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Family of Late Two-Spirit Advocate Continues His Work

The family of a Native American man who was shot and killed is continuing his work of fighting for gay rights.

The family of the late Vernon Renville, Jr., a respected Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota two-spirit advocate, is carrying on his legacy of fighting for awareness and acceptance of the gay community.

“Vernon wanted to bring awareness and let others know, ‘it’s OK – gay is OK, and if you need anything, I’m here,’” Cassandra Mason, Renville’s sister, told ICTMN. “He wanted to educate people that didn’t know.”

Lenny Hayes, who is Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota and a two-spirit ally out of Minneapolis, became friends with Renville by way of their shared two-spirit advocacy. Hayes told ICTMN that Renville was a co-founder of the first two-spirit society in South Dakota.

“Vernon reached out to me about a year before he passed away to speak at their first two-spirit event. When I got done speaking, all their faces changed. It was like a relief. It was like somebody understands us. That’s how I became friends with Vernon,” he said.

Just months after the inaugural Two-Spirit Walk in August 2014, which Renville organized, Renville passed tragically that November, losing his life in a fatal shooting in Sisseton that claimed the life of four and fatally injured one.

Young relatives of Vernon Renville, Jr., hold up a banner for the Second Annual Vernon Renville, Jr., Memorial Walk in August 2015. Courtesy Sota Iya Yapi.

Hayes was asked by Renville’s family to speak at his funeral service. “One thing I said was the way that I see Vernon, is I see him as a true winkte (Dakota two-spirit). He was a sundancer. He was connected to culture and spirituality, and all he wanted to do was help his people,” Hayes said. “I was very honored to know him and help him, and I was very proud of him.” 

After Renville’s passing, the family continued his two-spirit advocacy. They planned the second annual Two-Spirit Walk, and held a number of fundraisers throughout the year. This year was the third annual event.

“The event has been growing every year, and almost doubled in the second year,” Mason said. The two-spirit society out of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, also attended the walk this year, Mason added.

Renville’s friends and family hope to continue to spread the message of hope and acceptance of two-spirit people. They also hope to carry on the legacy of Renville.

“Vernon taught me to be appreciative for the ability to love who I want,” Evan Bertsch, Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota, a close friend to Renville’s, said. “He is a constant reminder of accepting the love you deserve and being proud of who you are. He wore his heart on his sleeve, he opened himself up for all to see and he struggled at times with the backlash he received. But his courage and determination to obtain the acceptance from the elders, the government, and the community was mind boggling. He saw the bigger picture.”

The Two-Spirit Walk in memory of Renville began at noon on August 20, commenced at the old Indian Health Service grounds in Sisseton, and concluded at Anderson Park. The walk ended with a cookout.

The walk was in honor of him, and in support of the two-spirit community.

“Remember his smile and remember his hugs,” Bertsch said. “He has so much more love to spread.”