Co-authored with Paulina Helm-Hernandez
This love letter was conceived in response to some recent attacks within our community against Ignacio Rivera, which we found profoundly heartbreaking to witness, and they evoked much larger implications for our community as a whole. Out of our witnessing these struggles, and out of our desire for healing and wholeness, we bring this forth as an offering, a wish, a dream, and a love letter to our community.
As the descendents of people whose ancestors survived colonization -- and as survivors ourselves -- our dream of liberation and freedom is one that requires that we get there together. As indigenous people of the Americas, we have faced hundreds of years of brutal repression and all-out attempts at genocide through mass killings, diseased blankets, spoiled food, forced relocation, dislocation, mass starvation, exploitation of our natural resources, desecration of our sacred lands and practices and constant attacks from the governments under which we are living to this day. The list of oppressions that our people face has not grown shorter in the last 500 years. In addition to those inflicted upon us by modern-day governments, institutions, and systems, we sadly witness further attacks by our own, from within our own communities.
In the context of our daily lives, we often bear witness to our own people reinforcing and replicating the strategies, tactics, and narratives that have been used by imperialism and white supremacy on this continent to divide us, and to continue to try conquering us. We have a shared commitment to naming and challenging this destructive dynamic and, by doing so, affirming that we have not conceded, and will not concede, to internalized colonization. We strongly believe that part of our work is to fight assimilation and the false notion of "safety" that it breeds. As indigenous communities, we have a long historical legacy of pushing back against colonial and modern governmental attempts to define who we are, what we call ourselves, and whom we call family, kin and beloved community, and it is because of that legacy that we believe in self-determination and the idea that we cannot allow our very identities to be dictated by imposed borders and a "state legitimacy" that reinforces those borders.
Many of us have emerged from activist communities, and we have grown and developed spiritually and politically in the rare spaces that we've created in our community that have allowed us moments of grace and wholeness. Each moment of wholeness we experience brings healing with it as well. As we have progressed in our journeys of learning and reclaiming what we already know, we have come to a common, shared historical understanding and political framework that we wish to share as a love offering to our kin.
We believe it is an outgrowth of colonialism that an individualistic "American" sense of identity, one that seeks to overpower and erase the culture of kindness and kinship our community can offer when at its best, has taken root in our modern culture. At its worst, we've seen assertions made on our behalf that some have a more "legitimate claim" to our shared ancestry than others. The weight of atrocities such as the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the pillaging and plundering of our continental resources and lands for the gain of European monarchies, nations and "New World" capitalists are to this day resting on our ground and in our bones. Because of those parallel and overlapping oppressions that indigenous, mestizo, black/African, and Caribbean people have endured, our stake in each other's survival is greater than we have been led to believe; our ancestors wept together at the loss of our homelands, at the loss of our mothers and fathers, our loves and our babies, our sacred practices and rituals, at the loss of our autonomy and histories.
As people of resistance and resilience, however, we know that not all has been lost, and it has been part of our shared spiritual imperative to continue to reclaim our ancestry, our languages, and our claim to each other as kin. It is through this reclaiming that we see glimmers of what is possible, what promise lies on the other side of our shame and grief, when we unbind ourselves from the lie that there is a singular indigenous experience, a singular claim over who we are and what constitutes our communities. We have the opportunity, now more than ever, to see the full depth and breadth of who we are as shared descendants of the American continent tribal nations, of Antilles Indians, of Africans brought to the Caribbean and this continent as slaves.
We are indigenous. As black and brown mixed descendants of the indigenous people of the Americas, as long as we live, we survive. As long as we carry the memory of our ancestors, they live. As long as we speak their names, we have the opportunity to reclaim what has been lost, unearth what has been buried under centuries of violence and forced separation. It is in that unearthing that we see the possibility of rebuilding our kinship to each other, that even in our shared historical trauma, there is the promise of shared community, healing and restoration.
