Nagi Nunpa Hocoka in the town of Pine Ridge is a busy place. Teens and young adults break into smiles of recognition and relief when they enter the unassuming office. Nagi Nunpa Hocaka, the Two Spirit Circle, is Pine Ridge’s first official safe place for young people who are lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and queer or questioning -- known collectively as LGBTQ.
The circle was created as part of Native Connections, a Lakota Sioux Housing program, and was designed to alleviate the high rates of youth suicide and substance abuse. After Native Directions Director Lisa Schrader secured a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration for the project last year, she and facilitator Darin Janis realized that the program needed an LGBTQ component in order to reach every young person.
LGBTQ youth seriously contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of heterosexual youth, according to a 2016 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Protection. The CDC also reports that suicide among Native Americans is 3.5 times higher than other ethnic groups. In 2015, there were at least 103 suicide attempts on the Pine Ridge Reservation during a 4-month period among people ages 12-24.
Initially circle meetings were scheduled once per month. According to Janis, however, responding to requests for more frequent meetings, members of the circle decided to gather weekly.
“We have people calling us and asking for similar meetings in their communities,” Janis said.
The Pine Ridge Reservation is composed of nine districts and covers more than 3,400 square miles.
“People want to attend our circle but lack transportation,” Janis said.
In addition to fellowship and support, members learn about LGBTQ friendly community resources for mental health, counseling and substance abuse needs.
Janis invites representatives from various tribal agencies to speak at circle meetings and get to know its members.
“We’ve brought in people from the Public Safety Department. We want people to get to know us so our young people aren’t afraid to call police if needed,” Janis said.
Family members of LGBTQ people also attend the meetings.
“We have mothers bringing their children to meetings; we have lesbian mothers bringing their children here for support too,” Janis said.
Interest spans generations
“A grandma told us she wished this circle had been here for her granddaughter,” Janis said.
The granddaughter left the reservation and now lives in a city and is doing well.
“She was sure her granddaughter would have died either by suicide or murder if she’d remained on Pine Ridge,” Janis said.
According to Circle President Elisha “Zane” Merdanian and Secretary Hemiya StandingBear, the reservation isn’t always a safe place for LGBTQ people.
Both are students at Pine Ridge High School; they described the need to be on guard when out in the community.
They noted the presence of anti-gay graffiti. The word ‘faggot’ is spray painted on a building on the main street of the town of Pine Ridge.
Circle members, however, are working with building owners and are painting colorful murals over the graffiti.
“We want to beautify our town and include positive messages that let folks know they aren’t alone,” Janis said.
Circle members won first prize for the “Most Colorful” float for their entry in the Oglala Lakota Nation Powwow parade this summer. It was the first time, according to Janis, that the parade included a gay pride float.
“People really liked our float; they war whooped in support,” said StandingBear.
Support and acceptance for LGBTQ people seems to be growing, although slowly, on Pine Ridge.
Pine Ridge High school is home to one gay and two transgender cheerleaders. School administrators have been supportive and put no restrictions on choice of uniforms according to Janis. Leaders at the Bureau of Indian Education school did not return calls from ICT for an interview.
Hoera Kingi, 17 may be the first transgender high school student in the state of South Dakota who wears a skirt according to Janis and Kingi. Kingi is transitioning from male to female and prefers the pronoun “she.”
Kingi is a student at Pine Ridge High School and is also a member of Nagi Nunpa Hocaka. Kingi sees herself as a role model for LGBTQ youth.
“After seeing me on the cheerleading squad, two others have joined us,” she said.
According to Kingi, most negative responses to her coming out as transgender and joining the cheerleading team has been via social media.
“Last year, some members of the boys basketball team created a fake profile of me on Facebook and posted a lot of dirty messages,” she said.
Her fellow cheerleading team members, including those who identify as heterosexual, stood up for her according to Kingi.
“They told people that the profile was fake and stood by me until it was removed,” she said.
After graduation, Kingi hopes to attend medical school and pursue helping other transgender people as they pursue sexual transition.
“These kids are setting the bar for being LGBTQ and culturally healthy,” Janis said.
“We are tired of being afraid and ashamed; we want people to know we are human; there should be no shame in how we love each other,” he said.
Mary Annette Pember works as an independent journalist focusing on Indian issues and culture with a special emphasis on mental health and women’s health. Winner of the Ida B. Wells Fellowship for Investigative Reporting, Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism, the USC Annenberg National Health Fellowship and Dennis A. Hunt Fund for health journalism she has reported extensively on the impact of historical trauma among Indian peoples. She has contributed to ReWire.News, The Guardian, The Atlantic and Indian Country Today. An enrolled member of the Red Cliff Band of Wisconsin Ojibwe, she is based in Cincinnati, Ohio. See more at MAPember.com.