Queering the Environmental Movement

Two Spirits are reclaiming their collective identity in the battle to protect Turtle Island.

WHILE THOSE WHO ARE INDIGENOUS to Turtle Island (North America) have long been active stewards of the land, we may currently be witnessing a wider reclamation of Indigeneity in its practices and politics, and most definitely, in the visibility of Native American environmental activism. Queering this push for environmental justice are Two Spirits — people who are believed to possess both feminine and masculine spirits, and who play sacred roles in Native communities. Two Spirit activism has provably benefited an environmental movement struggling to respond to the acting United States administration’s multiple attacks on the sovereignty of both land and body — subjects that settler colonialism might deem separate — and to confront its own whiteness and heteronormativity.

The Two Spirit Nation Camp at the 2016 gathering at Standing Rock was set up as a community space for Two Spirits and allied water protectors. Photo by Sheldon Raymore (Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe)
The The Two Spirit Nation Camp at the 2016 gathering at Standing Rock was set up as a community space for Two Spirits and allied water protectors. Photo by Sheldon Raymore (Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe)

This Two Spirit resistance to environmental degradation was more visible than ever at Standing Rock, where Natives and allies gathered in 2016 to oppose the Dakota Access pipeline running near reservation land and through sacred sites in North Dakota. The protests garnered international attention, putting many eyes on the Oceti Sakowin Camp, which hosted water protectors on the edge of the Oglala Sioux reservation. Within Oceti Sakowin, Two Spirits set up Winyan Camp, a safe space for women, children, and Two Spirits.

While the settler gaze has moved away from the Oglala Sioux with the news cycle, Two Spirits remain on the frontlines of environmental and climate justice struggles across Turtle Island. “Now,” says Two Spirit activist Zephyr Elise, who oversaw Winyan Camp for four months, “we are being reactivated like an immune response to the viruses of greed, capitalism, [and] occupation that threaten our Mother.” From building homesteads for homeless Two Spirit youth to opposing tar sands developments, many within the community have noticed an uptick in embracing of the Two Spirit title.

While Two Spirits have existed across Turtle Island under various appellations for centuries — boté in Crow, winkte in Lakota, nádleehí to the Diné, to name a few — the umbrella term was coined at a gathering of Native Americans in Winnipeg, Canada in 1990 to distinguish Two Spirits from the Western concept of LGBT+ identities. “The roles of Two Spirits were often as mediators, healers, name givers, and overall [they] served to sustain balance within the community,” says Cecelia Rose LaPointe, the Ojibway and Métis director of the Native Justice Coalition. While she doesn’t identify as female, her experience doesn’t align with “colonial LGBT+ terminology.” Instead, she says, “Two-Spirit means being connected to my Ojibway culture as a whole person in body, mind, and spirit.”

Elise, the founding co-coordinator of the Idle No More — Two Spirits on Ohlone Lands chapter, affirms this, telling me, “My Two Spirit identity isn’t tied to my sexuality; [my] enactment of the roles and responsibilities to my community [is].” Both attest that these revered qualities go beyond sex and gender. As Elise says, “We bridge vastly opposite planes of existence, whether [that be] masculine vs. feminine, timeless vs. temporal, or spiritual vs. earthly.”

These roles were threatened when European settlers first colonized North America. “There was an active suppression by colonial states of Indigenous sexuality and gender roles through violent means, particularly towards gender and sexual expressions that clashed with Western concepts,” says Gwen Benaway, a bisexual poet and trans woman of Anishinaabe and Métis descent. Many Nations had their Two Spirit traditions erased.

Unfortunately, the greater LGBT+ movement rarely recognizes Two Spirits as kindred. “Indigenous peoples have always been marginalized in LGBT+ spaces, pushed into token roles, or otherwise made invisible,” Benaway tells me. “So we don’t always fit within the borders of LGBT+ spaces.”

Two Spirits can face discrimination within their Native communities as well. “Many Two Spirit folks have been abandoned by their birth families due to their gender or whom they are attracted to,” says Xemiyulu Manibusan Tapepechul, a Nawat Siwayul trans woman and resident of the Earth Star Two Spirit Nation, a decolonial homestead for homeless Two Spirits fighting for land justice in West Virginia. “So many [of us] don’t have access to food, land, or community.”

The environmental movement, with its overwhelming whiteness and lack of intersectional praxis, has also often neglected to consider the contributions and perspectives of Indigenous peoples. In doing so, it has constrained its own understanding of the danger the Earth is in, deprioritized environmental threats that mainly affect Natives, and closed itself to strategies and solutions based in the movement toward decolonization. “Environmental racism has existed since 1492,” LaPointe tells me, asserting that the definition of environmental violence “must be expanded to name discrimination towards Two-Spirits, the sterilization of our women, and [fighting] toxic buildings, pipelines, and mining.”

Tapepechul agrees that the framework of the movement needs to shift. “Their [mainstream environmentalists’] justice says ‘this land is traumatized, let me stay here and fix it,’ without considering who traumatized the land, and who has nowhere else to go.”

This trauma is ongoing. Zephyr Elise is currently fighting with the Salish Sea Nations of the Pacific Northwest who are resisting a proposed liquefied natural gas storage facility on an estuary in Tacoma, Washington, putting their bodies on the line in the process. “[We’re] out here saying no to more shipping of tar sands into the Salish Sea,” Elise says. They have been arrested multiple times in nonviolent direct actions, including at Oceti Sakowin, where they developed post-concussion syndrome from sustaining repeated brain trauma.

When the environmental movement fails to acknowledge the continued violence against Two Spirit activists, and against sovereign Indigenous bodies both earthly and human at large, it reinforces the same coloniality that puts the planet at risk. “It’s clear that seeing the land as inanimate relates to seeing women as objects,” Benaway says of this confluence of oppression, to which Elise echoes, “It’s all interconnected. The violence against our Grandmother Earth has at the core the same roots as violence against women and Two Spirits.” The common denominator is “a basic lack of respecting the sacred,” which is also clear in the increased policing of trans bodies both in private and in public. Benaway, who experiences her body as an extension of her ancestors and as connected to the land, resists this policing by marking her transition as a form of reclamation. “The idea that a trans woman’s body or transitioning is a sovereign act may seem odd to people,” she wrote in a recent blog post. But “it’s about connecting our sexualities to our land — our bodies, our right to be loved, to feel good — [and] seeing our pleasure as also sovereign.”

Activists say a greater embracing of the Two Spirit identity may be taking hold in response to the many attacks on the land. “We’re seeing a complex transitional space emerging where old ways of thinking are being reworked and recent violent actions by the state are motivating a new wave of activism in response to settler hate,” says Benaway. “Fortunately,” continues Elise, “our reemergence is coming at a time when cishet (a term meaning straight people who aren’t trans) Natives are also reclaiming their ways of being in this world that were ripped away. As the Nations heal, so too can Two Spirits.”

“Ancestors and spirits are calling,” Elise adds. “Those of us who hold this identity are waking up and hearing. We don’t have a choice.”

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