An indigenous prayer accompanied by the hazy smoke of sage was the opening ceremony of the “Two-Spirit People: Sex, Gender and Sexuality” lecture Nov. 12 in the Black Box Theater.
Presented by Harlan Pruden and Sheldon Raymore, members of the Northeast Two-Spirit Society, the lecture gave a brief though wide-ranging overview of the history of indigenous people, focusing specifically on two-spirited people. The gathering was an informal discussion in which people were encouraged to ask questions at any time.
“What we’re trying to do is to reclaim and restore our [two-spirit] roles in the broader Native American community,” Pruden said. But context, he said, is important. “Because many traditional Native American communities had three genders, four genders, six different genders.”
“It is not with a sexual-orientation lens that you look at these people,” Pruden explained. “It is about your role or function within society.”
Indigenous people don’t have corresponding terms for bisexual, gay, lesbian or transgender. Instead, some Native American tribes have what is called a medicine wheel, which is similar to a compass in that it has four cardinal points. In the north are the heterosexual men; in the south are the heterosexual women. In the west are the male-bodied two-spirited and in the east are the female-bodied two-spirited people. People can choose partners out of any point other than their own.
Two-spirited people are the go-between for the separated men and women’s camps, and they work as marriage counselors or help with conflict resolution. They also can participate in both men’s and women’s dances in tribal rituals and have a special place in some dances, such as the sun dance.
Dance is a key part of Native American tradition, Pruden and Raymore explained in their head-to-foot regalia. Sheldon demonstrated three dances throughout the night: the women’s traditional, the women’s fancy dance and the men’s grass dance, each in different regalia. Each dance and each piece of regalia was unique and held a special meaning. “The very act of dancing in this dress,” Raymore said, wearing a blue women’s jingle dress covered in silver cone-shaped bells, “constitutes a prayer for healing.”
Another part of the regalia was an eagle-feather fan, which when raised in the dance symbolizes an upbeat, or an honor beat, as Raymore explained.
“In an honor beat, you’re giving thanks to the Creator,” he said. “Eagle feathers are sacred to us because they send messages to the Creator.”
The women’s fancy dance, which was previously a war dance, told the story of the metamorphosis of the butterfly. This element was seen through the shawl that accompanied this dance. The grass dance, which was performed last, told the story about plainsmen migrating. When they got to an area with high grass, the grass dancers would go first, doing their dance to stomp and pound down on the grass to make it movable.
Dance and even dance competitions are common in tribal rituals.
“It’s how best you tell the story in dance,” Pruden said about how dance competitions are judged. “It’s whether or not you can be a good storyteller with dance.”
However, Native American history is full of oppression and politics.
“It’s hard to even talk about the way we dance without being political,” Pruden said. Indigenous dances were banned until 1978, with the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. Before that, dancing was considered an “Indian offense” and came with consequences. Because of this, dance has transformed through time.
Oppression came in different forms, too. Pruden explained how many people, including his own relatives, were forced into boarding schools.
“They would have the Indian-ness beaten out of them,” he said.
Native American leaders would also tell the two-spirited people to hide so as not to be prosecuted. However, Pruden saw problems from this as well.
“One is a story of hate and violence, and one is a story of love, but they both come to the same endpoint,” he said.
“The spirit of our people is unassailable, and we have survived,” Raymore added.
Pruden and Raymore have a threefold mission: to educate people about two-spiritedness and its history, to increase the visibility of two-spirited people in the Native American community, and to continue building the two-spirit community.
Edited Nov. 17, 2013 to change a prior reference of costumes to regalia.