Two-Spirit People: Native Americans, LGBT and the struggle for marriage equality

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A Native American tribe has become the third to recognize same-sex marriage and support marriage equality. On March 3, the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa in Michigan passed a statute in a 5-4 vote that would deliver equal rights to LGBT couples.

The ruling will now be sent to the Tribe’s Chairman to veto or sign.

A similar measure was presented last July, but voted down by the council.

Setting the stage for the Odawa were tribes in Oregon and Washington. In 2009, the Coquille Tribe of North Ben recognized marriage equality and two years later Washington’s Suquamish followed suit.

With over 550 tribal groups in the US, the number of tribes granting marriage equality remains staggeringly low.

Perceptions of homosexuality within the Native American community have changed drastically over time. Prior to colonization, tribal attitudes varied, but LGBT people were often highly esteemed in society.

In traditional Native American culture, males who took on “feminine” qualities were said be “from outside the world” and “spiritually gifted.” They were known as “two-spirit” and often served the role of a spiritual guide, or shah, in society.

Colonialism and the subsequent Christianization of Native Americans greatly impacted how the tribes perceived homosexuality.

Director of the Northeast Two-Spirit Society, a Native American LGBT organization, Harlan Pruden, told 429Magazine, “colonization has had a pervasive effect on Native people,” adding that.“with colonization came the same narrow-minded, stigmatization from Natives against two-spirit people.”

Pruden added that due to colonization, modern Native Americans are in a “culture war,” which separates the Christianized Native Americans who are anti-LGBT and traditionalists who support the two-spirit concept of ancient faith.

However, whether or not marriage equality is even a priority varies within the Native American community.

“There are bigger issues in the two-spirit community,” Pruden said. “We have higher rates of substance abuse, disease, HIV and AIDS, and one-third of Native women have experienced rape. There are much bigger issues that are taking our attention.”

There are several organizations that focus on LGBT rights and marriage equality in the Native American community. In 2012, Indigenous Ways of Knowing, a tribal council in partnership with Lewis and Clark College, developed the “Tribal Equality Kit,” a comprehensive toolkit designed to aid tribal legislators in helping LGBT members. 

Pruden admires the Odawa tribe’s  recent decision to recognize same-sex marriage, calling it “promising” and “restoring their honor.”

429Magazine

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