Two Spirit ICWA Education Day Includes Many Perspectives
Monday, June 09 2014
Written by Alfred Walking Bull,
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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 people.

“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 time.

“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 cases.

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 D'Nova.

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