Two-Spirit Nation: Water Protectors Rise to Reclaim Space in the Sacred Fire

“The genocidal tactic of the boarding/residential school era destroyed many important aspects of what it means to be Indigenous, not the least of which was the knowledge of who we now know as Two Spirit people and the sacredness and worth to their Tribes.”

Sadé Heart
Hawk, Mi’gmaq First Nation

Indigenous LGBTQIA+ Two-Spirit involvement at Standing Rock during the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline going through North Dakota and crossing beneath the Missouri river and right by Lake Oahe, affirms Indigenous ways of knowing and practice by acknowledging that Indigenous peoples claim a relationship to the earth, water, the sky, and other living animal beings. Indigenous knowledge by Native Scholars acknowledges the importance of understanding climate change and its impact for the land, humans, and animals, and why it is important to listen to Indigenous people regarding climate change. Indigenous peoples’ concerns within environmental justice movements have been heard, and Indigenous people with their traditional knowledge have often led these justice movements. However, much of the work in environmental justice studies, including studies of Indigenous knowledge and the environment, have not recognized the presence of the Two-Spirit people and our concerns about the environment, including climate change. When people noted the Two-Spirit presence at Standing Rock and the establishment of the Two-Spirit camp, there was an acknowledgment of Two-Spirit’s alliance with other Indigenous peoples who wanted to protect and defend the interests of Indigenous Nations, like the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, as well as to protect the right of all living beings.

Indigenous U.S. History

The Red Power Movement, and in particular, the American Indian Movement (AIM), is seen as the revitalization of an Indigenous-centered consciousness that continues to inspire today. AIM originated in 1968 during the Civil Rights Era which originated in Minneapolis, Minnesota by Dennis Banks, Russell Means, and Clyde Bellecourt. The main purpose of AIM was to address the mistreatment of American Indians by the Bureau of Indian Affairs that resulted in the take over of the BIA building in Washington, D.C., as well as the Alcatraz occupation in the Bay Area to reclaim Indigenous land from the federal government. It was the beginning of the Red Power Movement to hold the United States federal government to honor its treaties with Tribal Nations.

Most recently, the gathering of Native people at Standing Rock to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota has been a source of renewal for Indigenous struggles, with demands that the U.S. honor its Treaties with Native Nations. These movements have been important to Indigenous revitalization, including a revitalization of Native Women’s authority and their places in their nations and communities. The presence of Two-Spirit Natives at Standing Rock announced their alliance with other Native peoples, and their gender and sex were seen as important to being a part of the larger Indigenous protest movement.  

Two-Spirit were often not seen as part of public protests and until the 1970s and 80s, they had been silenced or made invisible in projects of Indigenous revitalization. This changed with the presence of Two-Spirit Native people at Standing Rock when Native peoples and their allies set up camps to oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline, where Two-Spirit Native people joined the protest and set up a camp that represented Two-Spirit people from different tribal communities.  One question I pose is, what led to the Two-Spirit people to engage with the protest against NoDAPL in such a visible way?

Two-Spirit Silence

During the Civil Rights Era of the 1970s, American Indians living in urban areas, many of them having been relocated during the termination era of the 1950s, advocated for equality and justice for their communities. As Indigenous feminists raised questions about the consequences of male-dominated leadership, they also faced questions about the value of feminist thought and practices and its uses for Native Nation-building and well as how feminism might be able to transform patriarchy and male-dominated leadership, both within nations and community organizing. In these movements that have been important to Indigenous revitalization and which includes a revitalization of Native Women’s authority and places in their nations and communities, there is growing attention to the place of Two-Spirit Nation, who are either silenced or made invisible in these eras of Indigenous revitalization.

Two-Spirit people are described as individuals that may take on the duties of a masculine and feminine characteristics, whether in the household, ceremonial setting or community. Two-Spirit may not have engaged in physical protests, like direct action or rallies or marches, but they were making their presence known and they were and are challenging the status quo and what normative means. The Two-Spirit movement was organized as a result of gender discrimination, of homophobia, and intended to revalue gender diversity in Native communities. They maintain that gender diversity was respected and all members were vital to the survival of their communities. Everyone made contributions to the well-being and prosperity of the people.

Historical trauma inflicted against the Two-Spirit people began when colonizers invaded the “New World”. They brought with them their Christian beliefs of cisheterosexaulity and used violence to impose their practices of cisheterosexuality.  Indigenous people had mostly been physically removed from their lands, after U.S. military campaigns against them and relocated to designated lands named reservations. Federal Indian policies dramatically impacted Indigenous communities such as the Indian Relocation Act, Indian Boarding Schools, blood quantum, and the intent to assimilate/acculturate into the dominant European society by the erasure of traditions, culture and language of Indigenous people. Manifest Destiny of the white ivory tower swept from the east to the west coast, which are contributing factors to conquer and conquest Indigenous land.

The ongoing struggle of acceptance of Two-Spirits continues into the 21st century. Two-Spirits not only insist on their presence in urban spaces, but many have also returned to and are public in their respective Native Nations. The Two-Spirit community’s activism has been around their inclusion in their respective Nations and communities.

