So there has been a lot of media coverage, legislation and political turmoil surrounding same-sex marriage lately. The controversy surrounding Prop 8, as well as gay marriage wins across the nation, have made the issue a front-page affair and daily fodder for much of America.
It seems I can't click on cnn.com but every other day without finding a news story in the arena of same-sex marriage. I sit quietly and read about folks like David Parker of Lexington, MA, or Brian Camenker of Waltham, MA, or the heretical Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church, who in all of their supernatural wisdom have such self-loathing that they actually exert all of their available energy on the oppression of their fellow man.
Then I click a different link and read stories from across Indian Country with such contrasting views. Navajo anthropologist Wesley Thomas claims that gay men and women were part of the norm in traditional Navajo life (basically before Anglos descended upon our ancestral lands), but Navajo tribal council delegate Larry Anderson disagrees - so much so, that he introduced legislation in Navajoland that prohibits same-sex marriage. The legislation passed in 2005, was vetoed by the tribal president, and then that veto was subsequently overturned by the tribal council, so ultimately same-sex marriage is still prohibited on the Navajo Nation.
Similarly, the Cherokee Nation went through turmoil in regards to same-sex marriage. Cherokee historian David Cornsilk expressed viewpoints matching those of the Navajo anthropologist, that gay men and women were revered in traditional tribal society. Todd Hembree, Cherokee tribal attorney, argued however that Cherokee society does not and has not ever tolerated homosexual relationships. It is important to note that in both of the cases outlined above, strong anthropological and archeological proof actually supports the existence and previous acceptance of same-sex relationships, including marriage. Anthropological evidence also shows that homophobia was not present in most American Indian tribes until after contact with Christian and other missionaries.
I am not Navajo. I am not Cherokee. I am not an anthropologist, an archeologist, an attorney, a tribal council member, or a person of any authority whatsoever when it comes to the philosophical, theological and political practices of my own tribe or any other tribe. I am Mandan, though. I am Arikara. I am Plains Indian. And, quite frankly, I am frustrated. I am not coming at this from a political angle, but rather a cultural one.
American Indians were nearly annihilated by Western settlers. We underwent hundreds of years of genocide, repeated massacres, and poisoning from the introduction of alcohol, nicotine, meth amphetamines, and European diseases - for all of which our bodies had no natural defense capabilities. As a nation, though, we survived. We persevered. Though we lost many a battle over the last 500 years, we have never lost the war and are still fighting - not just to survive, but to thrive.
So why would we adopt western ideologies - the same ideologies that for centuries permitted the murder of Indian women and children because as savages they possessed no souls - that fly in the face of everything our grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great grandparents and great-great-great grandparents fought to protect. Have we even stopped to consider how many generations - both past and future - we are betraying??
I speak not as a learned scholar, not as an elected official, but as one man who has literally dozens of great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents who were born on this American land, generations before the great-great grandparents of the President of the United States, the Vice-President, the Speaker of the House, or any other sons and daughters of the Daughters of the American Revolution even knew that this entire continent existed. How dare you come to this mother, pillage her womb, rape and murder her children, then presume to place laws upon us that conform to your traditions of disrespect, vulgarity and absolute sacrilege. Worse yet, how dare we, as strong Indian people, form allies with these unhallowed beings and use their weapons of mass destruction on our own people??
The old ones where I come from tell of life before contact with western society. For them, it wasn't that far back. My grandma was born in a place that no longer exists (the government flooded it in the 1950's to get rid of the Indians and usurp the natural resources), where many people had never even seen a white person. My grandma didn't have to learn English until she was sent off to school (for a brief intro on this topic, type "American Indian boarding schools" into google). The stories that I hear my grammas tell are the stories that were told to them by their grammas, women who lived before the Great White Father (a.k.a. the U.S. President, who is now the Great Half-White Father) even knew what lay west of the Mississippi River.
There is a re-occurring theme that runs through each and every one of those stories that they tell. It's a theme that calls for mutual respect and consideration of all that exists, not merely all that is man and that looks and acts exactly like we do. The old ones back home tell stories, stories of the wi'neke - the gay people. These stories talk about the role of LGBT people in our society thousands of years before the murderous Christopher Columbus ever set sail on a ship.
The way that gay people are described in these stories isn't much in line with the romanticized versions that I hear from other LGBT natives from other tribes. Sometimes their stories give the impression that gay people were given an elevated role in tribal society simply because of their sexual orientation, and I think this does a disservice to all sides. I can't speak for their people, but I know that for my people nobody was elevated or degraded in society based solely on their sexual orientation.
LGBT people did play a prominent role in the tribe, however, as afforded by unique abilities and understandings. Depending on the individual, as a gay person "back in the days" you might have been the local governess, the one to foster orphans or care for the infirmed, you might have had a calling as an exceptionally powerful root doctor (a little lesson for all you non-Indians out there, there is no such thing as an "Indian Shaman" - sorry to burst your bubble), or you might just be a warrior who happens to kick ass in a dress.
Talk to the old people, you will find out that there were actually some very brave warriors who identified as gay but who traveled and fought with war parties. Legend even has it that one famous Lakota leader would never take out a war party without his trusted right-hand winkte-warrior (winkte is the Lakota word for gay) by his side. Wi'neke were given the same responsibilities and expectations and afforded every right and privilege enjoyed by any other member of the village, including matrimony. Some even underwent a ceremony for gender reassignment, if they were so inclined. These are the stories that the old ones tell, and they are the stories that the evidence left behind by our grandmothers and grandfathers of long ago also tells.
If the great United States ultimately decides to disallow same-sex marriage, or even to disallow homosexuality (though how they'll enforce that, I don't even wanna know!), we have to leave that choice to them as their prerogative. As Indian people, though, we have a responsibility. WE are the stewards of this land and its people. From the day we are born, whether we haven't a drop of non-Indian blood in our veins or we only have the tiniest drop of Indian blood in our veins, we are charged with caring for this Earth and all of its inhabitants. Unlike whites, blacks, asians, arabs, jews, muslims, hindus, swahilis or any other of the multitude of peoples that inhabit this Earth, we don't have the right to deny compassion. If those people choose to live that way, to spread degradation and disease like nobody's business, well that is something they will have to answer for someday. For us to follow suit is not even an option; today is the day that we are responsible to our Creator - today and every day.
So in the end my message is this: 1. Prejudice and discrimination do not conform to the traditional values that American Indian tribes adhere to; 2. Whether or not you or anyone else likes to speak about it, the fact is that same-sex marriage was permitted in America before the pilgrims ever even got to taste a turkey, much less establish a tradition of Butterballs and chardonnay; 3. LGBT Indians were not despised or esteemed, in the Mandan tribe at least, based on their sexual orientation. Many earned positions of esteem through their works and character, but all were afforded the same rights and duties of every other tribal member; and 4. If you actually read this far then you have WAY too much time on your hands - craigslist has an employment section - use it to get a real job instead of one where you can read blogs all day long... ;-)
As always, with much love and respect.