This is the third of a three-part series that sketches the histories of Bar Chee Ampe (ca. 1800-1854) and We’wha (1849-1896), as well as the organization that bore their names. Please see parts one and two for more!
U.S. government policies intended to assimilate the Native American population reached their apogee in the “termination era,” which began in the early 1940s and ended in 1970. The goal of termination was to unilaterally end the relationship between the tribes and the federal government, eliminate the reservations, and sell off tribal lands. (A related goal of termination, especially in the 1950s, was to relocate as many Native Americans as possible to urban areas—a policy that would prove important in early Two-Spirit organizing.) In response, the intertribal National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) held its first national meeting in Denver in 1944. Subsequently, the NCAI grew rapidly, filing lawsuits and lobbying vigorously for self-determination, tribal sovereignty, treaty rights, and the preservation of Native culture. The NCAI also held several large, well-publicized intertribal conferences, including the American Indian Chicago Conference (AICC) in 1961.
A new generation of student participants at AICC shared the older organization’s goals, but like other radical groups of the era—including Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)—they espoused direct action and civil disobedience as a means of effecting social and political change. The students founded another intertribal organization, the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC), which coined the term “Red Power,” wrote and distributed Americans Before Columbus, and, in 1964, engaged in a series of high-profile “fish-ins” and media-savvy protests challenging Washington State game laws, which violated tribal treaty rights. This direct action campaign was the first in an ongoing era of intertribal activism, from the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz Island to the recent protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock. Two-Spirit activism would also be characterized by intertribal organization and a focus on “sovereignty, treaties, environment, sacred sites, cultural revival, and language preservation… folded into all of our other work,” as Two-Spirit activist Kent Lebsock (Lakota) put it.
The first group organized by and for Native Americans in the wake of the 1969 Stonewall uprising was Gay American Indians (GAI), founded in July 1975 in San Francisco by Barbara Cameron (Lakota) and Randy Burns (Northern Paiute). Other groups formed in Minneapolis, notably American Indian Gays and Lesbians, which in 1988 sponsored the Basket and The Bow, the community’s first international gathering. (The third such gathering, held in Winnipeg in 1991, would see the adoption of the term Two-Spirit, as discussed in Part 1 of this series.)
It was no coincidence that such groups first formed in cities; as Beatrice Medicine (Standing Rock Lakota) noted in her influential 1979 essay “Changing Native American Sex Roles in an Urban Context,” in contrast to many reservation communities, “the urban milieu did offer greater avenues of accessibility to the homosexually oriented.” However, Two-Spirit organizations were (and remain) distinct from other groups that mobilized for gay liberation. As Curtis Harris-Davia (San Carlos Apache) put it in a 1992 interview recalling the 1989 founding of WeWah & BarCheeAmpe in New York City, “We didn’t feel comfortable in many cases defining ourselves by the colonizers’ culture, which said you were now going to be either gay or lesbian or bisexual.” Leota Lone Dog (Lakota) agreed, saying “The feeling when I first came out was, ‘Well, I guess I’m not Indian’ because I’d never heard of any of my ancestors and what their roles were.”
Lone Dog and Harris-Davia’s comments highlight a crucial aspect of Two-Spirit identity, which is that rather than focusing on sexual orientation, many Two-Spirit activists emphasize the unique and often highly respected roles that Two-Spirit persons occupied within Native cultures: as warriors, artists, healers, dream interpreters, and spiritual leaders. Deemed “immoral” and often cited as a pretext for increased government scrutiny and intervention, these roles, along with many other Native social structures, had been profoundly devalued and eroded. However, in 1984, the GAI History Project began recording and preserving Native histories and memories of gender and sexual diversity, many of which were published in the landmark 1988 anthology Living the Spirit. As Harris-Davia recalled,
“We came up with the two names out of a book I think many of us had read, called Living the Spirit, and there were two people, two characters or ancestors, who were written about in the book. And part of the original scope of what we were trying to do was… give some focus to the fact that we had a historical tradition in the communities, and that it wasn’t something that we were just thinking about because it was new and exciting. Just as gay and lesbian people use Eleanor Roosevelt or Getrude Stein or any of those people as historical markers for the general community, we use WeWah and BarCheeAmpe as markers for our community.”
