When I was just a wee, little, pigeon-toed lad at an elementary school called “Vina Chattin” within the great Blackfeet Nation, my male classmates and I were young gladiators, warriors, awaiting our day to fight for our people! Even at the tender age of 7 or 8, everything was a pissing contest—we learned early to be tough, to marginalize those who were weaker, and that we were rewarded for being stronger.
I don’t think my Amskapipikuni niskunis were alone in these power games—in fact, amongst the many Native homelands to which I’ve traveled, I see macho behavior is more the rule and not the exception. I see beautiful little Indian—sometimes hair braided, sometimes not—chests out, proud, and willing to take on any comers. The women are tough too! Still, this article is about young Native boys because old Native boys tend to run our tribal governments disproportionately; consequently, that male-dominated rule tends to continue the same power rituals that started as young Native boys.
This is when we first begin to learn about power, submission and dominance.
Anyway, during these elementary school days, we played a football game called “Smear the Queer.” The game was a free-for-all; the “Queer” was whoever had the ball. Everybody else’s job was to smash him—smear him. Of course we didn’t think about the consequences of the name—we just wanted to smash this guy onto the concrete.
Moving forward, we teased any boy that had effeminate characteristics. If a boy played with girls too much, he got teased too; the very worst thing that a boy could be called in our impoverished settings was “gay” or a “fag.” We learned to lie at a very early age about our sexual conquests to throw off the scent that we just might be gay. We knew who the gay community members were—we teased each other and would make jokes about that particular gay community member coming over to pick our friends up. “Such-and-such came to see if you were around…”
It always got a laugh.
As I got older and around my fifth community college, this anthropology professor told me about how homosexuals were revered in “Native Americans” communities; he said that there was traditionally a special place for so-called berdaches and so-called two-spirit folks. Of course, I had to call “B.S.” “I’m not sure which Native American community you’ve been to, prof, but unless ‘revering’ means ‘getting beaten and left in an alleyway,’ you’re way off base. We weren’t nice to gay kids back then. Heck, I still don’t have any gay friends to this very day. I’m all for equal rights professor, but old prejudices die hard.”
The professor looked at me like I spilled her vat of patchouli oil. How dare I utter this inconvenient truth that might contradict her studies?
The point is not my interaction with the professor. The point is not whether she was ultimately right or whether I was ultimately right; I hope that she is right. I’m pretty sure that, at some point, homosexuals were treated humanely amongst Native people—I know that Christianity and European traditions profoundly changed many of our worldviews. Still, in the past several hundred years, our modern traditions—because traditions do, in fact, change—gay people (and even those perceived to be gay) caught hell. The counteraction to this modern history has been propping up the idea of the “two-spirit”—a recent term, created to sound more traditional than “berdache.”
The point was not even whether homosexuality is traditional or not traditional amongst Native people. I believe that we had all spectrums of people within our communities—some accepted certain types of behavior and some did not. Just like anything else, to try to singularly define ALL Native people is a farce, an exercise in futility. Native people, just like any race of people, are not a monolith.
But even that is beside the point.
The point, instead, is…homosexuality undoubtedly exists within our Native communities now, in 2012. Those gay and lesbian Native people also undoubtedly deserve to be treated humanely and civilly just like any other person within our communities; that’s true whether being gay is “traditional” or not. Should homosexuals be revered? Well, hopefully their lovers worship them, I suppose, although the point here is also not false political correctness meanwhile continuing discriminatory behavior. Plus, I don’t think reverence is what gay and lesbian Natives are seeking—my guess is that they’re just seeking equality, and not to be the constant subject of so many jokes and persecution. I know many Tribes and individual Natives are softening perspectives—to wit, the Coquille Tribe and the Suquamish Tribe recently exercised their sovereignty and approved same-sex marriage. I suspect (and hope) that more tribes will exercise their sovereignty and provide progressive rights to their citizens in the near future. Heck, even most of my old friends are now in the social libertarian camp; they really don’t care who loves whom. Still, to those remnant skins that hold on to old prejudices…let’s get over it and start a new tradition of acceptance.
An Organization in Washington that is committed to Marriage Equality
Gyasi Ross is a member of the Blackfeet Nation and his family also belongs to the Suquamish Nation. He wrote a book called Don’t Know Much About Indians (but i wrote a book about us anyways) which you can get at DKMAI.com. He is also co-authoring a new book with Robert Chanate coming out in the Summer of 2012 appropriately called The Thing About Skins, and the website and publishing company for that handy-dandy book is CutBankCreekPress.com (coming soon). He also semi-does the twitter thing at twitter.com/BigIndianGyasi