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As violence against two-spirit individuals continues on indigenous tribal lands in North America, advocates hope their voices can be heard to prevent hate crimes against their people.
“Two-spirit” is a relatively new umbrella term, described as an English (or colonized) construct to identify indigenous gender-nonconforming people. The terminology has been reclaimed by Native American individuals and varies from tribe to tribe, though many had recognized third-gender roles long before colonization in America, according to the Human Rights Campaign — and gender non-conforming indigenous people were often revered in their respective communities, such as the Crow Nation.
Before western religion came to North America with far less fluid positions on sexuality — and then marginalized Native American culture — many two-spirit individuals were viewed as being blessed by their Creator for embodying both male and female spirits within them, according to Two-Spirit musician Tony Enos, writing for Indian Country Today.
Tracing the exact history of two-spirit people has proven difficult, however, as many of the writings on the subject today were written by early European settlers who held biased views.
“Imagine going from your nation where you’re a celebrated Two-Spirit individual, to a boarding school where you’re assigned your gender, with any pushback about it being beat out of you,” Enos explained. “For a lot of our boarding school survivors — and those who didn’t survive — that was their reality. As a result, there is still healing from much internalized socio-political stigma, phobia and lateral oppression to be done in the Two-Spirit community.”
Wako John Hawk Co-Cke’ is a retired certified prevention specialist for behavioral health in Oklahoma and identifies as transgender and two-spirited. They told Oxygen.com that the oppression of the two-spirit people has run through generations, affecting mental health today.
“The two-spirit culture had it right: We taught sexuality. We helped you with your gender identity. We helped you understand who you were. We were medicine people,” said Co-Cke’. “But because of the church tyranny and the government, we had to be buried with it. So we’re starting all over.”
Violent crime against two-spirit people has continued into modern times, as highlighted in the 2011 PBS documentary “Two Spirits.” The film revolved around the brutal 2001 murder of Navajo teen Fred Martinez, 16, whose bludgeoned body was found in a shallow canyon in Colorado, according to the Washington Post. The killer, Shaun Murphy, 18, did not know the teenager but bragged to friends afterwards that he'd “beat up a f**.”
Martinez was “nádleehí,” which described him as a “male-bodied person with a feminine nature,” in accordance with Navajo culture. The direct translation in his tribe stood for “one who constantly transforms,” according to the documentary.
Murphy confessed to beating Martinez to death with what investigators believed was a rock and was sentenced to 40 years behind bars in 2002, according to The Journal. He was released on parole in 2018.
Violence also marked the life of Aubrey Dameron, 25, who disappeared from her Grove, Oklahoma home in the Cherokee Nation in the early morning hours of March 9, 2019.
Dameron referred to herself as a two-spirit and faced backlash for her lifestyle, which was a factor in why authorities didn’t prioritize her disappearance, relatives claim. The local sheriff regularly brought up Dameron’s “unique” and “high-risk” lifestyle, as well as Aubrey being “very sexually active” — even in interviews with Oxygen.com.
Dameron’s aunt, Pam Smith, told Oxygen.com that her disappearance was “heartbreak, over and over.”
“It meant the world for Aubrey to be part of the two-spirit community,” said Smith. “She embraced it more each time she learned more about herself.”
Searches for Dameron have resulted in several cadaver dogs hitting on a tarp in a shed at her home and the discovery of bloody clothes in a nearby ditch. Still, she has yet to be found.
“There is hope we will have answers one day,” Smith added.
The 2017 stabbing death of Jamie Lee Wounded Arrow also rocked the indigenous and LGBTQ+ communities. Wounded Arrow, who identified as two-spirited, was found dead in her Sioux Falls, South Dakota, apartment after neighbors complained of the smell of body decomposition, according to the Argus Leader.
Wounded Arrow met her killer, Joshua LeClaire, at a halfway house. In his police interviews, LeClaire wavered between claiming he was blackout drunk and did not remember the murder, to claiming Wounded Arrow made unwanted sexual advances on him.
He was convicted in Wounded Arrow's murder and sentenced to 65 years in prison.
According to the Tribal Information Exchange, 78% of two-spirit women have experienced physical assault, while 85% have been sexually assaulted. Studies revealed this was four times higher than the estimate of women in the general population.
And yet, many two-spirit individuals do not report their assaults.
The Tribal Information Exchange also cited a 2011 study by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, showing that 56% of two-spirit participants had attempted suicide.
Murder continues to be the third leading cause of death among Native American women, according to the Urban Indian Health Institute.
Co-Cke’ told Oxygen.com that unification is imperative to restore peace to the two-spirit community.
“We have to stop all this stuff,” Co-Cke’ told Oxygen.com. “We have to be a human nation. We have to be the rainbow nation. We’ve got to be together.”
“Silence is the worst,” they added.
To learn more about the two-spirit community, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) regularly hosts several webinars, including resources on parenting and wellness within the two-spirit community.
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