TThe last time Fochik Hashtali * spoke with her close friend Poe Jackson, she was telling her about her plans to start a transgender mental health group in Slab City, a section of Southern California known for its squatter community.
It was a Saturday night in April and the 21-year-old, who identified himself as Two Spirit, a term typically used to distinguish members of the native LGBTQ + community, had just moved to the area, according to Hashtali.
After a Tennessee childhood spent dealing with poverty and bullying, he had traveled to camp in hopes of being accepted for who he was, Hashtali explained. Jackson, a descendant of Wyandot, told Hashtali that he wanted to help people heal, “make art, calm down, talk about trauma in a healthy way.”
A month later, police recovered Jackson’s body from the Coachella Canal, near Slab City, and ruled his death a homicide.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Hashtali said.
“It was like a derailed train. I cried myself to sleep that night. “
Violence against the native LGBTQ + and Two-Spirit community is prevalent. It stems from the union of hetero-patriarchal violence and racism to put the community at high risk. And yet it remains largely overlooked.
The Sovereign Bodies Institute and the California Rural Indian Health Board released a report this month highlighting the problem in California, which has more people of Native American or Alaska Native heritage than any other state in the U.S., according to the most recent census.
The report found that of the 18 respondents who identified as LGBTQ2 natives, 60% experienced domestic violence and 40% experienced child abuse. But perhaps most alarmingly, nearly everyone had experienced sexual assault and nearly 90% had experienced two or more forms of violence.
“We know that natives are subjected to violence due to racial stereotypes, the jurisdictional complexities that in a general culture of lawlessness is created when law enforcement agencies fail to respond meaningfully to crimes against natives,” said Annita Lucchesi, descendant de Cheyenne and founding executive director of the Sovereign Bodies Institute.
“On top of that, law enforcement agencies especially can be a good boys club and can be very hyper-masculine, and they are not necessarily spaces that are going to be welcoming, safe or supportive for people of different genders and sexual identities, “she added.
Comprehensive research and data on the subject are extremely limited. Lucchesi said there are few safe spaces for community members to share their experiences, as well as homophobia and transphobia that are embedded in victim services, law enforcement and even data collection.
In SBI’s own work, repeated requests for data from state and county agencies, as well as law enforcement, were not honored.“Really, the only people who could talk about indigenous experiences of violence were the queer indigenous people themselves,” he said.
Violence against the native LGBTQ2 community in the US has been around for hundreds of years.
Historically, many tribes were known not only for accepting and respecting this community, but also for honoring its members. Some had their own distinct language identity terms.
But colonization changed that way of thinking. The report explains that “European colonizers worked to erase indigenous ideas of LGBTQ2 identities, community roles and traditional responsibilities to undermine the cohesion and strength of indigenous communities.”
The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, the largest survey focused on the trans community, found that 65% of the 319 respondents who identified as American Indian or Alaska Native reported being sexually assaulted. It also found that 60% were denied equal treatment, were verbally harassed and / or physically assaulted in the past year.
In Oklahoma, for example, the Aubrey Dameron case has spread throughout the Native community. The trans woman and member of the Cherokee Nation who dreamed of becoming a news reporter or singer has been missing for more than two years.
Her aunt, Pam Smith, said the then 25-year-old reportedly left her mother’s home early in the morning to meet someone and has not been heard from since. She said that she is convinced that something bad happened to Dameron because she is trans.
“It’s hard to keep the hope alive that, you know, they’ll find her alive,” he said.
When the family initially reported her missing, Smith said she remembers being told by a Delaware County Sheriff’s Office police officer who was in charge of the case that they did not believe she was missing. When asked why she reportedly said it was due to her “lifestyle,” which Smith took as a reference to her being trans.
“It hasn’t been handled well at all,” Smith said. “I think she was, you know, ignored, because she’s trans, she’s native.”
The sheriff’s office declined to answer any questions about the case and instead forwarded all requests to the FBI. An FBI spokesperson said in an email, “out of respect for the ongoing investigation, we will continue to refrain from commenting on its substance.”
Dr. Roger Kuhn, an enrolled member of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians who identifies himself as Two Spirit Indigiqueer, is a professor in the department of American Indian studies at San Francisco State University, said he believes it is impossible to talk about the experience of LGBTQ2 natives without also talking about violence.
“I don’t know if I know a Two Spirit person who has not experienced some type of violence based on their identity,” he said.
In Kuhn’s own life, he said he remembers his father, who is white, hitting him as a child and making him feel ashamed of his native identity, and being bullied at school for his sexuality. As an adult living in the Bay Area, he said they still call it homophobic slurs.
“When those violent acts happen to me, I always think of it as, ‘wow, this is happening to me as a Two Spirit person.’ I don’t separate this and think, ‘Oh, is it just because I’m gay or is it just because I’m a native,’ “he said. “No, it is happening because I am both. And it’s happening because people don’t understand it. “
But in recent years there have been signs of positive change, according to Andrew Jolivétte, a mixed Ishak Louisiana Creole who serves as chair of the department of ethnic studies at the University of California, San Diego.
He said he has noticed that more tribal communities established Pride Awareness Month, celebrating what it means to be Two Spirit and really trying to protect the community. He set the example of the Tohono O’odham Nation in Arizona, which earlier this month established June as Pride Awareness Month.
At the city level, Kuhn highlighted the annual Two Spirits Powwow of the American Indians of the Bay Area. With the goal of celebrating the people of the Two Spirits and increasing visibility, 5,000 people were seen virtually attending the event in February.
Kuhn said participating in these types of events and spreading awareness about the community is about healing and transformation.
He said, “It’s about taking those stories of violence and transforming them into, ‘OK, how we have survived and how we can thrive.’
* Fochik Hashtali is a pseudonym