Native Americans in Queer Politics

By Justice Galvan

The place of Native Americans within queer communities is one that is often shoved under the rug. It is only recently that I have discovered a set of combinations about this topic. Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees deals with the harmful influence of scientific experiments on indigenous peoples. What I did not expect to find in this book were discussions and debates of sexuality, particularly in relation to a Native American character. Never before had I seen these two identities come together. It is true that queer identities are typically associated with middle-class white men and that Native Americans receive very little attention in any form of media, but I began to wonder why I did not see more attention placed on Native American characters who might follow two-spirit traditions. Two-spirit is an “umbrella term” that is used to encompass various gender and sexual identities, traditionally of spiritual or cultural significance in Native American tribes.

Professor LaFlamme pointed me in the direction of Spaces between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Decolonization, by Scott Morgensen. While I did not finish the book, it soon became clear that I was looking in the wrong place for Native American identities. Morgensen discusses the queering of Native American people by white settlers. When settlers arrived in a foreign land with their own heteronormative patriarchal system, they used this power against Native Americans. By forcing these standards on a people that did not ascribe to them, settlers effectively queered the tribes they came into contact with. They enforced their own sexuality by arresting and executing those who strayed from norms the settlers had created. The word “berdache” came into use as a negative descriptor of two-spirit people. The etymology of the word comes from the French “bardache,” which refers to a man who is passive in homosexual practices. Of course, this ignores the complexity of the two-spirit system, as well as female sexuality.

When settlers realized that the best way to destroy native culture was through the indoctrination of children, boarding schools came into place. These took children from their families and tribes to educate them in a way that would cause them to forget their language and practices. Morgensen concludes that the nail in the coffin of indigenous sexuality is the way it has been deemed primitive, much like the rest of indigenous culture. This strategy allows native culture to have existed as a relic, a representation of life before civilization arrived; it essentially becomes a dead structure in the eyes of settler society.

White settlers queered native sexual practices, and today these practices and identities are lauded as aspects of queer politics. People who have no Native American heritage take on the two-spirit identity. The culture that was once killed by immigrants to the land is revived by the same people. Even so, this revival is not to allow native peoples to practice the way they once did or to encourage them to regain a sense of cultural pride. The adoption of the two-spirit system was at first a form of activism by Native people against berdache, which had been used by non-Native peoples to speak for sexual minorities. However, the two-spirit system was then taken up by non-Native peoples in much the same way. This is the most basic form of cultural appropriation, and part of a very clear pattern about the way Native Americans are treated. People with no Native American heritage (or who are 1/35th Native American, descended from a Cherokee princess) wear stereotypical clothing or sweatshirts with offensive sports logos on them. These images, which native people were once killed for, are now accepted only for their place on non-Native bodies.

Another problem with the cultural appropriation of two-spirit identities is the way certain aspects are chosen while others are excluded. To pick and choose from an identity that is not one’s own is to mutate it into something that it was not intended to be. At least in some tribes, a person may be designated two-spirit at birth.

An interesting aspect of Morgensen’s description of boarding schools is his account of native children. He explains that two-spirit children would be punished for the ways they dressed and identified. Modern sexual politics rarely focuses on children, and it is commonly thought that children cannot decide their own identity until they reach a certain age. Rather, they are straight and cissexual until proven otherwise. This is perhaps an aspect of the two-spirit practice that can inspire modern politics. While not necessarily designating a child two-spirit, children can be given the choice to identify as they please, whether or not this is something they wish to be later in life.

It is a starting point for cultures to take inspiration from another culture without appropriating it. We can see poor examples of this in those who claim a two-spirit identity without actually being part of the culture. Not only is it harmful to take an identity without knowing what it entails, but it is all the more harmful to take an identity that was once queered by settlers and wear it as a queer identity. This perpetuates the cycle of settler-colonialism in regards to Native American culture. I think the queer community has the ability to become more welcoming to Native American cultures. It is not welcoming to wear Native American culture as a fashion piece; a better approach is to allow Native American people to speak and practice what they wish.