CNAY Visits Akwesasne Mohawk Community

In September 2017, CNAY staff visited the Akwesasne Mohawk community in northern New York to explore existing and potential supports for the local Two-Spirit community. Josie and Amber met with community members, service providers, and two of CNAY’s Two Spirit Project Advisory Panel (PAP) Members to gather varying perspectives on what is needed to support LGBTQIA+ Native youth.

The visit began with a meeting at the Akwesasne Family Wellness Program, where staff highlighted the literature, services, and community events established to support Two-Spirit communities, their families, and allies. With funding from the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, U.S. and Canadian federal agencies, and the state of New York, the program has demonstrated its support of the Two-Spirit community by funding films and screenings, hosting events to educate the community about Native LGBTQIA+ identities and allyship, and sponsoring LGBTQIA+ speakers and entertainers to visit and share their message. The program also worked with Akwesasne TV to produce the Open and Out documentary, featuring out Two-Spirit community members.

Many of the Wellness Program’s resources focus on destigmatizing LGBTQIA+ identities. The program holds Safe Zone trainings to teach community members to be supportive of Two-Spirit relatives.

In the evening, PAP member Olivia Cook assembled a group of Two-Spirit youth and allies for a fireside presentation on Two-Spirit identities delivered by fellow PAP member Harlan Pruden. Harlan is a leading scholar in Two-Spirit identities, studying historical photos and texts to discover traditional cultural and spiritual roles of Two-Spirit peoples.

Harlan explained that Two-Spirit is an organizing term for Native people who identify somewhere along the LGBTQIA+ spectrum and are indigenous to Turtle Island. He shared that based on his research, each tribe historically used a specific word to refer to Two-Spirit people, and that Two-Spirit people had very specific spiritual and cultural roles to fulfill. Theirs was a sacred place in society.

The work of today’s LGBTQIA+ youth who are trying to reconnect to Two-Spirit identity is to speak to elders, do their own research, find the word in their language that describes their Two-Spirit roles, and accept the responsibility that comes with serving their communities in that way. Conversely, the role of the community is to support these young people in assuming those responsibilities as spiritual and cultural leaders. Youth at the potluck expressed that they want more opportunities to incorporate Harlan’s teachings about Two-Spirit identities into larger conversations about cultural and language revitalization.

“Discrimination against Two-Spirit people is a result of colonization,” says Harlan. “Historically, Indigenous peoples did not throw our Two-Spirit relatives away. It’s time to call them back to the circle.”

ON the final day of the visit, CNAY toured Salmon River High School and met with Superintendent Dr. Stanly Harper. Dr. Harper is a champion of inclusivity who fully supports the implementation of Safe Zones in schools and practices a zero-tolerance policy for bullying and discrimination among students, faculty and administrators. Dr. Harper shared stories of how he and his staff have gone above and beyond to support youth who are coming into their LGBTQIA+ identities, noting the care with which the faculty educate students and families alike.

We also met with Ktsitsionni Fox, Title VII Director and Mohawk Cultural Specialist for Salmon River Schools. Ktsitsionni teaches her students how to use multimedia tools to explore their identities and share their stories so that they promote positive narratives about Indigenous youth. Ktsitsionni is a cultural leader with close ties to young people in the community.

Finally, CNAY met with leaders from the community’s Rites of Passage ceremony for Mohawk teens. Two-Spirit youth and families are working with community elders and those who lead ceremonies to become more open to young people who want to participate, but do not identify with binary gender roles. Leaders are creating pathways for these youth by adjusting Long House protocols to accommodate their participation.

For more photos from this CNAY community outreach visit, check out our Akwesasne Facebook photo album.

This post contributed by Amber Richardson.