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There are no closets in a tipi.

A gathering of two-spirit people celebrated their unique journey through life and saw the society take its spiritual place in the circle during the Fourth Annual Elders and Two Spirit Gathering held in Edmonton on Oct. 20 to 22. It was the culmination of a three-year ceremonial process of reclamation.

The Two Spirit Society called upon Elders to remember how to be true to their spirit and reclaim their role in the Aboriginal community as spiritual leaders. The advice and teachings of Elders included sacred protocols for two-spirit people. As Leonard Saddleback, a spiritual leader from Samson Cree Nation in Hobbema, Alta. explained, the teachings about human development flowed both ways.

"I cannot even begin to tell you the things they teach me. What are we teaching people out there about our sexuality? How to wear a condom? But these people go beyond. Here they talk about before you put it on. It's about relationships and trust. How to respect men and how to respect women, the children, the grandchildren and how to respect their parents view," said Saddleback, who acknowledged how difficult it has been for the two-spirit people to find Elders to assist them in reclaiming ceremonies specific to them.

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They aren't helped because they are not a favorite group of people, he said. Saddleback thinks back to when he was asked to help the Two Spirit Society.

"If I had a gay boy or a lesbian girl, I think my first thoughts would be 'Why did you choose me?' I probably [would] cry because society hates these people. This is totally wrong," he said.

One of Saddleback's biggest challenges to find answers came when he thought of his community in Hobbema. There are men who like men and there are women who like women, he said. Saddleback said when he heard his kids start saying 'You're a faggot' he wondered why.

"I identified the challenge here and started to learn. As far as I know, there have been no Elders who have come forward to acknowledge the gay and the lesbian people here, who they are and why they are the way they are," said Saddleback.

Residential school and Western attitudes about what is healthy sexuality has destroyed Native beliefs of accepting and loving one another, he said.

He recounted the story of the being with the body parts of both a man and a woman, and said the hermaphrodite was tormented by prejudice and hate. The being escaped to the mountains of Hinton, Alta.; a super being that was thrown away. The Creator wanted that changed.

The super being's last words, said Saddleback, were 'Those that believe in me, I will spare their families. Those that ask me in the future for forgiveness, I will forgive.' Saddleback said to hate this super being is to hate part of your self. The gifts of this super being are many, he said. The being is a holy person, a healer.

During a round dance at the weekend's gathering, an eagle staff made by the founding members of the Two Spirit Society was transferred in a ceremony to the new president of the Two Spirit Society, Warren Winnipeg.

"They are going to teach all the gay people, the doctors, the teachers about who they are and why they are. It is a different energy. Their ways of thinking, their ways of asking, their ways of lovemaking, their ways of showing their energy," said Leonard Saddleback.

"We have opened this opportunity for people to celebrate," said Warren Winnipeg. "This is the time of celebrating who we are. We are done fighting. We are done the burying people. We want to celebrate and we want to honor them."

Reclaiming Our Spirits was the theme of the conference. But many were unable to attend, Winnipeg said, because too many have been lost along the way to drugs and alcohol and trauma.

The fear of being condemned, ostracized and beaten turns two-spirit Aboriginal people to substance abuse and suicide, said Winnipeg. The real fear many two-spirit people face stems from homophobia, he believes. Some of the reasons behind homophobia, explained Winnipeg, are that people are raised in an environment where they were not accepted, or they have been sexually abused or they have two-spirit feelings themselves and they are in denial.

"The only person that you have to face in the morning is you. A lot of attitude or strong hatred is because people don't want to understand. We are all just human beings just trying to live our lives," said Winnipeg.

Lack of awareness of certain groups or certain people will cause people to be naturally afraid, said Winnipeg. Education, celebration and ceremonial honor is the antidote for that. He believes this will also empower young two-spirit Aboriginal people and prevent suicide, drug abuse and alcoholism.

"It is researched that suicide statistics for Aboriginal people is three times the national average. Within the Aboriginal two-spirit population it is five times. That tells us there needs to be healing, there needs to be reconciliation, there needs to be education and awareness. And that is what we are trying to provide," said Winnipeg.

Shawn Woodhouse, 18, said he has dealt with rejection most of his life. Being Metis meant he wasn't white enough for his white friends and not Native enough for his Native friends and to add being two spirited marginalized him further. For the most part, Woodhouse said, he managed to deal with those issues among his peers.

"Then when I would go home at night ... I'd wonder what's the point? When I get older society is going tell me I am told I'm a freak because I am two-spirited. We live in Alberta. It's a hard thing to be two-spirited," said Woodhouse. "I've struggled with suicide a lot. I've attempted it a couple of times and I've failed every time," he said. He believes his attempts failed because the Creator must have a plan for him here. Woodhouse remembers a friend who overdosed on drugs and died. He took drugs to numb the pain and that is also a form of suicide, an escape, he said. While Woodhouse was struggling with his own addictions, it wasn't hard to get into the sex trade.

"I could say that was my form of numbing the pain. To work in the sex trade you have to be able to shut yourself off emotionally to be able to do things that you can't say no to because they are paying for it," said Woodhouse. When he was with someone his body and emotions would be shut off. Another form of attempting suicide, Woodhouse said, was each time he got into a car with someone he wondered if he may be murdered.

Free from drugs and the sex trade, Woodhouse is now able to express what he went through to young people and two-spirit people at different conferences and gatherings like this one. There is the stereotype that if you are a gay Native you will wind up in the sex trade, he said. He hopes by telling his experience he can stop another person from going where he did. That makes it worth reliving the pain he went through, said Woodhouse.

"Our communities used to honor us because at one time we were considered leaders, visionaries, healers. Two-spirited people have always been in the forefront of our communities when it came to roles and responsibilities. We were considered highly spiritually evolved. And that we are gifted because we can relate to both genders: the male and the female, said Winnipeg.

By Marie Burke

Windspeaker Contributor

EDMONTON
COPYRIGHT 2006 Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta (AMMSA)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2006 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Fourth Annual Elders and Two Spirit Gathering
Author:Burke, Marie
Publication:Windspeaker
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Nov 1, 2006
Words:1273
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