Natasha Brennan
McClatchy Northwest

With a painted red handprint across her mouth, Rosalie Fish ran at her state championship meet in 2019 to bring awareness to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women crisis. As she stood among some posters, her then-girlfriend came up to hold her hand.

“I told her, ‘I don’t know if I can,’” said Fish, an enrolled citizen of The Cowlitz Indian Tribe and then a senior at Muckleshoot Tribal Schools on the Muckleshoot Reservation in Auburn, Washington.

“I was already experiencing racism at the time for representing Indigenous people… that already felt extremely vulnerable and isolating. And then to add the fact that I’m queer on top of it? I just kind of shut down from that idea,” she said.

Now a 20-year-old student at the University of Washington, Fish said it’s a moment she deeply regrets.

“I do wish that I had been more accepting of myself and more secure in myself that I could say, ‘Yes, I’m Indigenous and I am queer. I’m Indigiqueer. And if that’s too much for you, I don’t care.’ But I just wasn’t quite there yet in my identity and in my confidence,” Fish said. “And now... I don’t try to hide my queer identity from my Indigenous identity because they are not separate.”

Indigiqueer and Two Spirit identities 

Fish embraces the modern term ‘Indigiqueer’ to acknowledge the intersectionality of her identities like many other Indigenous people who are part of the LGBTQ2S+ community.

Recognized as a Seattle Indigiqueer icon, Jordan Remington takes up the title as well, though he admits he hasn’t “fully landed” on gender identity yet. Remington (whose pronouns are he/they) is well known for their community art and drag queen persona Hailey Tayathay.

“I identify as gay. People call me Two Spirit. I’m fine with that. But it’s not what has personally clicked for me. Indigiqueer has clicked more,” the enrolled citizen of the Quileute Tribe said. “Literally mashing up the words together, is a way of… recognizing that they’re not gonna be able to understand my experience from just a queer lens and you’re not gonna be able to understand my experience from just an Indigenous lens. The lenses need to overlap to understand my life perspectives and I’d say my art, too.”

Within Indigenous communities, the umbrella term “Two Spirit” refers to those who identify outside of the Western binary. Two Spirit — the 2S in the acronym LGBTQ2S+ — is a modern, inclusive term encompassing the unique names of genders and spiritual roles of North America’s Indigenous people, said Raven Two Feathers at his recent TedxYouthSeattle talk. He is an Emmy award-winning filmmaker and artist who identifies as Two Spirit.

Citing the work of Northern Cheyenne author and journalist Adrian Jawort, Two Feathers explained that Two Spirit was translated from the Ojibwe language and adopted at a Native LGBTQ conference in 1989 to replace an antiquated and derogatory French term previously used by anthropologists. In many tribes, Two Spirit people were highly respected members of society who filled roles as medicine people, knowledge keepers and spiritual leaders.

“I think that’s something not necessarily unique to the Indigenous community, but it definitely puts the mainstream queer community sort of on its head that we have the ability to recognize that we are traditional,” Two Feathers said in an interview with McClatchy. “I think there’s power in being able to do that and really have a strong connection to queerness as something inherent on this land.”
But until fairly recently, the roles of Two Spirit and Indigiqueer people weren’t talked about.

“I think it’s due to the trauma from the boarding schools, particularly the Christian boarding schools, where this was villainized and almost seen as something that was ‘untraditional’,” Fish said.

Two Feathers (whose pronouns are he/they) describes Two Spirit as a ‘lingua franca,’ a common language that allows Indigenous people across the continent to connect. Being intertribal himself — Cherokee, Seneca, Cayuga and Comanche — Two Feathers said the term encompasses the multiple names and roles Two Spirit people may have had in all of his tribes.

Phoenix Johnson, a Two Spirit citizen of the Tlingit and Haida Nation, agrees.

“We’re coming out of the darkness of these Western, Christian, patriarchal ideals and into the light together to reclaim our traditions,” Johnson said.

Lost in Colonization

Through colonization and forced assimilation policies, like residential schools, tribes were stripped of their language and culture. For many tribes, traditional gender roles, identities and their names may have been lost.

“We’ve gone around and asked some of the elders in our tribe if they knew of any names or words in the language,” Remington said. “I’ve found stories in Quileute that, at least in my opinion, confirmed that there were gay Quileutes. So I’m sure there was a word for it at one point in time, but it’s been forgotten through the process of colonization.”

Fish learned from her mother, who teaches the Whulshootseed language, that the language, though very gendered, actually has inclusive pronouns.

“Ti sda (he/they) tsi sda (she/her),” Fish wrote in a chat over Zoom.
In some areas, fluent speakers of Native languages are becoming rarer and some languages are now extinct, causing worry that traditional names will be lost.

But Two Feathers says that may not necessarily be the case for some tribes as Two Spirit and Indigiqueer people were so accepted, even revered.

“Was there ever a point where we had to assign a label to it?” Two Feathers said. “Maybe it wasn’t a necessary thing at that point in time, and so it just wasn’t part of the language.”

Coming out

Being both Indigenous and queer adds a layer of nuance to navigating within the Native community. The recent ‘re-acceptance’ of Indigiqueer and Two Spirit people is challenging what many thought to be traditional ways.

When Two Feathers moved from Hawaii to Seattle in 2012, they were committed to being out as lesbian their junior year at Ballard High School. But when he returned to his birthplace of New Mexico for college, he began to realize he was trans. After graduating with his film degree from the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, he was brought into the Two Spirit circle.

