First Leech Lake Two Spirit Awareness Day held

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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)