As many in the United States were celebrating their long Labor Day weekend, I was in a place of emotional uncertainty and torment. Labor Day Weekend is when my tribe, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, gathers for our National Holiday. It’s a time to commemorate the 1839 signing of our tribal Constitution and Act of Union, reuniting our people after the Trail of Tears. Going home for me has always been tumultuous. I used to go home for Christmas, but I’ve stopped that. This year I considered making the trip for the National Holiday, but home hasn’t felt like a home in some time. I’m not sure that it ever fully did. I chose to stay where I’ve recently decided to receive my mail and vote: Washington, DC.
In 2004 two women, Dawn McKinley and Kathy Reynolds — both citizens of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma — obtained a marriage license through the tribe. Shortly after this the tribal council voted unanimously for the Cherokee Nation and Family Protection Act of 2004, which legally banned marriage between people of the same gender — not the same sex though. While I personally believe that marriage as a legal action should be abolished, this nevertheless sent a very clear message to me as a Bisexual Cherokee: my nation doesn’t want me.
Being rejected by my people wasn’t simply an institutional form of oppression; it was also familial, personal.
It was July 1996. I was 17 and Dolly the sheep had just been cloned. My mom, myself, my uncle, and his Cherokee wife and my cousins were at the hospital for my grandma’s surgery. At one point during our wait, my Aunt Kay put the newspaper down in disgust; “Now the gays will use this to have kids.” At the time I didn’t have the slightest clue I was Bi, but I couldn’t understand what my family’s objection was to “the gays” as they liked to refer to them as. Later, as my mom and I were driving away from the hospital I asked her why our relatives had such a problem with “the gays,” and her response still haunts me: “Because they’re responsible for AIDS.” When I came out to her five years later, I was petrified.
My mom is white, but the bi/trans/homophobia runs deep on both sides of my family. The deeply painful and frustrating aspect of this is that hatred of any kind wasn’t the way of Cherokee people pre-European contact. Colonialism and forced Christianity is what brought this hatred and division among my people just as it brought sexism and patriarchy.
This last Saturday, the 3rd, I woke to find a message from my mom that a 5.6 earthquake had hit Oklahoma. Thankfully my family was safe and no real damage had been done to property, but the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma declared a state of emergency. They were at the epicenter of the quake.
Oklahoma has been experiencing earthquakes due to fracking in the state since 2009. This was the largest to hit my home yet. In 2014, Oklahoma was the most seismically active state in the continental U.S. with earthquakes at 3 times the rate of California. Much like with many man made natural disasters — because these earthquakes are caused by humans — the most marginalized in society are the ones that suffer the greatest. In this instance it was the Pawnee.
Roughly 850 miles away from Pawnee, OK is the Standing Rock Reservation, where the Sioux have been defending their water and lives since April against the Dakota Access LLC (DAPL), a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners LP, who are attempting to build the Dakota Access Pipeline under the Missouri River a major water source for the nation, and 10 million people. Recently Native people from Nations across this land as well as non-Native allies have joined the Sioux of Standing Rock to stand in solidarity against the DAPL. The current estimate of Water Protectors at the site is 4,000.
There have been arrests, a highway closure, and access to water has been cut off at the hands of local authorities. On the 3rd, unbeknownst to many of us not in North Dakota, private security goons hired by Dakota Access were sent to attack our people. Dakota Access used the notorious mercenary for hire, G4S. G4S is the same company that employed Omar Mateen, the mass murderer in the Orlando Pulse night club massacre. Like a play straight out of the Eugene “Bull” Connor days of the Civil Rights movement in Birmingham, AL, they brought in dogs and mace. Frost Kennels, one of the private contractors hired for the dogs, had Edward William Frost — a registered sex offender — attacking our girls and women with dogs. ND Governor Dalrymple activated the National Guard on September 8th. The potential for bloodshed has only increased.
