How these two-spirit Indigenous activists took their fight to the White House—and finally found acceptance


Hundreds of Native American protesters filled the streets of Washington D.C. on Friday as the Dakota Access Pipeline, some 1500 miles away, inched closer to completion.

Although Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairman David Archambault II has said that the tribe will continue to challenge the pipeline even after it begins pumping oil next week, it seems unlikely at this point that it will be stopped. But for many of these protesters, and in particular for the young two-spirit leaders who have emerged out of these months of protest, Friday’s march was about more than just this one pipeline. “Two-spirit” is how many Native American LGBTQ people identify in terms of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

“We’ve had a few setbacks but we’re showing here that we’re not done, we haven’t been defeated,” said Layha Spoonhunter, 26. His glasses and hair were dripping from freezing rain turning to snow as the march traveled from the Army Corps. of Engineers’ headquarters to the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue and finally to the square in front of the White House. He identifies as two-spirit, and belongs to the Northern Arapaho, Eastern Shoshone, and Oglala Lakota tribes.

Spoonhunter and a group of emerging Native American leaders are part of the International Indigenous Youth Council, and have been at Standing Rock over the past year. They are young representatives of their tribes and many of them are also two-spirit. Their march to the White House was the culmination of a year of demonstrations, lawsuits, and perhaps the most intensive media attention any Indigenous issue has received in the United States in several decades.

The Trump administration made it a priority to push the pipeline through. Construction is expected to be completed as early as next week on the pipeline, designed to carry light, sweet crude oil some 1,172 miles from the oil fields of North Dakota through South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois.

And in the course of the months of sub-zero temperatures and clashes with police in North Dakota, Spoonhunter and others told me, two-spirit youth found in each other a sense of community and acceptance that they had never experienced before.

“For the first time many two-spirit youth were allowed to be themselves, really. They were in a camp that accepted it. They were in a camp that allowed people to love who they love,” said Spoonhunter. “Seeing more two-spirit youth join the movement really means a lot, that we’re not alone now. Before, there used to be just a few Two Spirit youth who used to be the vocal ones, but now there’s a lot.”

He said there were at least 50 two-spirit people marching on Friday, and many more he’d connected with over the months at Standing Rock.

Eryn Wise, 26, who is Jicarilla Apache and Laguna Pueblo, told me in the lead-up to the march that being a role model for other young Indigenous people was crucial to her. On Friday, marching through downtown D.C. towards Pennsylvania Avenue, she reflected on Standing Rock as a turning point for her as a leader, and a two-spirit woman.

“More than I think 80% of our youth council is two-spirit,” she said. “Our youth council normalized it. It was very good for people to see the youth being unapologetic for who they are. It’s not just one tribe we’re fighting for, it’s all our rights as Indigenous people.”

Standing with Standing Rock has taken sacrifices from all of these activists. Wise quit her job at a rehabilitation center in Phoenix. Spoonhunter left his parents’ home in Wyoming and put his plans for a college degree on hold.

But coming together has been a formative moment in their lives. For some, speaking out against the Dakota Access Pipeline was a moment of clarity–a catalyst that propelled them further towards leadership in their communities.

Thomas Tonatiuh Lopez, 24, told me he’d been arrested at Standing Rock while praying. It was traumatic, he said, but helped him find his place as a leader, in the tradition of his father who is a Sundance Chief. Both of Lopez’s parents were Indigenous civil rights leaders in the 1970s, both taking part in the occupation of Alcatraz in 1969 and Wounded Knee in 1973, which called attention to dismal living conditions and civil rights abuses that Native Americans continued to endure.

“Even though I had a lot of pain come out of that experience, it inspired a lot of people,”he said of his arrest. “And those are the things sometimes you have to do as a leader. You have to take that pain for our people so that we can inspire others to stand up.”

He identifies as Chicano, with roots in the Mexica people of Mexico, and Sicangu Lakota Oyate from South Dakota, though he grew up in Denver. He talked about the inclusive community he found at Standing Rock that compelled him to join the camp for three months instead of his initial one-day plan.

“No one ever asked me if I was gay,” he said. “No one ever asked me who I chose to sleep with, no one ever asked me who I chose to love, they simply loved me and accepted me for who I am. And they allowed me and my leadership skills to step forward and help my people in any way that I could.”

The company behind the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, says the project cost $3.8 billion to construct. ETP has said that they consulted with tribes and highlight the fact that the pipeline doesn’t directly cross the Standing Rock reservation. In December, the Army Corps. of Engineers under the Obama administration refused to issue ETP a permit to complete construction because they said the company needed to engage in more consultation, complete a full Environmental Impact Survey, and explore alternate routes.

That was reversed less than a week after Trump was inaugurated. The incoming president owned shares in ETP until he sold them in July during his presidential campaign, according to a spokesperson. Late in the afternoon on Friday, Native American speakers, rappers, and artists took the stage in Lafayette Square, the public park in front of the White House, to express their dissent and talk about using the momentum they’ve built to challenge other pipelines (including the Keystone XL) and other pressing issues for Native tribes. Spoonhunter stood a little to the side, his hands in his pockets for warmth, his eyes on the White House across the lawn.

“I hope [Trump] is looking out his window right now at this and seeing that Indigenous people are the strongest people in the world. He can’t knock us down,” he said, referring to growing up in poverty on a reservation and knowing the obstacles his parents had to overcome to keep food on the table and raise him.

“When I look at the White House I think about the decades and years of those who sit in that house not honoring our nation-to-nation relationship, not honoring our treaties,” he said. “I think Indigenous people will not really be heard until an Indigenous person is sitting in that seat in the White House. I think that day is to come.”

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