LGBT Issues as Sovereignty Issues
Alfred Walking Bull
On Feb. 14, The Huffington Post ran an article about North Dakota’s legislature failing to pass a LGBT anti-discrimination bill. And so, for our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgenderbrothers and sisters to the north, employment can be terminated on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, perceived or otherwise.
One might ask how an injustice like this can be permitted to happen in this day and age. If the comments on the story – from whom I’m assuming are liberals – are any indication, this injustice happens because we get complacent about political landscapes or because we’re reactive and lazy as politically-inclined people. Either prospect is alarming because it means we’ve accepted that progress comes slowly or not at all for certain states in the union.
The question I ask, though, is should we tolerate that kind of attitude? And how can we help to foster relationships that can help in terms of educating minds and building a sustainable fund to assist those candidates and committees dedicated to fostering social justice for those of us not yet protected under the law. One would say that Democrats or LGBT organizations hold the monopoly on fostering progress in America. However, that assessment would be wrong.
The North Dakota legislator, Rep. Josh Boschee (Dist. 44), who introduced the anti-discrimination bill was not financially backed by the Stonewall Democrats, the LGBT element of the Democratic Party at large. To add to that oversight, even in regional Congressional races, the pattern is one that reinforces a capitulation. According to a Federal Elections Commission report, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee contributed $52 in in-kind Internet development to the 2012 Democratic challenger for South Dakota’s lone house seat, MattVarilek.
So, that begs the question, how does progress come? Not all of us can afford to run campaign ads to foster progress. Not all of us have the qualifications or desire to run for public office. But that line of thinking only validates a complacency that one has to be in elected office or running for elected office to make a change in public policy. All we have to do is simply open up a dialogue with our friends and neighbors about progress. And yes, it takes a certain fortitude to meet someone who might have prejudices they consider entirely justified; but it doesn’t remove our responsibility to speak out when we see injustice committed.
The late Christopher Hitchens wrote, “Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence.” That mindset is one I’ve tried to keep in mind anytime I hear a prejudice or see an imbalance in the subjugation of one group of people for the sake of another. As indigenous people, it’s one that we must all adopt in our daily lives.
LGBT issues relate in Indian Country just as readily as they do in the rest of American society. Historically, we’ve always had a place for LGBT people. In modern life, those tribes that have embraced their LGBT people refer to them as two spirits. In Lakota Country, on the whole, we have yet to come to actively embrace our LGBT people. We can credit a great deal of this discomfort toward colonization, particularly in Christianity. When our ancestors converted – whether voluntarily or by force or coercion – we left that part of ourselves in the past and it’s only now starting to reemerge as an understood identity in our society.
There’s a lot of change that still needs to happen. The prevailing attitude toward LGBT people in Lakota Country ranges from love and compassion toward mild disgust. Part of that disgust is rooted in religion, but most of it – I have found – is rooted in the myths of gender identity in Lakota society. Over the years, we’ve allowed ourselves to fall prey to the romantic ideals of what it is to be Native men and Native women. But, with the reclamation of culture comes that point where we have to confront our own prejudices and make the effort to understand them and how to overcome them.
When it comes to LGBT Natives, tribal law is largely silent on the issue of equality under the law. Regarding marriage equality, only two tribes in the United States have legalized marriage for same-sex couples; the first was the Coquille Tribe in Oregon in 2008 and the second and most recent was the Suquamish Tribe in Washington in 2011. Other tribes, most notably the Navajo Nation have taken an active stance on fostering injustice and inequality for its LGBT citizens, including the Cherokee Nation, Sault Ste. Marie Tribe, Chickasaw Nation, Muscogee Creek Nation and the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma.
It’s a sad truth that a majority of tribal nations would rather look at this as an issue that offends them rather than empowers them to exercise their sovereignty. With federal law directly applicable on Indian reservations, it would be an interesting turn of events to see tribes rise up, declare their acceptance of their LGBT citizens by passing legislation acknowledging our rights as being equal. Then the federal government would have to seriously discuss its continued discrimination against LGBT Americans when even the first nations on this continent recognize the equal rights and protections under the law.
That would be the ultimate goal, if Indian Country took steps to exercising its sovereignty in meaningful ways. To stand up and tell our tenants that equality is something practiced by its landlords. As with any broad movement, it is something that requires time, planning and leadership; which requires active and unashamed openness about LGBT issues.
Every LGBT Native should take this time of movements toward tribal sovereignty, environmental stewardship, domestic protections to raise their voice and remind all leadership, tribal, state and federal, that we are citizens of three governments and require unlimited access to legal rights and protections of all three. It needs to happen in this generation because, as we see in North Dakota, our battles are won or lost not by those in power, but by those who show up to bear witness to justice.
Alfred Walking Bull is a citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in Rosebud, S.D. where he works and lives with his family. He is a graduate of the 2002 American Indian Journalism Institute in Vermillion, S.D. He was a political organizer from 2006 to 2012, most recently on his home reservation for Native Vote, a nonpartisan campaign initiated by the National Congress of American Indians.