First Leech Lake Two Spirit Awareness Day held
Friday, July 17 2015
Written by Jacqueline White,
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first leech lake two spirit awareness day held.jpgJune 17 marked an historic moment in Minnesota Indian Country: the first Two Spirit LGBT Awareness Day on the Leech Lake Reservation and the first visit by OutFront Minnesota, the state’s leading organization supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality, to a Minnesota reservation.

The celebration, which drew more than 50 guests took place on the front lawn of the Leech Lake Housing Authority in Cass Lake, Minn. Under sunny skies, guests listened to speakers and guitarist Michael Lyons, while eating a buffet lunch of BBQ pork, wild rice, baked beans, fresh fruit and vegetables and fry bread – all topped off by a colorful rainbow cake.

The festivities were the brainchild of tribal member Julie Kurschner-Pineda, an attempt – she explained – to counter some of the suffering she has seen Two Spirit tribal citizens endure. “A lot of our people are striving to be loved and that’s what this is all about,” she said.

The celebration was not without controversy. Kurschner-Pineda, who manages the Leech Lake Homeless Resource Program, reported that she received a number of complaints but prominent tribal leaders attended the event, including council member LeRoy Staples Fairbanks, III, who said he was encouraged to attend by a tribal elder and Megan Treuer, who spoke in her official capacity as an associate tribal judge.

Treuer explained that while the Leech Lake legal code does not explicitly address LGBT issues, “We are required to use traditional teachings and can seek input from spiritual advisors.” So when tribal member Arnold Dahl sought to marry his long-time partner Matthew Wooley in November 2013, Treuer explained that Leech Lake’s chief tribal judge was able to officiate at the marriage by relying on traditional teachings that hold that, “everyone is equal and everyone should be treated with respect.” She noted that the Leech Lake tribal court was one of the first tribal courts to perform a same-sex marriage ceremony.

“It wasn’t a shameful thing long ago. It was a gift. Before we were colonized, we understood Two Spirit people are chosen by the Creator,” Eric Shepherd, a member of the management team of Leech Lake Housing Authority who has a brother who is Two Spirit, said.

A champion fancy dancer who grew up in a traditional Dakota family, Shepherd said there is one exception made to the tradition of taking new dance regalia to the sweat lodge to have it blessed, “If a Two Spirit person made it, it’s already blessed because they are blessed.”

However, with the suppression of these traditional teachings has come a void. The lack of understanding many LGBT people endure took on a personal face for Kurschner-Pineda when her daughter came out to her. Kurschner-Pineda recalled waiting in line to order pizza at Little Caesar’s in St. Paul when her daughter asked, “Can my girlfriend come over this weekend?”

Distracted by figuring out the order, Kurschner-Pineda gave a quick yes. But her daughter did not take that perfunctory yes for an answer. “Mom, look at me – my girlfriend-girlfriend,” Kurschner-Pineda recalled her daughter saying.

Although stunned and unsure how to react, Kurschner-Pineda said she embraced her daughter and told her she loved her no matter what. “I reacted accepting,” she said, “but I still didn’t really understand.” That quest to more fully personally comprehend the LGBT experience was part of her motivation in organizing the celebration.

Kurschner-Pineda’s co-organizer, Arnold Dahl-Wooley, who owns the Big Winnie Store, RV Park & Campground in Bena, found his motivation in the calls he regularly receives from tearful local high school students who are struggling with their sexual orientation or gender identity. “They need to hear that there’s nothing wrong with them,” he said.

As a young man growing up on the reservation, Dahl-Wooley saw the harassment that those who were gay or perceived to be gay faced and made a practical calculation to hide his identity. But the effort required to “walk and talk the right way” he found “exhausting.”

After graduating from Bemidji State and moving to Eugene, Ore., Dahl-Wooley had the opportunity to live in an accepting culture. “I didn’t know I could be myself,” he said with wonder. But returning to the reservation to take over his father’s business, Dahl-Wooley found himself “stepping back in a time machine” on the subject of LGBT acceptance. “It was all very taboo,” he said. “No one wanted to discuss it.”

The Two Spirit LGBT Awareness Day is “opening the door for discussion,” which Dahl-Wooley hopes will lead to area schools beginning to provide support. But some young people are already taking the cue.

As she was helping staff the buffet line, Valerie Robinson, Leech Lake homeless youth case manager, saw something she hadn’t seen before at a public event on the reservation: “Two teen males came up to get something to eat and they were holding hands and laughing.

“It made an impression on me,” Robinson said, noting that same-sex couples on the reservation are not generally so open. “It was good to see happy people.”

PHOTO: Two Spirit Awareness Day co-organizers Julie Kurschner-Pineda and Arnold Dahl eating a rainbow cake. (Courtesy photo)

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