(Harlan beading with the best of them.)
Two Spirits Better Than One
By: CHRISTOPHER MURRAY
Native American activist Harlan Pruden can move instantly from a furious passion to heartfelt tears as he discusses the challenges of trying to educate people about the needs and struggles of members of his community who identify as two-spirit, or queer. He can spout off facts and figures about the risks for falling into alcoholism or drug addiction, a subject he can talk about from personal experience, having been sober for more than two decades and worked at the LGBT community Center to develop innovative programs for people in recovery.
But he can also discuss the history of treaty law and how Papal Bulls from hundreds of years ago are still invoked to encroach on native rights today.
As co-founder of the NorthEast Two-Spirit Society (NE2SS) here in New York City and a board member of the homo-friendly American Indian Community House, Pruden, 40, has made it his mission to sound the call of alarm for the dangers of crystal meth addiction for two-spirit Indians and the Native American population across the country.
CHRISTOPHER MURRAY: Please explain what two-spirit means to Native Americans.
HARLAN PRUDEN: Two-Spirit is a contemporary term that connects today's experience with the traditions from within our cultures. Certain individuals were considered to have a specific blessing through their diversity, which was manifested in many cultural responsibilities. The modern connection with LGBT Indians is that traditionally these people often had sex with members of what the Western world considers the same gender. Of course, each tradition that prescribed to it had its own word in their language. In my Cree language, I'd be known as an aayahkwew - this should not be mistaken as a sexual orientation but rather a separate and distinct gender not necessarily related tosexuality or sexual genitals.
CM: What role have two-spirit folk traditionally played in native communities?
HP: In many traditions, two-spirit people served their community as mediators, social workers, craftspeople, name-givers, shamans and/or medicine-givers. These roles were something that only a two-spirit person could fulfill - that's why they were viewed as another gender.I find it very interesting that this tradition came into being for a number of reasons. It is an obvious manifestation of native peoples' practice of preserving and considering diversity sacred. For many [native] nations there was always room at the table for everyone - it was the belief that differences were a strength and were needed for the community to thrive. The other major distinction for today's world was indigenous people viewed everyone as equal. Therefore, it was not a threat or unusual for a male to act like a female or a female to act like a male or in any manner on a broad spectrum.
CM: Is that still the case now?
HP: I wish I could say that it was that way today! One of first things the colonizers did when they got to this land was to attack and kill the people that didn't conform to their rigid two-gender system. There is a famous lithograph in the New York City public library depicting two-spirit people being ripped apart by the conquistador, Vasco Nunez de Balboa's dogs - all done of course in the name of Christianity.
CM: What's the big event on November 15?
HP: November is National Native American Heritage Month, and NE2SS is hosting a community forum to increase the visibility of the Native American community that will examine the topics of gender, sexuality, and our elders. Heavy on the elder stuff - 'cause we are all going to be old one day! We Native Americans have a well-defined and working elder system. At the forum we are going to share some of the inner workings of that system, for we believe that the LGBT community has much to learn about the treatment of older people.
CM: What don't most gay people realize about two-spirit people?
HP: The name itself is somewhat misleading and confusing. Two-Spirit was agreed upon when the movement was revitalized in the early 1990s. Even then it was considered imperfect but we were searching for something that connected us to our cultural tradition, while still acknowledging the contemporary differences as a result of being LGBT peoples. The importance to today is not so much the idea of two spirits within one person - I think we all have that to some extent - but rather that there is a diversity amongst community members, that that diversity is a valuable and respected thing.
CM: When you look at issues like HIV/AIDS or crystal meth addiction in the native community, and compare the need to address them to other issues, like drug and alcohol abuse or native rights, reparations or possible genocide, how can you possibly prioritize advocacy and community organizing projects?
HP: You don't. That's why the idea of constant vigilance and self-discipline is critical in serving your community. You are responsible. You would never hear a native person following tradition say, "Oh, that's not my job." I hear that all the time here in New York and go kind of crazy. Of course it's your job. It's everybody's job. That being said though, it goes back to that respect for diversity. Each of us has a special gift. The community will help you discover that gift and then those are the issues or responsibilities that one pursues.For example, my interests are focused around community organizing and building alliances. So, with NE2SS, that's what I do. Other members aren't even interested in the more political aspects of our work. But they are interested in music or art or theater and that is considered as important as anything else. Diversity, diversity, diversity. It all boils down to that. Nonetheless, our work does suffer from an absence of resources and pure numbers of people facing some of the most overwhelming issues. We are the poorest people in North America and many of our reservations have the same statistics today on poverty and marginalization that existed in the townships of apartheid South Africa. We receive only about .003 percent of philanthropic grants for community work. Because of the sheer magnitude of the genocide committed by Euro-Americans against our people, it is easier to pretend we don't exist than to actually examine the issue.
CM: How do you think being Canadian Indian and a gay man has shaped your perspective and your relationships in the gay community?
HP: Being Cree and gay - while growing up was at times very difficult - has proven to be one of the best gifts bestowed upon me. For at my core I have always felt like an outsider. Being an outsider has its benefits for critiquing and challenging preconceived notions of the dominant society. I think that in the LGBT fight for equality, many LGBT, non-native people forget to ask critical question of "Equal to what?" If we are fighting to be a white-male dominated oppressive movement where money talks and we are all straight-acting and we want to get married - you can keep that equality - for that system has not been kind to my people for the past 515 years!
CM: What does the two-spirit community need from the greater LGBT community?
HP: First of all, an acknowledgment that we exist - and not for just one week or one month a year. According to the US Census, New York City is home of the largest population urban Indians in the country, if we were a reservation we'd be the third largest in the country.Next, we need to always be at the table. You need to learn about our differences and respect them. Last month, a very important survey on LGBT issues was being distributed by a well-known community program with whom we have worked for many years. Nonetheless, they left out any reference to "two-spirit" or "Native American" in the little boxes you check in those things. It's kind of astounding.But I think the most important thing that any community or movement can learn from us is to respect the diversity - again! We don't always see that even in the LGBT and/or other people of color movements and it is critical to our survival. We know all about assimilation. White people have been trying to assimilate us since the 19th century. "Kill the Indian, save the man" was a popular phrase amongst 19th century progressives. Melting pots and assimilation are not good. We want the greater LGBT community to recognize and respect that is not only what we believe but also how we will act.
CM: Are all gay Indians as sexy as you?
HP: Because we are so diverse; we are all very sexy!
"Gender, Sexuality and the Role of Elders" will take place Thursday, November 15 from 6-8 p.m. at the LGBT Community Center, 208 West 13th Street. For more information, go to www.ne2ss.org .