“My mom was fine with me being queer when I first came out as lesbian, and my grandma was so-so about it. And then it flipped when I came out as trans. Then Two Spirit was fine,” Two Feathers said.
“But just because Indigenous relations have a better chance of understanding what Two Spirit means, does not mean they are accepting of it,” Two Feathers said, quoting a piece he wrote for South Seattle Emerald.

Two Feathers explained how many cultural events gender tribal members from an early age, leaving little room for those who don’t identify within Western binary roles.

“With powwows a lot, you have men’s and women’s categories. As soon as you hit puberty — or even before then, as soon as you get out of the tots stage — you’re automatically gendered,” they said.

In the Northwest tradition of potlatches, the gender assignments for the social dances are very similar, Remington said. He recalled being much more interested in the women’s dances and immediately ran away when anyone would try to drag him to dance on the protocol floor.
Remington described a series of scenes they’re writing about attending potlatches. During a social dance, men and women make two separate circles and exchange partners as they dance. He recalls a memory of a cousin saying the dance was a “good way to meet someone.” And he realizes that his relationship to potlatches is very different from other tribal members.

“The way that the culture is currently set up, that’s not really something that happens. And so that feels like a very fundamental piece of coastal culture traditions that I’m kind of missing out on,” Remington said.
When Remington came out as gay in high school, he said it shocked no one. Though they describe themselves as an urban Native, being accepted by his tribal community back on the reservation has been a “mixed bag.”

“I think a lot of Christian values were really deeply embedded into the community. And so I know, especially when I was first coming out, it was a pretty big struggle point for a lot of people,” Remington said.
For Fish, she felt she wasn’t always accepted by some elders, but she believes it stems from trauma from residential schools.

“My grandparents and my great grandparents survived by blending in and by hiding certain parts of themselves. So now to see their grandchildren accept and embrace other parts of their identity, I think my grandparents got scared simply because of the persecution that they felt when they were different,” she said.

And for Phoenix Johnson, they said one day they just told their family they no longer want to be called by their birth name.

“I told my family, ‘It’s just Phoenix now. I go by they/them.’ And they said, ‘OK.’ I think I only ever had one time when a family member called me my birth name and my mom said, ‘Oh no. They’re Phoenix now.’ And that was that,” Johnson said.

Reclaiming Space

With few Quileute language speakers left, Remington said he was challenged to mix the traditional knowledge and ceremony he does know with his modern art.

As he went through college and began to play more with drag, the intersectionality of being queer and Indigenous became their niche in Seattle’s drag scene. As invitations to perform roll in, Remington said he remains judicious in how he uses traditional regalia in his drag performances while still reclaiming Seattle as an Indigiqueer space.

Through art and success in drag, Remington has found a new way to connect with his tribe. Friends and family have reached out to compliment their art. Being the emcee for Washington’s inter-tribal Potlatch Fund Gala last year, as Hailey Tayathy, Remington had the opportunity to be seen by his tribe’s leadership and members while in drag.

“I will say, recently… there’s definitely been some movement within the tribe around more acceptance,” Remington said.

And it’s not just his tribe. The acceptance of Indigenous LGBTQ2S+ is spreading from what was thought to be something only urban Natives could experience to more and more reservations, Remington said. And Indigenous LGBTQ2S+ people are being invited to lead in this.

The Nisqually Indian Tribe, Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, Lummi Nation, Tulalip Tribes and the Puyallup Tribe of Indians are among those making space for their LGBTQ2S+ members. The Suquamish Tribe legalized same-sex marriage in 2011, months before the state did.
The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community held its first Pride Parade June 30. Lummi Nation will host its Pride Walk to celebrate the tribe’s Smatsqen Pride Month Thursday, Aug. 12 and the Tulalip Tribes will host theirs Sunday, Aug. 22.

The Puyallup Tribe passed a resolution in 2019 declaring July as Pride Month and recognizing the historical and cultural existence of LGBTQ+ and Two-Spirit individuals prior to European contact, becoming one of the first tribes in the nation to do so. The resolution was led by Tribal Council Member Annette Bryan, who has been with her wife for 24 years. The tribe held its own Pride event last month, where Johnson was crowned as Puyallup Pride Royalty.

The Nisqually Tribe purchased 250 copies of Two Feathers’ comic-based zine, “Qualifications of Being,” which explores being trans and Two Spirit. They were invited to pass out and sign copies at the tribe’s recent Pride event.

On a more intimate level, LGBTQ2S+ representation has allowed younger generations to not feel scared to come out. Or in the case of Fish’s sibling, she shared, even feel the need to come out. Fish’s sibling casually mentioned one day that they are a part of the LGBTQ2S+ community.

“When I had first become an advocate and a leader, I didn’t even quite feel worthy of that opportunity. It’s been a lot of finding trust in myself and also understanding how powerful it is not only to be someone who’s a woman, but someone who’s Indigenous and someone who’s queer. I absolutely need youth and younger Native folks to be looking at all three of those,” Fish said.

Two Feathers said Fish’s leadership and that of others is creating stepping stones for LGBTQ2S+ members of tribal communities, helping them realize they are not alone.

Like many other Two Spirit and Indigiqueer people, Two Feathers, Fish, Remington and Johnson hope Indigenous communities can return to not only the acceptance of Two Spirit and Indigiqueer people, but their sacredness as well.

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Natasha Brennan covers Indigenous Affairs for Northwest McClatchy Newspapers. She’s a member of the Report for America corps. 

This story was published via AP Story Share.