In a 2003 interview with Identity Theory, best selling author Sherman Alexie, Spokane and Coeur d'Alene, described Native Americans as “incredibly homophobic.” He said, “It’s so funny, all these white liberals think that Indians are so loving and peaceful and sacred, but you know, Indians are a bunch of rednecks. ... Indian people are very conservative. I don’t think you could really tell the social difference between the average reservation Indian and, you know, white farmers.”
While some unfamiliar with reservation politics might be baffled by Alexie’s observation, his words do seem to ring true for some tribes — especially politically. As recently as May of 2016, for instance, the Fort Peck Assiniboine & Sioux Tribes on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northeastern Montana voted in favor 9-1 of a so-called “bathroom bill” mirroring North Carolina’s controversial anti-LGBTQ bill signed earlier that year by Republican Governor Pat McCrory.
The Fort Peck bill was created on the heels of two horrific crimes in which 1-year-old Kenzie Olson died after being found unconscious inside of a duffel bag and trash can—beaten and malnourished by her own drug addicted aunt; and a 4-year-old was brutally raped, strangled, and left for dead by a 42-year-old man.
Although transgender* people had nothing to do with these sickening crimes, they somehow became an invented boogeyman of people who preyed upon children. Fort Peck Tribal Councilman Ed Bauer, citing the death of Olsen to support the bill, said, “I’m more concerned with being physically correct and protecting our children than being politically correct.”
(Like the pan-Indigenous “Two Spirit,” I use transgender throughout this piece as an umbrella term.)
The politics of bathroom choice aside, imagine being a young Native transgender Two Spirit person who witnessed how those children’s deaths devastated your entire community. According to the National LGBTQ Task Force, Native transgender and 2 Spirit people “reported alarming rates of harassment (86 percent), physical assault (51 percent) and sexual assault (21 percent) in K-12; harassment was so severe that it led 19 percent to leave school.”
On top of that, 56 percent of Native transgender people have attempted suicide. Now, imagine living and breathing the reality of those statistics on a day to day basis. Then, as your entire community still mourned, your leadership overwhelmingly implied you were the cause of death to that 1-year-old and rape of a 4-year-old. You were the menace who the tribal community needed to be protected from.
How did Native thinking ever come to that sort of strange logic? In short: colonization. Whether admitted it or not, current indigenous attitudes toward sexuality stem from conservative Judeo-Christian induced guilt inherited by being guided by the church for so long be it boarding schools, missionaries or — for much of the Northern plains tribes — Pentecostal/Evangelicals.
Although there was some fuss about the Fort Peck LGBTQ community being blindsided by the legislation, currently it still stands with much support. Such is the power of church and conservative indoctrination on Northern Plains Indian reservations. In fact, in 2014 the Crow tribal council passed a “Jesus Christ is Lord on the Crow Indian Reservation” resolution complete with a tribal-sponsored sign alongside a main Montana highway. In further support of Judeo-Christianity, they flew an Israeli flag over a cemetery honoring Native Veterans. Recently, Crow leaders even endorsed pro-Donald Trump GOP Senate Candidate Matt Rosendale and sat prominently behind Trump in headdresses at a November rally in Belgrade, Montana.
While the Israeli flag may have come down from the Veterans cemetery after a contentious public hearing, and Crow tribal members protested their chairman endorsing a pro-Trump candidate, I theorize one isn’t going to see the tribal law backed “Jesus Christ Is Lord On the Crow Indian Reservation” sign coming down anytime soon. No tribal member would get elected putting forth legislation deemed anti-Christian, after all. And although the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux tribal council may claim their legislation is about protecting children, rest assured its roots are grounded in colonized religious bigotry.
In Duane Brayboy’s enlightening Indian Country Today piece, Two Spirits, One Heart, Five Genders, he detailed in brief the history of the Native American transgender people. While not every tribe held the same beliefs, “The Two Spirit people in pre-contact Native America were highly revered and families that included them were considered lucky,” Brayboy noted. “Indians believed that a person who was able to see the world through the eyes of both genders at the same time was a gift from The Creator.”
Although they weren’t forced to become medicine people or healers, in being able to see other points of view Two Spirits people were oft encouraged to embrace potential spiritual gifts and empath sensitivities for the betterment of the tribe. Colonizer eyes saw things differently from first contact, however. “When Christopher Columbus encountered the Two Spirit people, he and his crew threw them into pits with their war dogs and were torn limb from limb,” Brayboy wrote. “The inhuman treatment Christians offered was only the beginning of the Native American holocaust.”
And thus was the pattern as colonization spread further west: Native LGBTQ communities were oft targeted first for violence, “heathen” Two Spirit spiritual guides were driven underground, and individuals were shamed into never coming out as their true selves.
Brayboy wrote of a highly respected Crow warrior, Finds Them And Kills Them, who also lived as a Badé (2-spirit) woman. Crow elders said, “Badé were a respected social group among the Crow. They spent their time with the women or among themselves, setting up their tipis in a separate area of the village.”
