Tribal same-sex marriages spark sexuality conversation

Published in Windspeaker newspaper | December 2013 | Circulation: 145,000

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A number of Indigenous tribes across the United States have moved to recognize same-sex marriages this year, bringing the total to eight, many of which are in states that moved in the opposite direction.

With a tribal judge of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, the largest reserve in Minnesota, performing its first same-sex ceremony in November, and other recent same-sex weddings in Cheyenne and Arapaho territories in October, and on Suquamish territories a month earlier, where do First Nations in Canada stand on sexual and gender diversity?

“Our communities are still far behind when it comes to inclusivity around these things,” said Mi’kmaq comedian Candy Palmater, star of the Aboriginal People’s Television Network’s The Candy Show. She is currently developing an upcoming television dramedy called The Pink Indian.

“I do think we are moving, but not fast enough for young people on the rez who happen to be gay and are in a precarious situation – that feeling of hopelessness.”

Many Indigenous people who are also lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) are increasingly embracing the term “two-spirited” to describe themselves, recognizing the special role many cultures reserved traditionally for those who didn’t conform to strict male and female roles and relationships – that is, before Christian values arrived with colonization.

“Two-spirited is basically when a male and female spirit live within the body,” explained Anishinabe playwright Waawaate Fobister, in an earlier interview. His play Agokwe explores two-spirit stories.

“Back in the day, they had roles and responsibilities in the community. They were shamans, leaders, and spiritual leaders of ceremonies.

“Because of the assimilation and colonization through the residential schools … we’ve been assimilated to Christianity; it’s very homophobic. But (traditions) are not completely gone – they’re just faded. It’s our turn to bring everything back and make our culture strong again.”

When United Nation’s Indigenous rights rapporteur James Anaya toured the country this fall, among the delegations he met were staff with the Native Youth Sexual Health Network (NYSHN), an Indigenous youth-led group working on sexual and reproductive health issues and human rights. Their submission called for more “culturally safe” services for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and two-spirit Indigenous people.

The youth-led organization submitted a letter to Anaya on matters ranging from HIV/AIDS to youth incarceration, sexual education, violence and other issues affecting both LGBT and straight Aboriginal youth.

NYSHN advocates on issues of sexual and reproductive health, and in its submission it said those issues are “directly linked with the right to self-determination, especially over our bodies.”

“For two-spirit youth or gender non-conforming youth, they face many challenges in terms of human rights violations,” said Métis and Cree artist Erin Konsmo, the network’s media arts project coordinator. “We see incredible amounts of violence against these youth.

“You can’t not talk about our rights as Indigenous people and the right to self-determination over our bodies … We represent leadership and vision for our communities and sovereignty over our bodies. We know that is intimately linked to sovereignty over our lands, territories and all aspects of our culture.”

She added that many barriers lie ahead for Indigenous communities to have “hard conversations” about sexual and gender diversity, but that a first step is to listen to youth who are already leading the way in many communities.

“There is lots of healing still to happen,” she said. “We see Indigenous two-spirit and gender non-conforming youth leaving their reserves – leaving rural or remote communities – to go to urban centres.

This “difficult reality Indigenous two-spirit youth are facing requires the whole community to talk about it … Communities need to listen to two-spirit youth. Many of them are trying to talk, saying, ‘I want to be part of my culture. This is how I want to be called. These are the words I want to refer to me by.”

When it comes to same-sex marriage, tribes across the U.S. are in a much different position than in Canada because tribal justice systems are sovereign from state laws and can determine many of their own regulations.

But despite growing media attention to the number of U.S. reserves now issuing marriage certificates, many two-spirit advocates see legally sanctioned relationships as being a relatively low priority in the face of the crises facing so many youth in their communities.

“The conversation sometimes does start with same-sex marriage, but it has to go beyond that,” explained Cree advocate Harlan Pruden, with the U.S.-based National Confederacy of Two-Spirit Organizations. “Same-sex marriage is important; however, there are so many other issues impacting our communities.

“If you look at the impact of HIV/AIDS within Native communities, we have one of the highest-risk prevalence and incidence rates; that also holds true in Canada. Creating a place to say, ‘Our relationships are going to be recognized’ is really cool, don’t get me wrong, but how much cooler would it be that we resurrect some of the ceremonies that have been lost or taken from us as two-spirit people?”

Palmater traced the loss of two-spirit recognition in many Aboriginal cultures to residential schools, where most aspects of Indigenous cultures were declared “evil,” from languages and spirituality to sexual and gender roles.

“Everything from our natural way of living, our way of understanding our place in the ecosystem, our natural ways of justice and leadership – all the things that came naturally from the Creator – all that was said to be evil by the colonizers,” she explained.

“That colonization is still happening. There is nothing post-colonial; we are still colonized. Our people have not freed themselves from that yet.”

For Fond du Lac, Saskatchewan-raised Gerrah Adam, Indigenous recognition of homosexuality is a matter of life-and-death urgency. Now in Vancouver, the 49-year-old described his friend’s suicide at 22, and his own flight from his community to the city to find acceptance at age 17.

“I left – either that or kill myself,” he said. “That was the coldest, darkest and loneliest period in my life, actually … I had to run away from home, closeted.

“Due to Christianity’s beliefs, we’ve been shamed by our families … Take the Indian outta the children really worked, I’d say. They alienated them right to the core.”

He said he hopes his story and those of two-spirit and LGBT Aboriginals will bring a sea-change on reserves across the country.

“We all have our stories,” he mused. “We need to start talking and get these stories out of the closet.

“It’s the kind of story every kid in the country should somehow read, even if they’re not gay. It’ll put things in perspective, and who knows – maybe even save a life.”

As many look to U.S. tribes pioneering same-sex marriage rites, even as some states move against them, Pruden said a more crucial priority is taking a “holistic approach” to creating a valued place for two-spirit people in communities, whether rural or urban, through ceremonies, language and dialogue.

“For us, there are so many other issues impacting our communities,” he said, “For many urban Indians, many have had to choose between being gay and lesbian, and being Native.

“How many others are out there now, lost and dislocated from their communities? How can we bring that union to bring them back to the circle?”

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