Lone Dog added, “It’s important that our traditions and our cultures be remembered as they are and not assimilated.” Further, “I think of the book Sappho Was A Right-On Woman. Using Sappho, it makes people want to find out, ‘Well, who was Sappho?’ So I guess part of our intention was, ‘Who were these people?’ Thus we revere our history through the names.” As Scott Lauria Morgensen wrote, WeWah & BarCheeAmpe “offered Native queer people ancestral ties not just to gender and sexual diversity, but to national responsibility and leadership,” while also “requiring Natives and non-Natives to pronounce tribally specific names and recall their stories as a condition of relating to their work.” (This strategy seems to have required some forbearance on the part of the organization’s membership; in 1994 an interviewer asked, “I know you do this all the time, but just quickly explain the name?”)
WeWah & BarCheeAmpe was closely affiliated with New York’s American Indian Community House (AICH), where Lone Dog served on the Board of Directors and Harris-Davia as a staff member working with Nic Billey (Choctaw, Creek, and Delaware) to respond to HIV/AIDS within the community. The group’s goals were to “build and support a community of Two-Spirited Natives in New York; to act on all issues of concern to Indigenous Peoples, and to increase the visibility of Native cultures within the United States.” The emphasis on culture, particularly contemporary culture, was important, and to that end the organization newsletter, Buffalo Hide, frequently published poems and short fiction. Photos from a 1991 WeWah & BarCheeAmpe benefit indicate that the event showcased a variety of Native performers:
The variety of articles published in Buffalo Hide speaks to the wide range of political concerns that WeWah & BarCheeAmpe addressed: information about upcoming conferences and conventions; safe sex guidelines and referrals for HIV/AIDS services; condemnation of non-Native “shamans” who appropriated and exploited Native religions for profit. WeWah & BarCheeAmpe first marched in the People of Color Contingent in New York City’s Pride march in 1990. In 1991, the group hosted New York’s first Two-Spirit powwow, which was held during Pride weekend, and followed that up by convening the first-ever conference on HIV/AIDS in the Two-Spirit community during the first days of July.
According to Buffalo Hide, WeWah & BarCheeAmpe worked “furiously” to host the groundbreaking conference, raise travel funds, and arrange housing for participants. Held at AICH and with speakers including HIV+ Two-Spirit activist Carole Lafavor (Ojibwe), Ron Rowell (Choctaw) of the National North American AIDS Prevention Center, and Dr. Marjorie Hill, Director of the NYC Mayor’s Office for the Lesbian and Gay Community, the conference focused on developing strategies to combat the fast-growing HIV/AIDS crisis among Native Americans, especially pressuring the federal Indian Health Service to address the problem with “MORE SUPPORT, MORE SERVICES AND MORE VISIBILITY.” The conference also addressed related issues, including violence, substance abuse, parenting, spirituality, and the creation of culturally appropriate support services, interventions, and educational materials. (Indicative of the lack of such materials, in 1992 Buffalo Hide devoted no less than four paragraphs to a project in North Dakota that created and distributed a Native American HIV/AIDS awareness poster.)
In 1992, WeWah & BarCheeAmpe was at the forefront of a coalition focused on reframing the quincentennial of Christopher Columbus’s arrival as a “commemoration of 500 years of survival and resistance.” The organization announced plans to host Native American performances, dances, an art exhibit, and a series of forums presenting “perspectives on 1992” by LGBTQ+ communities of color. “Although it might seem as if once again we’ve taken on quite a bit, we realize that so much advocacy for our community is still necessary if we are to be equal partners in the general gay and lesbian community,” Curtis Harris-Davia wrote in Buffalo Hide. Kent Lebsock added, in the Fall 1992 issue,
“The quincentennial has become a teach-in for Native America in which our views, our histories about the land stolen from us, the people murdered, and the cultures obliterated are given voice for probably the first time in 500 years… I have been provided with a forum in which to work for my people and a forum from which the work that I am doing will lead to the preservation of our way of life.”
