Very recently, I was honored to add my name to an open letter (“This Land Was Made for Decolonized Love”) to Indian Country about the damaging opinions of some Oglala Lakota elders who spoke out against marriage equality on the reservation. The whole of the piece can be read on the first news site that offered it a place: Dakota Free Press.
This subject is a complex issue in Indian Country, to be sure. The compounding oppressions can be difficult for non-Natives to understand, particularly in an American society where our collective consciousness guides us more in the direction of justice over oppression. It seems common sense that the first nations of this continent should align with the recent gains of all LGBTQ Americans’ right to marry.
We still battle our own, internalized oppression in many ways. As tribal nations, we who are citizens have layers of genocide, colonization, enforced religion, abuse, alcoholism and addiction that compound our experiences as human beings to deconstruct. As a writer much more talented than I once wrote about our fights said, “How do you keep fighting these smaller injustices when they are all from the mother of all injustices?”
Indeed. In these times, as Native people in this country, we find ourselves in positions where the institutional, political and individual racism, discrimination and remnants of termination have far-reaching effects. Every proposal has been brought forth from well-intentioned but misguided U.S. senators who tried to make us farmers to churches that believed once we accepted Jesus we would prosper to business leaders who claim monopoly in a closed economic system would surely bring prosperity. In all their various iterations, these proposed solutions to the problems that face Indian Country have all been attempted and all have failed.
The basis of these proposals are flawed because they are not solutions from within tribal nations, like their predecessors of conquest, they have all been ushered in from white, Christian America.
“We write this statement to honor all of our elders and ancestors. Some were viciously abused inside colonial institutions that were anti-woman, anti-child, and homophobic. Boarding schools, designed to kill our cultures, were filled with sexual abuse and torture. The system of individual land allotment tore our ancestors apart, denigrated extended family systems and collective landholding. Government-led Christian missions and Indian agencies further obliterated our spiritual and cultural identities with laws about how to marry and when, and with whom to have sex. Government-aided churches tried to force us to accept their rigid, unforgiving notions of love and relationships.”
Growing up on the reservation, my parents and hunka parents would speak of the process of how I would marry, with the implication being that I would marry a woman. When I came out to them, the talk of my marriage and their grandchildren faded away. While I love and honor my parents deeply, I have to understand that they struggled with how to reconcile the parts of their worldview that were colonized by years of Catholic and Protestant Christian dogma with the reality of having a gay son. It took me years of recovery to work through the anger and resentment I felt in their heartbreak (as my father called it) of seeing their son as a full human being.
And I was fortunate.
I was not disowned, I was not rejected and I was not called upon to repent or convert. It was because on some level, at least my mother understood that what mattered more was demonstrating to her son that a parent’s love is unconditional.
When I came out, we shared a moment that I’ll never forget, tears in our eyes and she said simply, “you’re my son and there’s nothing you can do to make me stop loving you.” And there is nothing more Lakota than loving your children at all stages of their lives. That is the moment that demonstrated what decolonizing an indigenous mind looks like. She had been able to overcome years of abuse, religious indoctrination, addiction and fear and it had taken her forward to wisdom when she became winuhcala.
“We write this statement as a reminder that the foundations for this change were set long ago … ‘marriage’ – as we know it today: between two people as a state institution – never existed historically in Lakota society … Our views on romance respected individuals’ sexuality and were far more advanced when compared to today’s conservative Western standards.”
When I speak of privileges, I’m fortunate that I can count my parents’ acceptance and love as my own privilege. It prepared me for a world where I am continually denigrated for my skin color, sexual orientation, socio-economic class, educational background, faith affiliation and size. There is nothing that makes a child as strong as knowing their parents loved them as fully as mine did me. And in that, some day, I hope to pass on the value of decolonizing our minds to the next generation of Sicangu Lakota, be they my own children or my relatives.
While we as Native people continue the process of reclaiming our political, spiritual and cultural sovereignty, we cannot ever afford to exclude those of us who identify as LGBTQ/Two Spirit. We are diminished when we reject one another based on flawed thinking. As a people whose spirituality of being good relatives survived war, famine and colonization, we can no longer afford to employ the divisions put upon us by our oppressors.
As my mother taught me as a child, when we venture too far from camp, whether it’s to gather, hunt or play, we risk losing the sacred spirit that dwells within ourselves. We must always call our spirits back to us. As she called out for me as a child, “Alfred hek’u! Wan unglape!” Indian Country must call out for its LGBTQ/Two Spirit relatives once more to come back, we are going home.
We must be careful to recognize ongoing colonial harms and remedy them in culturally-appropriate ways when we have the power to do so. In this case, too, it is possible to fight for more just and healthy relations, this time among humans. Our own tribal histories provide the path. After all, we are all related, not just some of us. Mitakuye Oyasin.