An Open Letter to Native Youth

Dear Native Youth:

I came out as gay when I was 16 years old in 1998 when the top songs were “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” by Will Smith and “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion, among other notable hits. And I thought I was very cool because I had a mini disc player instead of a Walkman, iPods were still a few years away. 

Although the late 90’s feels like a long time ago to me now, it actually wasn’t. And I can’t believe how much has changed since then for the LGBTQ community. While there’s still so much our nation needs to do to achieve equality for all the identities that make up our community, it’s a much more inclusive community today than it was then. Back then, the power in the movement was largely driven by gay white men. We had a lot of internal struggles with truly listening to and supporting trans people, and Black and Brown people were marginalized and told to “wait their turn” for rights as LGBTQ people. 

This month, I’ve been reflecting a lot on what the word “pride” means to me. In our tribal communities across the country, I see so much pride, especially among our young leaders. We are proud because our people have been through so much, but our culture and the wisdom of our elders has been the source of our strength. Native youth leaders know this and are working hard to learn these lessons and build new movements and initiatives that give strength to their generation.  This is true pride. 

I think today’s LGBTQ community has so much to learn from Indigenous people and what makes us proud. As with language, songs, and other cultural practices, Native LGBTQ and Two Spirit youth are working to understand the traditional roles that they played in their own cultures. Even those Native youth who don’t identify this way are prioritizing these communities in their broader struggles for Indigenous rights. This embrace of these complex identities is what our modern movement needs. 

As a young Nakoda person living in the Seattle far from our homelands in Canada, I struggled to understand what my role would have been in our culture and I’m still on that journey. Western colonists took so much from us through boarding schools, relocation, and other culturally destructive systems. Like language and other cultural practices, we lost so much knowledge about the roles of Two Spirit people. But our young leaders are rebuilding this knowledge every day.

This pride month, I hope you will reflect on what makes you proud of who you are. The culture you come from and how you identify in that culture matters. Whether you’re straight, cisgendered, non-binary, queer, Two Spirit, or LGBT—you are also Indigenous. Be proud of your ancestors and all the important roles and responsibilities they held for their communities. You are supported and loved by all of us who have committed our lives to advocating for our Nations and our people.  

Erik Stegman Carry the Kettle First Nation Nakoda,
Executive Director of Native Americans in Philanthropy