Two Spirit ICWA Education Day Includes Many Perspectives


two spirit icwa 5.jpgTwo Spirit individuals and families

can be left in the fray when it comes to the Indian Child Welfare

Act. For Sandy White Hawk, that issue was addressed at the ICWA

Education Day, held June 4 at the William Mitchell College of Law in

St. Paul.

While she is uncertain of any overt

discrimination against Two Spirit people and families that seek to

adopt Native children, White Hawk said she knows there are many

prejudices toward Two Spirit people both within the Native community

and from outside. “I wanted to make sure that it doesn’t happen, we

educate people who serve Native children and Two Spirit people.”

The impetus for this year’s Education

Day came from conversations with members of the Minnesota Two Spirit

Society. “Several years ago, Reva D’Nova and I were stuffing

folders and having conversations. She was just telling me her story

as a transgender person. The more she talked, I thought this could be

a topic for Ed Day,” White Hawk said. In the interim, interest in

the topic piqued. “We got feedback from an evaluation, would we

consider LGBTQ issues. We asked Reva what would she suggest, she said

it would be a great idea. That’s when we met with the Two Spirit

Society. We wanted a historical perspective, prior to [Columbian]

contact. What happened to our Two Spirit culture and what do we have

today. Most of all, the overall goal was that we would eliminate bias

toward our Two Spirit families in terms of placement preferences.”

This education day featured Two Spirit

individuals and allies from across the area, including Florentine

Blue Thunder, Rosebud Sioux Tribe, Dr. Antony Stately, a panel

discussion with D’Nova, Nathan Taylor, Conan Comes Flying, Nick

Metcalf, and Lenny Hayes. An added perspective included Commanche

Fairbanks who spoke on his experience as a former bully of Two Spirit


“I have this big, huge fear of

heights that has an effect on how my fear plays out,” Fairbanks

said. While visiting friends in Toronto, Fairbanks was jokingly

pushed close to the edge of the CN Tower and had a panicked reaction

to the push. “That was fucking gay,” he told his friends at the


“That’s a term we use a lot. It’s

scary the terms we use in defense mode. I didn’t know anything about

Two Spirits, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender … I just didn’t

know anything.”

His story continued to illustrate how

bullying Two Spirit or perceived Two Spirit people was a result of

the abuse he received in his own life. “In 1978, living in

Minneapolis, alcohol and negative things were going on. My father was

abusing my brothers and sisters. He had this test, he’d pick me up,

throw me across the room and I’d have to land on my feet. If I

didn’t, I’d get whooped.”

Fairbanks said his father and brother

added to his ideas of the superiority of masculinity and the

inferiority of femininity, particularly as they related to LGBTQ

Natives. “My brother … the first time he started instilling a

belief system in my ind was on the football field. He stomped on my

chest and when I tried to stop crying, he said, ‘This is football,

don’t cry, you’re a man, you’re a boy, you’re not supposed to cry.’”

In addition, media portrayals and

cross-cultural biases played a part in his bullying. “A lot of

people I saw on TV were white families that were loving and accepting

and on the reservation, that was unacceptable. When you behaved like

that, we said you were acting white.”

Throughout his high school years,

Fairbanks continued to bully Two Spirit and LGBTQ-perceived people.

“I had a friend, he had the talk, the walk, the glasses and he said

he wasn’t gay but I teased him. If you acted a certain way, I was

going to point it out.”

But slowly, his attitudes began to

change as his life began to change. “I went up to Lac La Croix

(Canada). Up there, women were in charge. Women held ceremonies,

women encouraged me, women were amazing. I started loving my culture

again. Us in America are a little more colonized than they were.”

After the birth of his first son,

Fairbanks showed affection and attention but found only admonishment.

“His mother told me, ‘men don’t act like that, I give him love, you

teach him how to be a man.’”

Then, as he embraced his traditions,

he participated in social gatherings. “On the pow wow trail, the

gay guys took care of themselves better. I took that on. Not too many

Native men try to look pretty. The ultimate confidence booster was

when a Two Spirit checked me out.” After those experiences,

Fairbanks began accepting Two Spirit people and let go of his

prejudices to embrace them as part of his own culture. “ I started

switching my habits. I learned, ‘Place value on your life and your

life will show you what you are worth.’ Embrace the beauty and be

happy and yourself. We’ve been all programmed to believe a way

someone looks is beautiful and I started looking at myself that way.

How can I use that to benefit my life, my community and my family. As

long as I can see my own beauty and everyone else’s beauty.”

White Hawk expounded on the beauty of

the Two Spirit identity when describing Blue Thunder’s presentation.

“Florentine tells this incredible story that when he was a child,

there was a winkte [Two Spirit] man who lived in his community. This

man loved ribbons and loved to crochet and was always decked out and

everybody wanted what he had to give away. That’s the way it was for

Two Spirit people, traditionally.”two spirit icwa 4.jpg

“That individual cared for and a

relative was put in his care. Next, that young man shows up, dressed

to the nines and everyone saw that. But the next thing you know, that

relative was taken from him, no one knew where he was taken. Years

later, that nephew was reunited with his uncle and Florentine said he

never saw anyone cry as hard as that young man did when he came

back,” White Hawk said. “During a time when that removal of us

was systematic, Two Spirit families were targeted. Today, there are

unconscious biases toward Two Spirit people.”

According to White Hawk, the immediate

response to this year’s ICWA Education Day topic on Two Spirit issues

were positive. “Everyone loved everything. Nick Metcalf’s

presentation on lateral violence, Lenny Haye’s talk, everyone loved

every aspect of Education Day and the information is so unique and we

don’t know of anyone doing it the way we’re approaching it. They

loved it.”

The ICWA Education Day was started in

2005 to foster understanding on the legislation, passed by Congress

in 1978. According to material provided by White Hawk, the purpose of

the act is to strengthen and preserve the Native family through

active efforts and tribal involvement in decision making. In Hennepin

County, similar to many government agencies across the country,

compliance with the act was haphazard. Beginning in the early 1990s,

a series of meetings took place involving the 11 Minnesota tribes,

the Minneapolis Urban Indian Community, the Hennepin County

Attorney’s Office and Hennepin County Child Protection.

As a result of these discussions,

three major changes were made to comply with the ICWA: first, all

child protection reports involving Indian children were assigned to

specific workers who reported to one supervisor; second, an ICWA unit

was created and composed of social workers and supervisors; and

third, specific juvenile court judges were identified to hear ICWA


two spirit icwa 3.jpg White Hawk said that the inclusion of

Two Spirit individuals and families in this education day was so

positive that it will become an annual event to coincide with LGBT

Pride Month in June. She added that it came together as a result of

several organizations and agencies helping to sponsor and coordinate

the day. “I would like to thank Hennepin County Child Protection

Unit for sponsoring it. In the past, Ramsey County has also come

forward and supported our education day, financially. What that tells

me is that they’re recognizing work that’s impactful. The Minneapolis

Indian Health Board contributes as well, we’ve been very fortunate

that everyone is seeing the work that we do.”


Top: Comanche Fairbanks tosses his

cap in the air and encourages participants to laugh as hard as they

can while it remains in the air.

Middle: Sandy White Hawk, left, and

Nick Metcalf, right, share a moment of laughter as the ICWA Education

Day addresses issues of the Two Spirit identity. White Hawk said the

topic will be a yearly event to coincide with LGBT Pride Month.

Above: Members of the Minnesota Two

Spirit Society (left to right) Lenny Hayes, Nick Metcalf and Reva