Queer icon Stephanie Yellowhair, Contrapoints, and Native resilience

Pictured L-R: The late Stephanie Yellowtai, Natalie Wynn, and Adrian Jawort.(Collage: Adrian Jawort)

Before Natives were told their way of being was un-Christian, Two Spirit transwomen like Stephanie Yellowhair likely would have been one of the wealthier members of her tribe, walking with prestige and dignity with her head high on her ancestral southwestern homelands, not harassed and mocked as less than says Adrian Jawort

The first time I saw Two Spirit (transwoman) Stephanie Yellowhair was some two years ago on a rerun episode of Cops. The Navajo/Zuni was in a bind as police had been called on her and two other Native Americans holding a pair of helium-filled balloons for allegedly being a “public nuisance.”

Upon first sight of Stephanie the officer began demeaning her. He made fun of her clothes, called her a crossdresser, mocked her makeup — which she explained she’d been trying to find a mirror to fix — and even got pissy at her for shielding her eyes from the sun. He also kept deadnaming Stephanie by calling her by her birth name, “Steven.” Deadnaming, Dictionary.com notes, is “done maliciously … to denigrate the gender expression of a transgender person. Deadnaming is considered a microaggression and can cause dysphoria and anxiety.”

And such was the officer’s seeming intent. I recall how my white friend Rick (who recently passed) reacted to the TV screen, angrily saying, “Oh geezus! Just leave her be!” and other choice words. Afterward, he asked about Native thoughts on transgender people. I hadn’t studied the subject intricately yet, but I told him I did know Native Two Spirits were usually held in high regard in most tribes, were often medicine people and healers, and considered to be empaths and counselors who could see points of view others could not. I then started seeking out more information on the matter.

So when I saw Stephanie near the end of the popular Contrapoints YouTube video channel created by transwoman Natalie Wynn, it made me smile to see her again as I also thought of my deceased friend and how my historical curiosity was fueled that day. 

In my studies, I began finding myself as I started embracing my own neglected Northern Cheyenne Two Spirit feminine role of Hemaneh with less and less shame. Along the way, Natalie Wynn’s dark, often self-depreciative and sardonic sense of humor composed with artistic flair was something I comfortably related with as I’d followed her since before she’d transitioned.

The New Yorker says of Wynn, “She is one of the few Internet demi-celebrities who is as clever as she thinks she is, and one of the few leftists anywhere who can be nuanced without being boring.”

Wynn’s channel currently has some 585,000 subscribers, and the video featuring Stephanie after the 30:30 mark, titled “Gender Critical,” dismantles trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERF) talking points and has over one million views. It was released on March 30, 2019 — the one year anniversary of Stephanie Yellowhair’s passing.

As Stephanie eventually ended up in the back of a police car handcuffed, the officer continued their power tripping arrogance Natives frequently face when dealing with law enforcement. 

According to the Lakota People’s Law Project in a report titled, Native Lives Matter:

Native men are admitted to prison at four times the rate of white men and Native women at six-fold the rate of white women. Additionally, Native Americans are the racial group most likely to be killed by law enforcement.

Stephanie’s situation was further compounded with what Wynn described as all the same “petty arsenal of sadism” and patronizing disgust transpeople often deal with on a daily basis — this belief of I am better than you. But despite this, Wynn said, “What everyone remembers about Stephanie Yellowhair is her unbreakable wit and confidence in the face of transphobic abuse.”

The officer continued to condescend Stephanie until she defiantly remarked words that’d make her forever famous:

“Excuse my beauty.”

“Excuse your beauty?” the officer scoffed.

“Yes,” Stephanie did not hesitate to say with a bat of her eyes and proud streak of resilient sass.

To that Wynn remarked:

"And that, right there, is the single greatest quality of transfeminine culture: the resilience of transwomen — the assumption of a regal posture in even the most abject conditions. And that’s really all you can do, because there’s just no reasoning a transphobe out of bigotry.”

