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May we suggest

Features / April 29, 2019

The Many Ways We Love

Why we must create space to celebrate the resilience of sexually and gender-diverse perspectives
Jenny Irene Miller, <em>Ricky Tagaban</em>, 2016. “My name is Ricky Tagaban. I’m L’uknax.adi from Diginaa Hit, and Wooshkeetaan wadi from Xeitl Hit. My dad is Tlingipino and my mom is German and Italian.” Jenny Irene Miller, Ricky Tagaban, 2016. “My name is Ricky Tagaban. I’m L’uknax.adi from Diginaa Hit, and Wooshkeetaan wadi from Xeitl Hit. My dad is Tlingipino and my mom is German and Italian.”
Jenny Irene Miller, <em>Ricky Tagaban</em>, 2016. “My name is Ricky Tagaban. I’m L’uknax.adi from Diginaa Hit, and Wooshkeetaan wadi from Xeitl Hit. My dad is Tlingipino and my mom is German and Italian.” Jenny Irene Miller, Ricky Tagaban, 2016. “My name is Ricky Tagaban. I’m L’uknax.adi from Diginaa Hit, and Wooshkeetaan wadi from Xeitl Hit. My dad is Tlingipino and my mom is German and Italian.”

My name is Jenny Irene Miller. My Inupiaq name is Wiagañmiu. My family on my mother’s side originates from the Native Village of Kiŋigin, or as it is known more commonly, Wales, Alaska. I come from the Inupiat people of the Bering Strait region of Alaska. I’m a photographer. I identify as queer. I also identify as Inupiaq, white, gay and Two-Spirit. I’m originally from Nome, Alaska. For the past five years, I have been living my truth and expressing my queer identity through art and storytelling. I do this by being open about my identity and sexuality, sharing my story and exploring my identities through photography, video and sound art. I am an activist and my work supports the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and Indigenous LGBTQ+ and Two-Spirit communities. Currently, my urgent purpose is to find and claim space for Indigenous LGBTQ2+ people to thrive in our contemporary reality.

Before I began this work, mainstream society, pop culture and Christianity had shaped my self-image. Some influences were positive. Some were toxic. Early on in life, I was taught colonial ideals, communicated by those around me through the teachings of the Bible. Learning the idea that loving someone of the same sex or gender was wrong caused me to feel shame for being the person I was growing into. The pressures from family and community members—who believed that their Christian views trumped mine, that LGBTQ2+ people were misguided, that they were choosing to live a life of sin and that we could simply be changed through conversion therapy—discouraged me from expressing my queer identity. I found myself in heterosexual relationships. Relationships that did not feel right or true. I was only hurting myself by not being true to myself.

Jenny Irene Miller, <em>Tuiġana</em>, 2016. “Atiġa Tuiġana, Ulġuniqmiuŋuruŋa. I am Inupiaq. My namesake is Tuiġana. My family is from Wainwright, Alaska, which is about 90 miles southwest, down the coast from Utqiaġvik. My aapaaluk is the late Billy Blair Patkotak Sr. and my aakaaluk is Amy Patkotak (Bodfish).” Jenny Irene Miller, Tuiġana, 2016. “Atiġa Tuiġana, Ulġuniqmiuŋuruŋa. I am Inupiaq. My namesake is Tuiġana. My family is from Wainwright, Alaska, which is about 90 miles southwest, down the coast from Utqiaġvik. My aapaaluk is the late Billy Blair Patkotak Sr. and my aakaaluk is Amy Patkotak (Bodfish).”

Through art, and through connecting with other Indigenous LGBTQ+ and Two-Spirit people, I found the strength to embrace my whole self as comprising all my identities. I began to understand my queer identity through an Indigenous lens. Being grounded in my Inupiaq culture has given me strength and propelled me into my work around decolonizing gender and sexuality. This process was a healing transformation.

