by Raven Two Feathers in collaboration with Julie Keck
Since time immemorial, Indigenous people have celebrated storytelling as a way to connect the present to past lessons and future dreaming. Narrative sovereignty is a form of land guardianship, and Nia Tero supports this work through its storytelling initiatives, including the Seedcast podcast, as well as in this column for media partner the South Seattle Emerald.
June is commonly recognized in the United States as Pride Month, a tight 30 days during which LGBTQIA+ folks, whom for brevity I’ll refer to as queer in this piece, are typically expected to embrace being out and proud. Before pandemic times, parades and throbbing beats and feather boas were abundant; corporations are still leaning hard on adding rainbow filters to their logos. However, not as many people know June is also Indigenous History Month in Canada which has bled into the U.S. through proximity and because the same genocidal tactics are happening on both sides of the border. This month lies at the intersection of queerness and Indigeneity, which is especially lovely, because so do many of my loved ones, including yours truly.
Osiyo, Sgeno, Nya:wëh sgë:nö’, Haa marúawe, ʔi, syaʔyaʔ. Hello, my name is Raven Two Feathers; I’m Cherokee, Seneca, Cayuga, and Comanche. I live on Coast Salish territory, commonly known as Seattle. I am from Pueblo, Diné, and Apache territory (Albuquerque, New Mexico). I’m an Emmy-award winning creator with a B.F.A. in film production, and most pertinent, I’m Two Spirit and trans masculine. No need to worry if this is the first time learning the term Two Spirit: I wrote a whole comic about my journey toward better understanding myself called Qualifications of Being. It includes a primer on what it means to be Two Spirit on page 25. You can read it here for free!
Being Two Spirit for me means that my gender is outside of simply male or female and inseparably intertwined with my Indigeneity. You might be more familiar with the terms nonbinary, trans, or genderqueer, though they relate more to Western perceptions of gender. Two Spirit is an incredibly broad, modern umbrella term that encompasses understandings of gender and sexuality across the hundreds of tribes and nations on this continent. As I wrote in Qualifications of Being, “Trans will always be an initial label in my back pocket, so long as English is the lingua franca of this land. Two Spirit is a return to my cultures and rooting into who I am, the lines of intersectionality blurring together.”
Among [Indigenous] kin, there is a general understanding of what Two Spirit connotes, so rather than having to define it, we usually arrive in the same place regarding who I am and the responsibilities I have in and to community. With non-Indigenous folks, I have to gauge whether I want to do the added work of explaining what being Two Spirit means and sometimes even what being trans is. I typically point them to Qualifications of Being to catch them up on who I am. Then, with common language and growing acknowledgement of the world beyond the West, we can begin the act of meeting each other, as humans in community on and with this earth.
To be clear, just because Indigenous relations have a better chance of understanding what Two Spirit means does not mean they are accepting of it. Traditionally, Two Spirit people were highly regarded in our communities, with different integral roles held (depending on the nation), commonly taking some of the “highest” roles (as medicine people, mediators, knowledge keepers, etc). Contrary to our traditional ways, today there is a lot of homophobia and transphobia in the Native community. This factors into not only my daily interactions but also the business of my art. In order to make my projects, I apply for grants and other funding, some specifically designated for Indigenous creators. Even if I hold one identity that technically “qualifies” me for funds (I could write a whole separate essay on what it means to “qualify” as Indigenous) it doesn’t mean the granting entity also enthusiastically supports genderqueer or even just plain ol’ queer work. Therefore, in my materials, I explicitly state that I am Two Spirit and that my art is intricately tied to my identity. Even though I do so as an outspoken, public, and radically out person who has the privilege of being in a safe living situation and among caring friends and loved ones, that doesn’t mean I don’t pause before submitting my application, wondering where each funder really stands on my right to exist.
One facet of Pride Month or other heritage months I find interesting is how organizations express support or affinity toward groups only during the temporary, calendared spotlight. However, a well-timed solidarity statement or rainbow-infused logo is not necessarily evidence of inclusive practices. The reality is that being open about my Indigeneity and being Two Spirit means I might lose certain opportunities or resources. This is part of my truth and I acknowledge it as a part of the current state of being of the world. But it will not change my actions. I have the privilege and safety to be out and loud, so this means that I also have the obligation and responsibility to create a safer world for my relatives. Whether or not funders back our work, understand our identities, or accept our humanity, we have unique perspectives and responsibilities that cannot be filled by anyone else. The circle cannot be completed without us.
During Pride Month and Indigenous History Month, I think about queer, trans, and Two Spirit people, young and old, who are grappling with the idea of revealing themselves to those they want to trust. If this is you, I encourage you to first assess whether you are in the company of those who will keep you safe and loved. Though it can be gratifying to be known, there is no requirement to announce who you are. Not revealing yourself because it will put you in harm’s way is valid. “Coming out” does not make you more valid. That is a Western construct. You are already, at this very moment, yourself. I feel you. Embrace your ever changing self and the potential within. You get to choose how you move forward with your life amidst all the created barriers. Aim for what you need, and maintain the grace and hope that others have the ability to recognize your humanity and, if they don’t, send your well-wishes to those who cannot change at this moment.
On the flip side, for those who’ve had the privilege of having a person choose to share who they are with you, recognize the person is being open and vulnerable with you and that’s not easy to do. You may not know what to say or do, that’s okay. Honor the person’s act by being vulnerable back. Thank and affirm them. Ask what they need. They know. They can tell you. Remember, their sharing with you wasn’t an impulsive act. They have been thinking about this for a very, very long time. Listen to them and support them in the way they ask for.
If you are neither engaged in the act of coming out this Pride Month nor being honored by someone else’s reveal, make sure you are ready for the constant evolution of those you care about, because in the full embrace of those whom we love, in all of their truths and possibilities, we find our full selves.
Raven Two Feathers (Cherokee, Seneca, Cayuga, Comanche) (he/they) is a Two Spirit, Emmy award-winning creator based in Seattle, WA. He is the author of the comic-based zine, “Qualifications of Being” (illustrated by Jonny Cechony) about Raven’s journey of realizing they are trans and Two Spirit.
This piece was written with the support of Julie Keck, a consulting producer with Nia Tero.
📸 Featured Image: Raven Two Feathers, courtesy of Steve Hyde.
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