Two-Spirit Nation at Standing Rock Sioux Tribe

The Two-Spirit presence at Standing Rock is distinct because Two-Spirit visibility, on an international platform, asserted alliance to the earth, water, and other living beings. Some have engaged in the North Dakota Access Pipeline protest to make their presence known among other activists also known as the Water Protectors. The NoDAPL Camp began with the Corps of Engineers moving forward without tribal consultation to build an oil pipeline through the ancestral homelands of the Dakota Sioux. It was referred to as ‘the black snake.’

Most of the protestors referred to the Black Snake with NoDAPL and immediately traveled like fire with the news media outlets. A group of protestors originally set up camp, and other camps followed.  The first established camp was set up on the first of April, 2016 by Standing Rock elder, LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, for cultural preservation and spiritual resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline. Two Spirit people traveled in caravans representing various Tribal Nations such as the Oglala Lakota Sioux, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Mi’gmaq First Nations, White Mountain Apache, Penobscot, Anishinaabe, Oneida, Mexica, Cree First Nations, Cheyenne, Blackfeet, Ojibwe, Chippewa, Mohawk Lenape, Choctaw, and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community as they made their way to the Two Spirit Camp to extend their prayers for the land and water. The presence of Two-Spirits as Water Protectors also shows how standard environmental justice movements do not understand Indigenous relations to the land and water.  These stated relations of ‘Mni Wiconi’ say that all living beings, including the Two Spirit have a responsibility.

The Two-Spirit Camp was accepted due to their main leader, Candi Brings Plenty, an enrolled citizen of Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe, advocating for the presence of the Two-Spirit people and camp. Candi shares in a Huffington Post interview, “As a Lakota Sioux I know that there is an unspoken acceptance and embrace for us ‘Two-Spirits’ as we have been held in a sacred way prior to the pre-colonial era. It wasn’t until colonization and missionary terrors that created a negative stigma toward the Two-Spirit walk of life.”

The presence of the Two-Spirit camp was crucial, since their presence was important as Water Protectors, Water Carriers, and Leading in Prayers. There was a fluidity of sexuality and gender represented at the Two-Spirit camp which challenged the binary that only cisgender heterosexuals were public in their protests and injustices and especially in support of Native Nations like the Standing Rock Sioux. The Two-Spirit camp challenged the gender norms by representing multiple genders at the NoDAPL camps, thereby also refusing to accept patriarchal domination of what the oil pipeline represents. The Two-Spirit camp showed once again that Native peoples do acknowledge multiple genders among them and accept them as part of their communities.

The Two-Spirit Movement is slowly reclaiming their space in the Sacred Circle among tribal communities despite opposition from tribal leaders or members, in which the Two-Spirit community has developed their own Two-Spirit Gatherings and Pow Wows. The Two-Spirit camp received support from other Two-Spirit groups and societies for having a presence at the NoDAPL, willing to sacrifice their lives for clean water and respect to Mother Earth from fracking.

The presence of the Two-Spirit people at NoDAPL contributed to the water protectors, in which they all came together as one and their gender or sexuality was not questioned, but welcomed with open arms. Despite their presence, stigma and discrimination is still visible within tribal communities. The Two Spirit people making their presence known in North Dakota insist that they are Indigenous and deserve to sit at the table to discuss matters of life and death. A presence at Standing Rock shows a determination to continue to educate and break down barriers within tribal leadership to bring back traditional stories of the once revered and embraced Two-Spirit person, without shunning or shaming them as outsiders.  

Supporting Two-Spirits

The presence of the Two-Spirit people at Standing Rock was one example of how the Two-Spirit community continues to support the non-Two-Spirit tribal members. The Two-Spirit community continues to face obstacles within their own tribal communities of acceptance, understanding, and inclusion. The ongoing stigma, hatred, transphobia, homophobia, and discrimination continues to drive off Two-Spirit members away from their tribal communities for urban areas.

“Until the Two Spirit people are welcomed, with intention, back into the Sacred Circles of our Tribes, those Circles will remain broken,” says Sadé Heart of the Hawk, Mi’gmaq First Nation.

Two-Spirit people have overcome many hardships to reclaim their place within the Sacred Fire despite the ongoing stigma and discrimination encountered within their respected tribal communities. The inclusion and presence of the Two-Spirit people at NoDAPL is one form of rebuilding relationships among tribal communities to make their voices heard especially if it impacts tribal nations and the protection of Mother Earth. Bringing back traditional stories and honoring the ancestral teachings to embrace all walks of life, is a step in the right direction for the Two-Spirit people in the changing world.

The Two-Spirit presence at NoDAPL standing alongside their allies to fight injustice, in one example of alliances that join forces to address issues that impact their water supply, land, animal, and environment. The Two-Spirit protestors presence at NoDAPL was a way of reclaiming their space within the circle of the Sacred Fire among tribal communities since their presence, voices, and actions sent a very strong message against the ‘Black Snake,’ by holding corporations and individuals accountable of the destruction of their ancestral homelands. As Two-Spirit Nation continue to overcome rejections and discrimination from within their own tribal communities, they continue to prevail against injustice and inequality one step at a time.

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