Freedom is a modern right, but it’s not always universally applied. In the case of Ty Defoe, a performance artist, Grammy Award-winning musician, and educator, freedom in 2016 entails the right to perform, cross state lines, and legally transition. Defoe lives in New York, but grew up in northern Wisconsin immersed in the Ojibwe and Oneida traditions of his parents. Still, it took time for him to identify as two-spirit, a pan-native term used to describe gender fluidity, variance from traditional masculine or feminine physicality and performance, or, more broadly, queerness.
An instinctive search for an identity other than trans makes Defoe a unique witness to liberty’s limits. “People don't even think about native peoples even though we're on the land,” Defoe said, over the phone. “Because our culture was taken away, there’s no one to ask about what two-spirit is or how we define it.” You might say that Defoe’s identity — political, social, spiritual — is defined by a kind of unfreedom. To be native and two-spirit in America in 2016 is to inhabit fraught territory, geographically and physically. Defoe talked about what it’s like to be transgendered in the States, and two-spirit on Turtle Island.
Did you grow up in the city or on a reservation?
TY DEFOE: I grew up in my culture, speaking the language, and going to the roundhouse every weekend with my mom. I started hoop dancing when I could walk. The hoop dance grounded me in heritage, family, and ritual, and that’s something I carry with me today: even as an artist and writer, and as a two-spirit person too. Reservations are on gorgeous, beautiful land, but they are also places of triggers and historic trauma, so hoop dancing was my saving grace in terms of passing culture on to the future. All of these stories and traditions were lost [during colonization of the Americas] but now, like lots of people of color in the U.S., we are beginning to ask about the nuances within our culture. When we can name things, we can speak truth to power.
When did you first encounter the concept of two-spirit, and why did you decide to identify as such?
Coming out as two-spirit was quite challenging because in Western society, the word for me is transgender — I would be a transgender male. But that kind of implies going from one gender to the next, and I was like, “No, I think there's something else.” So I went and asked my family and elders and, of course, no one had a very specific answer. When our culture was taken away, ideas like this were called “devil-worshipping.”
Literally, being two-spirit is identifying as native or indigenous, and then your spirit is all-encompassing of gender and sexual orientation at the same time. As a kid I was more interested in tending the fire and learning drum songs, which men do, than cleaning the cedar. There were stories I’d heard, like one about a woman who was a grass dancer, which is a healing dance done by males. I’d wonder, “Does that take away the power or spirit she put into that dance?” I have mobilized my transition [from female to male] to move in Western circles, so these stories feel like special moments. Asking questions about my culture helped me on my path.
Did you find any answers?
Right now, [for two-spirit people] there's a period of re-identifying and trying to figure out how we keep this society alive. There are actually some two-spirit elders, who have come out, who were in the [American Indian] boarding schools. They weren't allowed to speak the language, their hair got cut, they weren’t able to express any kind of sexual identity or role other than what they looked like. Because of that interaction with Western society and homophobia, a lot of people have been kicked out of homes or run away to cities. So we’re all finding each other, especially because of the internet. There are ways for us to connect in order to survive and live. We’re all figuring it out together.
When we can name things, we can speak truth to power.
Where does the concept of trans fit within a native context?
One thing that was really difficult was explaining the medication, like hormones, to my family. They were like, “Why do you need to take this medicine from a culture that isn't ours to change how you look on the outside to others?” That's a completely valid concern, absolutely. For me, I'm trying to do this kind of work and I need to express myself on the outside how I see myself to make it easier for me to walk in life.
Are you seeing an internal shift take place?
Times are changing, and new elders are coming and taking positions of leadership and power. Culture is evolving and I feel like it’s always been that way, so that we as an entire people can survive. It's kind of like when the Pope addresses gay marriage. There are new — I don't know want to say rules, but there are new moral ethics being discussed in lodges. But, sadly, there's a high suicide rate of indigenous people, and an even higher suicide rate with queer indigenous people. That's because of straight-up homophobia and transphobia. There's this assumption with native people that we know our traditions — you know, there’s this exotification of sweat lodges and ceremonies. But many things have been taken away from native folks and that affects this nuanced thing of being two-spirit. Also, women are constantly left out of being two-spirit, in part, because of how HIV/AIDS affected men in the ’80s. There are no pictures. Two-spirit does not mean gay man.
Where do two-spirit societies fit within America’s mainstream LGBTQ movement?
There are smaller organizations who are ‘woke’ out West — definitely not as much on the East Coast because of the timeline of history. It's very much colonized. But if you go out to Oregon or California, certain LGBTQ centers are working with two-spirit societies. There’s the Western State Center in Portland that’s putting together a toolkit to talk about two-spirit identity and what that is. There are smaller communities doing things like this, too, but the history books are written by white cisgendered men, so there’s a lot of unlearning and decolonizing of the body and mind to do.
But people have been doing it in their own way for a long time. In the ’80s, our indigenous men were passing away from HIV and AIDS and we needed to come together for healing. There was funding for that so people were able to meet and talk about community organizing. I think allies and LGBTQ centers can be huge and make more of an effort, if they're not already, about a call to action, recognizing two-spirit as part of the longer acronym, their resources, or partnering with a local two-spirit society. We don't have to reinvent wheels: things exist, and if we partnered, we could make a difference.
And is there room for two-spirit people within contemporary native activism?
The youth are really bringing it. I taught a performance class at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with people aged 18 to 56. Everyone went by the pronoun “they” despite their gender expression — it was like we were practicing with each other about being fluid. We have to practice this, even in small ways, because if we don't foster an inclusive community, youth will go away from the culture. Because LGBTQ people are already oppressed and have been marginalized, the work ethic and standard has to be overcompensated for. Those folks are building bridges, creating communities, and making people feel uncomfortable. They're trying to say, “Hey, you know what? There wasn't a space for me before, but move over. There's a space for me in the circle.”