While this abuse, a continuation of 526 years of genocide, was occurring, I was sitting at a BBQ surrounded by non-Natives trying not to have a panic attack. I was at the home of a virtual stranger, and with the exception of one person, I didn’t know know a soul there. I hadn’t been in the house five minutes before I noticed two photos of culturally appropriated non-Natives in headdresses. Once I saw those I wanted to flee, but I was in the middle of Maryland with no clue where the train was and I had only just arrived. I was outnumbered, and didn’t feel safe saying anything about the photos. I felt violated. I felt my stomach began to burn and ache. I could feel the rage building up in my body ready to explode. I didn’t know about the violence that was occurring in North Dakota that very day, but I knew about what my people had been enduring there and in Oklahoma. Being new to DC and surrounded by people wearing Redsk*n attire everyday had been much more triggering than I realized it would be. The BBQ I was at may have been a safe space for Queer and Disabled folx, but it certainly wasn’t a safe space for Native people.
The friend I arrived with spoke with the hosts and the photos came down. I relaxed a bit, but not much. Later in the evening I said something to the effect that hipsters were nothing more than white people that thought they had a right to steal my people’s culture to make it trendy. The night wrapped up not long after that, but not before a white guy — because it’s always a white guy — said that he experienced reverse racism. That was it for me. The panic attack set in and I was officially triggered for the night. I came home and pretty much spent my night trying not to harm myself. At the same time, my Native Sisters, Brothers, and Family were enduring pain and violence in North Dakota and Oklahoma. My ordeal was trivial to me in comparison, but not feeling welcome and embraced anywhere is a pretty painful reality to walk with everyday.
On September 6th, I went to the federal courthouse in DC for an emergency hearing for a temporary injunction to halt construction on the pipeline that was destroying and desecrating sacred land and burial grounds east of Highway 1806, as well as to issue a restraining order against further construction west of Lake Oahe. DAPL construction crews purposely destroyed graves in their pursuit of money. I stood in front of the courthouse with my people and our allies to show the U.S. that this is our land, and our lives are worth more than oil. I sat in a courtroom and listened to Bill Leone, the Dakota Access attorney, tell lie after lie. He claimed they’d stop building if our people stopped the “assault” and “unequivocally stand down.” I listened to the lawyers and U.S. District Judge James Boasberg go back and forth about which portions of land belonged to whom as if this isn’t all Indigenous land. It took all of my self-control to remain quiet and still.
In the end the ruling from the emergency hearing was a temporary halt to construction on Army Corp of Engineers controlled land-east of Highway 1806 to 20 miles east of Lake Oahe-with a denial of the temporary restraining order on private lands west of 1806. The sacred ground and burial sites are west of 1806 where construction is still occurring to this day despite the intervention by the Departments of Justice, Interior, and Army. Our Water Protectors and allies on the ground in North Dakota continue on, as do the rest of us.
I’m disgusted and hurt by the bi/trans/homophobic actions that my nation took in 2004 by discriminating against the LGBTQ Two Spirit citizens of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. It deeply saddens me that far too many of my own people lost their way to colonialism and bought into the hatred of the very people that have been killing us. It breaks my heart to see us turn on each other like that.
Every time I see my people culturally appropriated and mocked by non-Natives it hurts and angers me in a way that I can’t even begin to describe. Our culture isn’t here for them to steal. We’ve already had so much taken from us. Watching the videos and seeing the photos of my people being attacked by those non-Native, hired mercenaries cuts me to the bone. It makes me want to rage and seek revenge against those racist, colonizing, capitalist scumbags that hurt them, that hurt us. My heart weeps from seeing our women and children running from dogs and mace. I’m literally crying right now as I type this.
I’m not entirely sure where my home is in this world or if I’ll ever find one, but I do know that I belong wherever the fight against the colonizer is. If that fight is standing against the internalized colonialism that some of my own people have taken on or it’s the fight against the colonizers themselves, I’ll be there. My ancestors didn’t fight for nothing. They didn’t keep going on that long, cold, hard march from our ancestral homeland to “Indian Territory” just so that I could give up. They didn’t lay down on the trail to die and neither will I.