November is observed across the United States as Native American Heritage Month. In this interview with History Happens, GLBT Historical Society board member J. Miko Thomas offers perspectives on the importance of Two-Spirit heritage for both LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ people. “Two Spirit” is a notion shared among many Native American tribes that describes individuals who feel they naturally manifest both masculine and feminine spiritual qualities.
Thomas is a former co-chair of Bay Area American Indian Two Spirits, an organization committed to activism and service to Two-Spirit and ally communities of the Bay Area. Thomas first became involved with LGBTQ and Native American organizing at the University of Oklahoma, then served in the U.S. Navy before settling in San Francisco. A Chickasaw writer, musician, artist and activist, Thomas is renowned for performing as the larger-than-life Landa Lakes. Among the honors Thomas has received are the New York Fresh Fruit Festival Performance Award and the KQED LGBT Local Hero Award.
What are some of the essential messages of Native American Heritage Month?
A Native identity comes from culture. It’s not just the genealogical fabric and the stories that you are told; it’s a living, breathing, vibrant community. We have survived for half a millennium against the odds of genocide, diseases unknown to us and oppression — but we are still resilient.
Why does Two-Spirit history matter for both LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ people?
Two-Spirit history is important for both LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ people because it gives us a sense that our ancestors respected all members of the community. For many Native people growing up, they can be unaware of the history that has existed for us. Learning about this history gives us a feeling of connectedness.
For non-Natives, Two-Spirit history informs them that LGBTQ people have existed here before what they think of as the start of gay history with the Stonewall Riots in 1969. And maybe it will inspire them to look not only into the history of Natives, but also into the tapestry of the many gay rights pioneers that were queer before it was “cool.”
How can Two-Spirit histories be acknowledged and preserved for future generations?
The GLBT Historical Society and the community at large can help support Two-Spirit histories by giving us space. So many times, Native people are overlooked except when it comes to saying a prayer. There is more substance to us than just our spiritual side. The analogy that we want a space at the table is only a part of it; we also want to be heard.
I think people are surprised to learn that Native people had cultures that were accepting of Two Spirits because they think of Natives only in terms of the two-dimensional characters in cowboy movies. They’re missing the real meat of our culture, which says that everyone has a place and everyone is welcome.
Nalini Elias serves as program manager for the GLBT Historical Society.
NOTE: In collaboration with Bay Area American Indian Two Spirits, the GLBT Historical Society has organized a series of programs focused on the Two-Spirit experience. For the full list, see Upcoming Events below.