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Two Spirit Gathering Celebrates More Than Montana's LGBT Native Americans

Indigenous people from around the world will be at the 23rd annual Montana Two Spirit Gathering. (Mel Ponder photography)
Indigenous people from around the world will be at the 23rd annual Montana Two Spirit Gathering. (Mel Ponder photography)
August 20, 2018

FLATHEAD LAKE, Mont. — The Montana Two Spirit Society, a Native American organization formed by LGBT groups, is holding its 23rd annual gathering this week at Flathead Lake.

The term "two spirit" doesn't simply describe LGBTQ Native Americans, however. Members of the group say it goes beyond sexuality and gender identity. Founder of the society Steven Barrios said "two spirit" defines a role in tribes that existed across North America before Europeans arrived.

"We don't consider ourselves gay, because with that term 'two spirit' comes a lot of responsibility,” Barrios said. “We give back to our communities. We take care of elders, our youth. We had roles in our community that carried responsibilities with that name."

Barrios said colonization took away the traditional role of two spirits, but groups like his are reclaiming it.

While each tribe has its own word for the concept, the umbrella term “two spirit” was coined in the 1990s to recognize that many tribes identify people with both male and female characteristics who are gender non-conforming. The gathering is a drug and alcohol-free event and runs through Wednesday.

Executive director of the Montana Two Spirit Society David Herrera said there will be cross-cultural talks at the gathering where people will discuss the effects of colonization on their cultures. Herrera said two spirit youths often experience bullying, and that is an issue his society addresses.

"Certainly among the Two Spirit native communities, youth suicide continues to be a big concern and one that a lot of times goes under-reported,” Herrera said. “So that's why a lot of the work that we do tends to focus around letting our youth know that they are welcome, that they do have a place."

Indigenous people from tribes across the country, as well as Canada, Mexico, the Philippines and Laos, will be in attendance.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - MT