Far from traditionally having a narrow bigoted point of view toward gender, my Northern Cheyenne tribe, for instance, has four words for gender: male, female, and what is a translation of meaning womanly hearted man, and manly-hearted woman. They consider gender contingent with what Maheo/TheCreator blessed upon their heart, mind, and soul — not their biology (of which we are very well aware of, by the way).

Colonizers, however, saw things from a different point of view from first contact. LGBTQ were often targeted first once an area was controlled — in the early 16th Century Vasco Núñez de Balboa once infamously fed 40 homosexuals to war dogs, and he was considered “humane” by conquistador standards — and thus the brutal pattern of colonization was established toward Indigenous LGBTQ and Two Spirit people. 

Alien religious principals formulated in the deserts of the Middle East with an initial premise of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” morphed into a dogmatic Empirical system of suppression before making its way across an entire ocean to impose its form of control upon Indigenous peoples considered mere savages unworthy of being treated with humanity. 

In fact, the founding document of the U.S., the Declaration of Independence, says “all Men are created equal” before hypocritically referring to the first people of these North American lands as “the merciless Indian savages.”

Nowadays, I notice since many so-called Christian conservative values voters have become disillusioned by Trump’s loose morals and controversies, Republican politicians have turned back to clinging to abortions as their modus operandi to rally their base. And since the gay marriage debate has been settled, they’ve set crosshairs on transpeople as the next “other” to attack alongside immigrants.

Christianity has always been geared as a weaponized form of political control and colonized Native Americans who adopted the belief system themselves obviously were not immune from with tribal leaders embracing a “Western” conservative mentality at the expense of disenfranchising their own LGBTQ tribal peoples in a way their ancestors never would’ve done.

Before my mom passed, she told me I was supposed to inherit her traditional Northern Cheyenne medicine/healer gifts she’d shunned in lieu of Christianity. In knowing this, my life began to make sense in the context of my being a Two Spirit. 

If I were to truly “decolonize” beyond a buzzword, I’d continue saying and writing words no one else wanted to say and embrace being a purveyor of blunt truths as were the roles of medicine people on the plains — a role I saw a dearth of in “woke” activist and Native journalist circles where bashing white people garners Twitter and Facebook likes, but critical and nuanced thought can get one ostracized.

Because colonization has permeated itself so thoroughly in many Native communities, its mentality blatantly manifested itself 2016 when 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.

Famed warrior Crazy Horse, also a Lakota, had the utmost respect for Winkte/Two Spirits, and would undoubtedly be baffled by the Fort Peck tribe’s internal hostility toward us. So while I took the side of Crazy Horse and fought back by calling out Native LGBTW and transphobia, in that piece I wrote lines that would forever change the trajectory of my life:

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.

And with that, I openly and publicly admitted I was Two Spirit and had “come out of the closet.” Although I feel the piece would’ve still been timely and necessary even without those lines, for me to personalize it was almost a call for help — I know this struggle because I live it every day.

But being truthful means admitting I wasn't always perfect myself. I may have made bad choices, but it didn’t mean I was a bad person. As I became sober a year and a half ago and stared acutely upon my own inner reflection, I realized I’d have to embrace my Two Spirit side long neglected for some 15 years if I wanted to ever truly become whole.

While on paper I’d done well and tried to be a good person with a lot of community activism credits that included a local 40 Under 40 Award under for independently promoting Native and Indigenous literary fiction, like many haunted artists I also had a darkness swallowing me from within.

A dozen years ago I lost a brother — a year younger than me and my best friend — to murder on my reservation; later on but all in the same year my mom essentially died of grief after she sunk into an opiate and alcohol addiction after we said terrible last words to each other. Grief and gender dysphoria became hidden by a haze of functioning alcoholism and self-loathing.

The dysphoria I dealt with was in not being able to express my feminine self as I’d done with some other women in my teens and early 20s — albeit in the closet. Always having to consciously suppress inherent feminine instincts from seemingly simplistic things like hand gestures to posture and way of thought is not something most people are able to fathom, but nonetheless something many Natives used to deem intrinsic, so bothering to hide it would make no sense.

Still, as someone who's always dared to dig deep into the trenches and muck of online comment sections, I’m not naïve to the fact conservative and trans-exclusionary radical feminist opinions have currently taken to belittling people like myself as "mentally ill."