After the Indian wars and during the late 1890s, an Indian agent tried to get Finds Them And Kills Them to live as a man, but she refused. The agent jailed the Badé, cut their hair, and forced them to do manual labor. The Crow protested the treatment of Finds Them And Kills Them, “saying it was against (their) nature,” Labray wrote. The late Crow historian Joe Medicine Crow said, “The people were so upset with this that Chief Pretty Eagle came into Crow agency and told the agent to leave the reservation. It was a tragedy, trying to change them.”
Still, the forces of colonization prevailed as the Badé were ostracized by the local churches and boarding school teachings molded the minds of children against them. The Crow Indian reservation would eventually evolve as the base of Northern Plains Indian Pentecostalism as respected healer Nellie Pretty Eagle Stewart adopted the religion alongside her Crow traditional beliefs.
Professor Mark Clatterbuck, author of “Crow Jesus: Personal Stories of Native Religious Belonging,” said of Nellie, “She’d go fasting up in the mountains and would receive songs that would have power in them, and so she was a real interesting blend of traditional ways with the arrival of Pentecostalism.”
As large gatherings were forbidden by the Crow Indian agent, small Pentecostal gatherings at homes eventually evolved into larger Sunday gatherings and feasts. Little Big Horn College historian Dr. Tim McCleary said, “In Crow Agency in the 1920s, there wasn’t much for people to do and these meetings would go all day and night, so even people who weren’t even Pentecostal would go down to the meetings just to watch.”
After Nellie died in 1937, a minister named James Roper was impressed by the Crow’s spirituality and dedication to their beliefs. He assisted in helping five Crow men, including Harold Carpenter, attend Life Bible College in Los Angeles. Carpenter was very charismatic and as such his popularity took off. “He put a lot of thought and energy into his services, and became really popular and tribes throughout the Northern plains flocked to hear him speak,” McCleary said.
However, Carpenter took a hard line against combining Crow and Christian beliefs, the timing coinciding with the upbringing of the baby boomer generation throughout the 1950s and onward. Clatterbuck said. “He really set the tone of, ‘You really got to make a choice in either you follow Jesus and be filled with the Holy Ghost, or follow the Native ways.’”
Although today some Northern plains tribal members have veered back toward combining aspects of traditional practices like sweats alongside Christianity, on a personal note, the colonized erasure and snubbing of traditional Native beliefs has undoubtedly impacted my life’s trajectory. My mother—who spoke the Northern Cheyenne language as her first language—chose to forgo what was supposed to be her role as a “medicine woman” not only for personal reasons, but choices influenced by Pentecostal Christianity. Before she died, she told me I was supposed to inherit those medicine gifts as well.
John Fire Crow Lame Deer was a renowned 20th Century medicine man, or what the Lakota call a heyoka — aka clown. Far from being self-righteous and always pious, heyoka were not conformists. They were expected to speak bluntly and say the truths no one else wanted to say. As contrarians, they oft violated cultural taboos and norms. Lame Deer told biographer Richard Erdoes, "Artists are the Indians of the white world. They are called dreamers who live in the clouds, improvident people who can’t hold on to their money, people who don’t want to face ‘reality.’ They say the same things about Indians."
I oft dwell on what that would mean to me if my mom had not decided to shun her Northern Cheyenne traditional beliefs. But keeping in mind with what Lame Deer said, and after having initially gone to college for painting and drawing (a lot of racy art) before switching to journalism and writing literature, perhaps my life has somewhat veered toward its natural course. If I wasn’t raised around conservative Christians in an area that overwhelmingly voted for President Trump, maybe I would’ve embraced my free spirit gender fluidity openly as a teen and adult. I would have been taught to appreciate it as a gift instead of contend with dysphoria, knowing much of my own family still thinks I’ll go to the white man’s hell for being me.
Again, I can't pretend to speak for every individual tribe because maybe some tribes were kind of Puritan, but it seems tribal people think we need to be perceived as ultra conservative, dogmatic stoics under the guise of being "traditional" — as perhaps famed Western photographer Edward S. Curtis wanted to portray us—and we rush to fulfill that role. We act as if we were never free-spirited and freethinking bohemian-types who proudly embraced the fact our Creator made us who we were as we deemed gender fluidity natural and something to celebrate.
One can only imagine what an elder ancestor or chief of old would say if they’d sat in on that Fort Peck tribal council meeting as they came up with their bathroom bill idea. They'd undoubtedly be baffled at the underlying decision to single out LGBTQ people as a menace to the tribal community.
They probably wouldn’t know what words like “colonization” meant, so they’d just shake their heads and say, “Hey, quit acting white.”
And they would have to listen.
Adrian L. Jawort is a proud Northern Cheyenne journalist and writer who lives in Billings, Montana. He is co-founder of the Native Healing Lecture Series and also founder of Off the Pass Press which aims to promote indigenous literature.