I sat next to David Herrera and Steven Barrios of the Montana Two Spirit Society during a lunch presentation at USCA. I took the opportunity to ask Herrera to tell us about his organization and about the nature of Two Spirit, and also explore the contradictory ideas that while Two Spirit people have a high social standing in Native cultures, they also experience discrimination from other Native people.

Enid Vázquez

“We provide education about Two Spirit culture and increase understanding of two spirit ceremonies,” said Herrera. “We help educate Two Spirit people and the larger community about a culture that was systematically eradicated by colonization. We work to reclaim our place in the sacred circle because without our Two Spirit people, that circle is not complete.

“Two Spirit individuals encompass both the masculine and the feminine and so were able to walk in both worlds. They historically had different roles, such as name givers, medicine people, or negotiators, depending on the tribe.”

I asked about the people who say they feel afraid to come out as gay or Two Spirit in their Native communities.

“That’s the influence of colonization,” Herrera said. “Two Spirit people—gay, lesbian, and transgender—were revered before the missionaries came and the government started colonizing the land and moving tribes to reservations. They saw men dressing as women and women dressing as warriors and labeled it an abomination and a perversion. Families were separated and children were sent to boarding schools. They were forced to dress as the sex they were assigned at birth. Boys were forced to have their hair cut to reflect their gender and girls had to wear dresses.”

The Montana Two Spirit Society celebrates its 25th annual Montana Two Spirit Gathering next year. In February, the Society will participate in the BAAITS Two-Spirit Powwow (organized by the Bay Area American Indian Two Spirits association), the largest Two Spirit powwow in the nation and in July, will take part in an indigenous HIV conference running alongside the International AIDS Conference in Oakland.