When Joseph Strike came out to his parents, it was in front of his entire family.
In the midst of a huge dinner, Strike’s relatives were cluttered in a house, cooking and shouting, when he spontaneously decided to announce that he was gay.
“Everyone stopped what they were doing for a second,” Strike said. “Then, they all went back to cooking and fighting, or whatever they were doing.”
Strike, a 33-year-old theater major, is a gay, and a member of the Assiniboine Tribe. Unlike some Native Americans, Strike does not consider himself a two-spirit person.
“It’s just not my thing,” Strike said. “I respect it, but it’s not my thing.”
Two-spirit is a term coined in the early ‘90s by Native American people who wanted to cover the entire LGBTQ spectrum, according to Steven Barrios of the Blackfeet Tribe.
Although the term "two-spirit" has only been around for a few decades, the meaning behind it has been around forever. Historically, alternative genders and sexual orientations were accepted in many Native American cultures.
“In the non-native culture, you would say transgender, or gay,” Barrios said at his Keynote lecture on Oct. 1. “In our Native way of speaking, we just say two-spirit.”
In the past, if a two-spirit person was born into a family, it was a blessing, Barrios said. These people were considered to be special and powerful.
But when white people came to America, Christianity came with them, and Barrios said homosexuality was suddenly considered evil. Native Americans were forced to suppress the two-spirit part of their culture.
“When we were put on reservations, there was such a clash between our way of believing and the Christian’s way of believing,” Barrios said. “Native Americans were taught to be ashamed of their two-spirit traditions.”
The U.S. government assigned tribes to different churches and sent Native American children to Christian boarding schools. Any children who were two-spirit were forced to dress and act like their biological genders.
According to Barrios, after the children were put in boarding schools, they were abused and sometimes adopted by white families. If they made it home to their Native American families, they weren’t familiar with their heritage anymore.
After years of suppression, acceptance of alternative sexuality and gender in the Native American community nearly vanished.
Today, Barrios and many other Native Americans are working to bring the two-spirit tradition back to life.
Although Barrios has been working with the two-spirit community for 20 years, he didn’t always use the term to describe himself.
“When I lived in the city, I considered myself gay,” Barrios said. “But when I realized the meaning of two-spirit, it just totally changed my life.”
Barrios said those who consider themselves two-spirit have important responsibilities in the Native American community. They must care for their bothers and sisters and educate others on the two-spirit tradition, Barrios said.
“I know a lot of Natives who don’t want to use that term because they know the responsibility that it carries,” he said. “They would rather just be gay Indians. At one time, that’s how I was.”
Today, there are roughly 18 two-spirit societies in the United States and Canada, and the movement is only growing. These groups have drug and alcohol free gatherings and perform traditional Native American ceremonies.
Native American studies professor Kathryn Shanley said that although there is growing acceptance to alternative genders and sexualities in many Native American communities, the two-spirit movement has been slow and difficult.
“This issue comes from a deep colonial history of Natives being made ashamed of themselves, of being humiliated for being Indigenous,” Shanely said. “So I don’t think it’s possible to go back to the way anything used to be in tribal communities.”
Gender and sexual equality is a major issue on reservations, and Shanley said it won’t be solved unless other problems are put to rest as well.
“It isn’t just one issue. It’s tied to many other issues surrounding gender,” Shanley said. “Acceptance of alternative gender is one piece, violence against women is another, sexual abuse of children is another, and male incarceration is another.”
When it comes down to it, Shanley said all of this is a “family issue.”
“If the oppressive things could be turned around so the family could thrive, all kinds of tolerances would grow out of that,” she said.