Long before the Bible was used to control humans as "less than" on this continent be it justification for using black people for slavery and banning them from even reading, women being deemed inferior intellectually and not allowed to vote, and now, of course, those "perverted" LGBTQ people with their agendas of wanting equality, I know people like me existed in my Northern Cheyenne culture as revered, so I embrace that fact to garner me courage in my darkest days when I feel most hollow and alone as an outsider.

Because as much as I would love to say coming out has been an "all is well and I am oh so free now!" scenario and everyone accepts me for who I am, it’s simply not been that way.

This is still a solidly red area of Montana, and politicians across the U.S. will use my life as a pawn to maintain political control and stoke fear. There’s still an anti-LGBTQ bathroom bill on an Assiniboine and Lakota Indian Reservation, there’s still no Non-Discrimination Ordinance to protect LGBTQ people in my hometown of Billings, Montana and there are still family members upset at me for coming out in an article. But writing that piece was the only way I could effectively frame who I was to create empathy toward transpeople and Two Spirits.

Writing doesn't judge me, and art always readily embraces what my soul yearns to tell.

But people do judge and — not that I should have to prove it — maybe I’ll show people I’m not "mentally ill.” A bit weird and I always a bit of an eccentric artist type, but who isn’t in their own way?

People have often asked me why I stay in a town with a reputation so seemingly hostile to LGBTQ people. I tell them this land is where my heart is, and it’s near my tribe’s reservation we fought and sacrificed so hard for, and there good people here who support me 100 percent and worry about my safety.

But while others may admonish me just for being the real me, I realize they’re usually just simply ignorant of Two Spirit and transgender people as their only knowledge of us is usually filtered through negative rightwing and trans-exclusionary radical feminists talking points. Maybe if they ever read these words or get to know me as a person, some of them might even have a change of heart. I love and appreciate this land enough to stay and fight for the betterment of it.

Billings lies in a valley of what is traditionally Apsaalooke (Crow) land. They called this area the “cliffs that have no pass” because of the beautiful landmark sandstone rim rocks cradling the city alongside the Yellowstone River, and it’s also where the famous visionary Chief Plenty Coup was born who once said, “Education is your most powerful weapon. With education you are the white man’s equal; without education you are his victim.”

There’s a story of a highly respected Crow warrior named Finds Them And Kills Them who lived as a Badé (2-spirit) woman. Referred to by female pronouns by tribal members, elders said the “Badé were a respected social group among the Crow.”

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 “man’s labor.” The Crow protested this shocking mistreatment, proclaiming this conversion therapy attempt was against their nature. The late WWII war hero and Crow historian Joe Medicine Crow noted, “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.

It was such an alien, baffling, and upsetting concept to Natives to force people to live against their nature they were ready to revolt on their behalf. They thought, Why would anyone force someone to behave of a gender against they are not?! They didn’t say, “Finds Them and Kills Them is ‘mentally ill.’”

They stood up for who she was, and that is the difference between “Westernized” white versus Native civilizations.

Before Natives were told their way of being was un-Christian — as it was often beaten, tortured, and even murdered into them via places like boarding schools — Stephanie Yellowhair would’ve been called a Nadleehi amongst Diné (Navajo) people. She likely would have been one of the wealthier members of her tribe, walking with prestige and dignity with her head high on her ancestral southwestern homelands, not harassed and mocked as less than.

Nonetheless, a “regal posture” combined with a resilient strength inherited from her ancestors is what Stephanie carried with her that day to spite such colonization.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, her resilience set a guiding light for my own journey in which I began to further study Two Spirit ways — our ways. For that, and as your ancestors have undoubtedly told you after they greeted you on the other side, your Nizhóní (beauty) is welcome, Stephanie.

Adrian L. Jawort is a proud Northern Cheyenne journalist and writer who lives in Billings, Montana. They are the founder of Off the Pass Press which aims to promote Indigenous literature.

Comments
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Magpiecap
Magpiecap

Powerful and compassionate article. Would appreciate more articles by and about Two Spirit people. Adrian Jawort should have her own column.