Two-Spirits Among Us: celebrating LGBTQ Native American and First Nations stories

 

With the November 8th DVD/VOD release from Wolfe Video of the Canadian Aboriginal LGBTQ drama FIRE SONG, GLAAD shines a light on this part of our LGBTQ family as told through documentaries and scripted film.  This debut feature by out Canadian Native filmmaker Adam Garnet Jones is the first Canadian narrative feature film to deal with the First Nations community and Two-Spirited people.

Two Spirits CoupleNative American, First Nation and Canadian Aboriginal people have often held LGBTQ and gender non-conforming members of their communities in high respect, referring to them as “two spirit” people, focusing on their spiritual gifts, and holding them up as leaders or spiritual teachers.  For most who are not a part of or familiar with this community, entertainment media can be the only window into the lives and experiences of two spirits and the people in their lives. And this is the power that media has to shape narratives and share lives that are usually unavailable to most.

In 1989, Mona Smith’s 15-minute documentary HONORED BY THE MOON explored traditional roles that gay and lesbian people had among various Indian nations through the voices of five gay and lesbian Native Americans talking about spirituality, "coming out," and their relationships with family. Their comments are intercut with footage from a picnic held during a conference for Native American lesbians and gay men, intercut with black-and-white historical photographs.

Richard LaFortune, one of the film's subjects, explains that:

"...the power of the gay and lesbian people historically has been that we're in the middle...we're between male and female...reflecting the fact that we're between this physical world and the real world...we're connectors...people have always recognized that and called upon our powers, which nobody else really has."

Two Spirit People Poster

An overview of historical and contemporary Native American concepts of gender, sexuality and sexual orientation was told in 1991’s TWO SPIRIT PEOPLE. This 20-minute documentary explores the “berdache” tradition in Native American culture, in which individuals who embody feminine and masculine qualities act as a conduit between the physical and spiritual world, and because of this are placed in positions of power within the community.

Johnny Greyeyes PosterThe first feature film focusing on Native lesbians, JOHNNY GREYEYES is a tremendously powerful lesbian drama.  This hard-edged and gritty independent film presents a troubling yet deeply humanizing portrait of life behind bars (a precursor to Orange is the New Black).  Johnny Greyeyes is a woman from a Native North American family who has gained firsthand knowledge of the hard side of life. After her abusive father was shot and killed, Johnny was found guilty of the crime and had to serve a long sentence in a rough lock-up. Behind bars, Johnny makes friends with Lana, and their relationship soon graduates from friendship to love as Lana gives Johnny the sort of affection and support she never received from her family.

Chilean writer and director Jorge Manzano produced this Canadian indie, which went on to win the Freedom Award at LA’s Outfest, the Grand Jury Prize at the NY International Independent Film & Video Festival, and Best Canadian Film or Video at Toronto’s Inside Out Lesbian and Gay Film and Video Festival.

 

The Business of Fancydancing posterTHE BUSINESS OF FANCYDANCING (2002) explores the tension between two Spokane men who grew up together on a Spokane Reservation in eastern Washington state: Seymour Polatkin and Aristotle. Seymour's internal conflict between his Indian heritage and his life as an urban gay man with a white boyfriend plays out in multiple cultures and relationships over his college and early adult years. His literary success as a famed American Indian poet, resulting in accolades from non-Indians, contrasts with a lack of approval from those he grew up with back on the reservation. As he struggles with discomfort and alienation in both worlds, the film examines several issues that contemporary American Indians face, including cultural assimilation (both on the reservation and in urban areas), difficult stereotypes, and substance abuse.

 

Two Spirits Movie PosterA nominee for Best Documentary during the 23rd Annual GLAAD Media Awards was 2009’s riveting and compelling film by Ruth Fertig, TWO SPIRITS.  Fred Martinez was nádleehí, a male-bodied person with a feminine nature … a special gift according to his ancient Navajo culture. But the place where two discriminations meet is a dangerous place to live, and Fred became one of the youngest hate-crime victims in modern history when he was brutally murdered at sixteen. “Between tradition and controversy, sex and spirit, and freedom and fear, lives the truth—the bravest choice you can make is to be yourself.”  TWO SPIRITS was screened at the White House for a special event with President Obama in celebration of LGBTQ and Two Spirit people.

 

Fire Song Movie PosterHaving made his feature film debut at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival with FIRE SONG, which is being distributed this November 8, 2016 by Wolfe Video, Adam Garnet Jones created a powerful and deeply moving tale about a young, queer First Nations man forced to choose between his community and the world outside.  This film tells the story of Shane, a gay Anishnaabe teenager in Northern Ontario, struggling to support his family in the aftermath of his sister’s suicide. Shane was supposed to move to the city for University in the fall, and has been trying to convince his secret boyfriend to come with him; but now everything is uncertain. Shane is torn between his responsibilities at home and the promise of freedom calling to him from the city. He pushes through barrier after barrier, determined to take care of his mom and earn money for school; but when circumstances take a turn for the worse, Shane has to choose between his family or his future.

Committed to this labor of love that took six years to write and direct, Adam Garnet Jones (of Cree/Métis/Danish heritage) shared in a 2015 Indie Wire interview:

“It’s hard to get any movie made, but it’s really hard to convince people to give you money to make a movie about suicidal gay Aboriginal teenagers in northern Ontario.  The cast is 100% Aboriginal and all of the shooting took place in First Nations communities, far away from any major production centre.”

Jones added that:

“There is a whole cinematic universe of stories, culture, and history waiting for a wide audience to discover.  In a world where people feel like they have seen it all, this is a chance to be exposed to what will be a new world for a lot of people.”

 

Native Youth Sexual Health NetworkA resource for Native American and First Nations LGBTQ youth is the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, an organization by and for Indigenous youth that works across issues of sexual and reproductive health, rights and justice throughout the United States and Canada

Within GLAAD’s film and television reports, it is apparent that, by the absence of verifiable numbers of Native American and First Nation characters, they are absent or virtually invisible in U.S. entertainment content.  The power of media to expose audiences to people and stories they may never encounter is an undeniable force that, in the hands of creative and talented artists such as those we’ve just spotlighted, can create a world where people can be who they are and love who they want to love without fear, bias or hatred.

GLAAD works with networks, studios and independent producers to change the narrative by building understanding and accelerating acceptance of LGBTQ people here and around the world.   And in shining a bright light on Native American, First Nation and Canadian Aboriginal LGBTQ people and the stories of their lives, we acknowledge a culture that not only precedes many others on this continent, but can also teach us the value of respecting and celebrating those Two Spirits among us.