Curtis Harris-Davia and Ben Geboe were among the members of WeWah & BarCheeAmpe who participated in the Cairos Project, a New York City coalition of “People of Color who are in The Life.” In June 1992 the Cairos Project put out the first issue of COLORLife! The Lesbian, Gay, Two Spirit, & Bisexual People of Color Magazine. Each issue of COLORLife included a section called “Role Model,” the first of which was devoted to We Wah and Bar Chee Ampe, and COLORLife’s first editorial expressed its opposition to all forms of oppression, including homophobia, racism, sexism, classism, and colonialism, reaffirming “our allegiance first to our ancestors, our tribes, and our cultures.” Subsequent issues of COLORLife also strengthened the connection between Two-Spirit and other LGBTQ+ communities of color by addressing the myriad issues raised by the quincentennial. For example, activist Tony Glover drew a pointed comparison between the discrimination fueling the ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic and the epidemics of smallpox, scarlet fever, and other infectious diseases that had decimated Native American populations following the arrival of European colonizers. On a somewhat lighter note, editor Lidell Jackson described the Eat In/Teach In hosted by WeWah & BarCheeAmpe on October 12, 1992 as an “excellent potluck feast and community dinner” followed by an “emotionally powerful and motivating” evening in which members of the lesbian and gay People of Color coalition “shared our experiences, nurtured each other’s growth, and reclaimed our histories.” Jackson concluded, “Clearly we need more events like this!”
As invigorating and exciting as these activities were, they appear to have put a strain on the group’s resources. For example, in Spring 1992, Curtis Harris-Davia wrote in Buffalo Hide,
“After some time, WeWah & BarCheeAmpe seems to be gaining the necessary strength to resume the role of advocating for Native Two Spirits in NYC. We took a break after last summer’s efforts… the [Two-Spirit and HIV] conference demanded every ounce of energy, and I believe that the seven months recuperating was necessary.”
While the 1991 Pride actions and conference raised the organization’s profile and brought in new members, Harris-Davia added, the larger group had not been meeting regularly and the “core group” seems to have remained small (around seven to ten people). Finances may also have been an issue—Buffalo Hide received some funding from RESIST (a Massachusetts foundation devoted to supporting grassroots activism), the Chicago Resource Center, and AICH, but was otherwise reliant on community contributions and $5 annual subscriptions. As was the case with COLORLife, it seems likely that Buffalo Hide was “a labor of love,” with volunteer authors, artists, and editors. (COLORLife also encountered financial difficulties by the mid-1990s, going from monthly to bimonthly and taking a fundraising hiatus between January and June 1994.)
By 1994, as Ben Geboe put it in an interview for COLORLife’s Role Model section, WeWah & BarCheeAmpe primarily provided a “support environment” for Two-Spirit New Yorkers, while still doing health education and outreach to the Native community. This work has been carried on by successive organizations, including the Northeast Two Spirit Society, the East Coast Two Spirit Society, the Two Spirit Indigenous People’s Association of NYC, and The Indigenous Womxn’s Collective: NYC.
Two-Spirit activism is not static, but constantly evolving. As activist, art historian, educator, and anthropologist Regan de Loggans (Mississippi Choctaw / Ki’Che Maya) puts it,
“Two-spirit is a term that cannot be fully understood through a colonial lens, and there are dozens, if not hundreds, of gender and sexual identities that are covered under the ‘two spirit’ umbrella… the push now in the two-spirit community is to advocate for using our own nations’ languages and terms instead of the term ‘two spirit;’ for example, I am two-spirit, but use the Choctaw term (Hattakholba) when describing my gender identity. Using our own languages in order to describe our gender identities is not only about resilience but also resistance against homogeneous colonial identities constantly being forced upon us. Two-spirit is also a misleading term as many gender identities under that description do not adhere to a gender binary, and therefore are not ‘two’ spirited. The term is becoming more and more outdated as our gender gradients are reclaimed.”
Anthropologist Jenny L. Davis (Chickasaw) notes “the number of people involved in Two Spirit organizations who identify more closely with broader categories of identified female at birth, trans, genderqueer, and gender-non-conforming” has increased in recent decades. In part because of this shift, a growing number of activists are working to raise awareness of issues that impact this community—for example, journalist and activist Jen Deerinwater (Cherokee) has written passionately about the need to identify and address an ongoing crisis of violence against Native American women, girls, and Two Spirits.
