First S.D. Two Spirit Society honors and educates on the reservation
Saturday, October 11 2014
Written by Alfred Walking Bull,
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SISSETON, S.D. – Members of the newly-formed Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Two Spirit Society gathered on Sept. 26 to educate members of the tribe on LGBTQ Native issues while honoring one of their own who was killed earlier in the month.

The group – the first Two Spirit society in any of the nine reservations in South Dakota – began its mission in June of this year. A testament to the growing power of social media on the reservation, the event “Gay is OK” was the impetus for forming the society. “We all went out to the corner, stood outside and held signs. And while we were standing there, we talked about forming a society, so we set a meeting date and from then on, it's been going ever since,” Vernon Renville, society co-founder said.

The momentum culminated in the education day at Sisseton Wahpeton College, “Walking in Two Worlds: Understanding Two Spirit and LGBTQ Individuals.” The daylong conference featured personal coming out stories by Sisseton Wahpeton tribal citizens, a screening of the film “Two Spirits” about the late Fred Martinez – who identified as Two Spirit and was killed in 2001 on the Navajo Nation – as well as a presentation on LGBTQ identity from Lenny Hayes, a tribal citizen and member of the Minnesota Two Spirit Society.

While the society is geared toward creating a place for Two Spirit people, it is an inclusive group that began because of the social stigma attached to being LGBTQ on the reservation. “I previously worked at the youth center and kids would come to me, or their parents would come to me, asking how to talk to their kids. Or they think they're having these feeling and we discussed things like that and decided it would be something good for the community,” Dawn Ryan, SWO society member said.


It's been a struggle, confronting a community that attaches shame to the LGBTQ identity for the newly-formed society. “The reception has been pretty positive. There are still some who think it shouldn't be talked about. The older ones in the community, it sounds as if they think it should be like, 'if that's the way someone is, then just let it be and don't acknowledge it,'” Crystal Owen, ally and society member said. “And I don't know why that is but I believe that everyone has a right to be acknowledged and appreciated and loved for who they are. We become too oppressed if we don't talk about it, if we remain oppressed by that type of thinking, it's not good.”

She hopes to see members of the tribe as well as elected officials welcome the existence of the society. Part of Owen's journey in joining the society as a straight ally has been acknowledging her children who identify as Two Spirit. “I don't think a lot of dialogue has been going on. To me, it's just that people are fearful of the unknown. I think it's just fear, a lack of education, a lack of knowledge. My son is gay, I have three daughters who might say they are bisexual. So I have seven kids and four out of the seven have at some time identified [as LGBTQ].”

Renville struggled to find his place as a Two Spirit in his tribal community, but through prayer and asking his elders about the place they held in Dakota culture, he has found some wisdom. “I discovered that we weren't actually outcasts. We weren't shunned or anything, that we were actually highly-revered people and we were assassinated – I guess you could say – by the Europeans.”

Unfortunately, that wisdom came too late for two members of the community who identified as LGBTQ. On Sept. 8, Dallas Farmer was killed in his home in Old Agency Village. Reports allege one of his brothers was responsible for the killing. “Everyone took it hard because Dallas is a young man. We've just seen him in the community, he was such a free spirit, he wasn't ashamed of who he was as a Two Spirit person. So I think the community was shocked at his death. How could such a young, beautiful spirit have to die and leave this earth in such a way, such a violent way,” Own said.

An empty chair, star quilt and photo of Farmer was set out during the event, as well as for Jarrod Marks, another Two Spirit tribal citizen who was murdered in Chicago last year. “I want to honor him in every good way that we can and remember him in a good way because he was a part of our society. Him being part of our society was one of the main reasons why I felt it need be we honor him. His family is a good family, they're good people,” Renville said.

For Owen, she hopes that the dialogue started at the event will continue until their tribe welcomes Two Spirit individuals, instead of shunning them. “My hopes for the future would be that people would be more more aware, that our schools would become educators of acceptance of each other. There's so many young people who are maybe questioning their sexuality at a young age, I think maybe everybody goes through that. To be able to accept our young people, if that's who they are, then to accept them for that would be good because there's too much bullying and mean-spirited comments.”

PHOTO: Lenny Hayes, Minnesota Two Spirit Society and SWO member, presents information on what the LGBTQ identity means for tribal communities. (Photo by Alfred Walking Bull)

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