We can no longer afford to believe in the borders branded and codified on our bodies, nor can we use tribal enrollment and blood quantum laws, meant to limit colonial "civil rights" to our people, define what it means to be "native." We believe that they were created not only with a divisive intent but to make our people extinct and further minimize the legal claim over our lands. Prior to European contact in our continent, we did not need either of these tools to know who we were or where we belonged, even as distinct nations; no one individual had claim over what defined us.
It is in that context that many of us have chosen to claim a Two-Spirit identity as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ) indigenous/First Nations folks. Many of us come from traditions where Two-Spirit people had well-documented practices and were able to pass down the knowledge of our sacred roles in communities. Many more of us stem from communities where such precious knowledge is buried and unknown to us, and it will take our collective will to unearth and reclaim them. What is clear is that those of us whose communities have embraced us as part of the sacred fabric of our community life have a responsibility to make room for others of us for whom the path has been wiped clear in the service of erasing our existence.
For those of you who are searching for your kin, we see so much of the parallel between this and the current political challenges to our sovereignty exemplified more recently by the Supreme Court and South Carolina courts' decision undermining the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). Many of us grew up in a time where native children who had been adopted into white families were returning en masse. Many only knew a last name or the name of one parent; there were ads in newspapers and people being introduced at pow-wows asking for anyone who might know who they were or how to find their blood family. There are many who never returned, and many who we hope find their way home still. Either way, there has and continues to be a disruption to culture and community for these families and individuals that is systematic and intentional.
We want to offer a broader vision and hope. We want to call you family. We want to be in community with you. We want to love and raise our children in our traditional and evolving ways. We want to find strength in each other. We want to throw our arms wide open and welcome you home. We dream of you, of black and brown folks who hold their indigenous identity as a place of sanctuary and solidarity with one another.
As Two-Sprit folks we are also witnessing and experiencing an evolutionary moment in our broader community. We have been part of the dialogue, and we have not been part of the dialogue, as we all emerge from different points on the spectrum, and we've experienced both the generosity of Two-Spirit community and the scarcity and contradictions inside it. We are a people who have fought for our shared narratives to be part of the consciousness and historical memory of who we are as people, as well as constantly running into the limitations set by our own fears and isolation, and a whitewashed culture that constantly seeks to appropriate our very lifeblood, as well as our most sacred beliefs. It is inside this context that we hope to elevate a conversation about what it means when we as people who have struggled with our own shame and erasure turn on each other with the same tools and tactics that white people have historically used against us. We've reflected on this and several other questions over the last few days: What does it mean when a handful of people seek to define the identities and therefore destinies of hundreds and thousands of people? What does it mean when we live in a culture that is all too willing to tokenize a visible few of us to be "model minorities," at the expense of the many of us who are considered to be too deviant, too poor, too slutty or not traditional enough? How do we build a movement that can fight for gender and sexual liberation, as well as racial justice and indigenous sovereignty? How do we unearth and honor the traditional ways of our ancestors and allow for our ever-evolving collective spiritual practices and consciousness to continue to bloom? What does it mean when Two-Spirit folks are willing to tolerate anti-black sentiments, transphobia and male supremacy in our own communities, and how does that inform whom we call our kin, who gets to be in leadership, and who gets to be a "legitimate" member? Can we become a community that can hold the history of over 500 tribal nations and thousands of different cultural and spiritual traditions?
We ask these questions because they're at the core of many of our own contradictions as a community, and because we are deeply invested in our collective transformation; we do not shy away from a healthy struggle about these questions. Instead, we invite our indigenous/Native American/mestizo LGBTQ family into it, because we do not believe our politics can be a matter of convenience, nor our claim for each other dependent on whom we can most relate to: those most like ourselves. We also want to celebrate with you as it would appear all of our years of work has created enough space that we have people coming home, many of whom we did not even know we were missing. That is beautiful. We invite you because in our heart of hearts, we believe we are the ones we've been waiting for; we have everything to gain and nothing to lose but our chains.
Coya White Hat-Artichoker is a Sicangu Lakota. Paulina Helm-Hernandez is a chicana mestiza.