Still, continuities to the early movement remain. A growing number of academic studies of Two-Spirit identity, history, and activism have been published, but as Davis notes, “this work has been matched, if not exceeded, in robustness by the production of Two Spirit fiction, poetry, memoir, performance, and art.” Cultural production remains an enduring issue, particularly the context in which Native culture is displayed and consumed. To give a recent example, during the opening reception for the 2019 Whitney Biennial, Indigenous Womxn’s Collective co-founders de Loggans and Maria Hupfield (Anishinaabe) unfurled a banner reading “Demilitarize Our Art, People Over Profit.” The activists then read a statement calling upon the Whitney to remove Warren Kanders from the museum board of directors (Kanders owns a company that produces tear-gas canisters, which have been used against protesters at Standing Rock and the U.S. border). As Hupfield noted afterwards, “It was just really rough to see a lot of Native artists being included in the biennial while at the same time there’s a board member who is basically targeting our communities.” After months of similar protests, Kanders stepped down.
The ongoing fight for tribal sovereignty, treaty rights, and environmental protection was foregrounded at Standing Rock during the protests against construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Within the activists’ main Oceti Sakowin Camp, advocate Candi Brings Plenty (Oglala Lakota Sioux) headed an intertribal Two-Spirit Camp (now a nonprofit organization, Two-Spirit Nation) and helped highlight the integral role of Two-Spirit activists within the #noDAPL movement to protect ancestral lands and water resources. As participant Linda Golke (Anishinaabe) put it,
“I think that Two Spirit people are reclaiming our place in the circle and revitalizing our traditions, lifting each other up, and working toward decolonization, which is a major component of the fight for sovereignty for each of our tribal nations as well as Indian Country at large.”
Responding to HIV/AIDS is also a pressing concern, and it is telling that the second conference on HIV/AIDS in the Two-Spirit community did not occur until 2019, when WorldPride and Stonewall 50 celebrations put focus (and funding) on the issue. Twenty-eight years after WeWah & BarCheeAmpe hosted the first such conference, community access to health care, accurate data collection by health officials, and the creation of culturally appropriate services remains disturbingly inadequate.
Exploring Two-Spirit historiography is sobering—the violent legacy of settler colonialism is one of cultural loss, economic hardship, and the ongoing oppressions of sexism, racism, and homophobia. Yet without minimizing the tragedies of the past and the present, Two-Spirit history and Two-Spirit lives are, as David Treuer writes of Native America as a whole, “something much more, much greater and grander, than a catalog of pain.” It is a reminder that historical knowledge can be a powerful tool for resistance and resilience.
Written by Jeanne Gutierrez, Curatorial Scholar, Center for Women’s History
I would like to thank Rachel Mattson (Tretter Collection in GLBT Studies, University of Minnesota Libraries), Caitlin McCarthy (LGBT Community Center, New York), Brett Lougheed and Holly Berofe (University of Winnipeg Archives), Isaac Fellman (GLBT Historical Society, San Francisco), Morgan Gwenwald, and Candi Brings Plenty for their kind assistance in securing images. Endless thanks are also due to those friends and colleagues who read and commented on earlier drafts of this essay, with especial thanks due to Regan de Loggans. Any errors are mine alone.
Top Image, from left to right: Published in T. D. Bonner, The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, 1856; Collection of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, Brooklyn, NY; We’wha, 1886, Smithsonian Institution
Evelyn Blackwood, “Sexuality and Gender in Certain Native American Tribes: The Case of Cross-Gender Females,” Signs 10 (1984), 27-42.
D. Bonner, The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, Mountaineer, Scout, and Pioneer and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians, Written from His Own Dictation. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1856.
Richard B. Collins, “A Brief History of the U.S. — American Indian Nations Relationship.” Human Rights 33 (2006), 3-4.
Jenny L. Davis, “Refusing (Mis)Recognition: Navigating Multiple Marginalization in the U.S. Two Spirit Movement,” Review of International American Studies 12/1 (2019), 65-86.
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