gay kids and I now see the silliness of that, and have been working to change my prejudices. I also try to reach others like me and give them an alternate viewpoint--that they don't have to be gay lovers to be gay accepters. It's a slow process. Generally, this column presents singular perspectives that are about the writing and the viewpoint and not because someone fits a category, other than being an incredible thinker and writer. If you feel you fit that criteria, my email is all over the internet. Find me and let's talk. Thank you everybody--great comments.

hjwjc's picture
hjwjc
Submitted by hjwjc on
I was only responding to the article not to any one as an individual. If my mother were alive she'd be in her 80's, she was my source of this information. Why should anyone keep track of your humanity? Anyway in each tribe there are things called TABOO's. Thats all I have to say.

Loren BirdRattler's picture
Loren BirdRattler
Submitted by Loren BirdRattler on
I am born and raised on the Blackfeet Reservation as well, I couldn't disagree more with the pan Native writings of Mr. Ross's anecdotal rantings about gays on the Blackfeet Reservation. Perhaps if he actually spent a little more time invested in the community here, he would gain a better understanding. I had considered Mr. Ross a friend but apparently he did not me, he seemed to think we were friends when I bought him lunch in Missoula, MT, perhaps not, either way, his research leaves much to be desired...
12