In Alaska and elsewhere, Euro-colonial government policies forced various acts of removal, assimilation and erasure upon Indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples were removed from our ancestral lands, forced into permanent villages and towns and placed in boarding schools, ripping our children and languages away from us. We survived the ultimate act of removal and erasure. In the present, genocidal systems and policies remain as a legacy of historical genocidal processes waged against Indigenous communities. This includes policy that declares who is and is not Indigenous according to blood quantum, thereby reducing the general population of Indigenous people over time through unsettling measures not designed by our people—including the continual taking of Indigenous children from their families and communities through forced adoption. The ill effects of government policies on Indigenous communities are exacerbated by environmental changes that push Indigenous peoples out of our own lands. These attempts to kill our cultures have failed. We remain Indigenous and there is great work taking place within our communities to exert our sovereign rights and to reclaim our diverse cultures through language and the arts, to name just a few.

Through my own healing process as an Inupiaq person, I have learned that colonial systems continue to gnaw at us, and some of us have internalized them deeply, reflecting them in our relationships with other Indigenous people. One way we do this is by rejecting LGBTQ+ and Two-Spirit peoples from our communities. Communities are support systems, and these support systems can be integral to one’s survival. When Indigenous communities reject our queer Indigenous peers, we are fragmenting ourselves, stagnating our healing and furthering the process of removal. Rejection, misunderstanding and isolation lead LGBTQ+ and Two-Spirit peoples to die by suicide, develop substance and alcohol use issues and to move from their communities to urban areas where systems of support exist for queer peoples within the mainstream non-Indigenous LGBTQ2+ community. While moving to urban areas with larger LGBTQ2+ populations and organizations can be a lifesaver for some, it can also have negative ramifications, and disconnect Indigenous people from their cultures.

When I was struggling with my identity, the strength I gained from knowing my culture, my family history and connections to place and community in Alaska helped ground me.

Jenny Irene Miller, <em>Bethany Horton</em>, 2016. “My name is Bethany Horton. I was born and raised in Nome, Alaska. I am Alaska Native and belong to the Nome Eskimo Community. My mother was born in Clover, New Mexico, and she is white—British and Welsh. My father was born in Greenville, South Carolina, and he is Alaska Native and white.” Jenny Irene Miller, Bethany Horton, 2016. “My name is Bethany Horton. I was born and raised in Nome, Alaska. I am Alaska Native and belong to the Nome Eskimo Community. My mother was born in Clover, New Mexico, and she is white—British and Welsh. My father was born in Greenville, South Carolina, and he is Alaska Native and white.”

Inupiat people cherish one another and have traditionally worked together for survival. When I was struggling with my identity, the strength I gained from knowing my culture, my family history and connections to place and community in Alaska helped ground me. My culture lives on through stories, language and customs passed down from one generation to the next. Before colonization, the value of an individual within Inupiat culture was measured by their contribution to their community. By acknowledging, respecting and uplifting our LGBTQ+ and Two-Spirit community members, we can begin to rebuild and strengthen our Indigenous communities. It is impossible to have healthy communities without the inclusion of all of us. Acknowledging, respecting and uplifting the identities of Indigenous LGBTQ+ and Two-Spirit individuals is a step toward decolonization.

Indigenous activists, including my mentors here in Alaska, describe decolonization as an active process. In the introduction to For Indigenous Minds Only: A Decolonization Handbook, authors Waziyatawun and Michael Yellow Bird describe decolonization as the “meaningful and active resistance to the forces of colonialism that perpetuate the subjugation and/or exploitation of our minds, bodies, and lands. Its ultimate purpose is to overturn the colonial structure and realize Indigenous liberation. First and foremost, decolonization must occur in our own minds.” It starts within. One must acknowledge the systems put into place by others that have informed the way we think and perceive the world, such as homophobia. Examining myself through introspection and through my art has allowed me to find ways to undo colonial systems designed to erase parts of my identity, whether it be Inupiaq or queer. The colonial perspectives I previously normalized were not designed to allow me, as a queer Inupiaq person, to flourish—they were designed to weaken and destroy me.

Yup’ik artist, writer, speaker and activist Anguksuar (Richard LaFortune) helped me recognize that there are Indigenous LGBTQ+ and Two-Spirit role models out there, and helped me understand the term Two-Spirit. In the essay “A Postcolonial Perspective on Western [Mis]Conceptions of the Cosmos and the Restoration of Indigenous Taxonomies,” Anguksuar defines the term as it originated from the Northern Algonquin dialect: “the presence of both a feminine and a masculine spirit in one person…essentially, it may refer to the fact that each human is born because a man and a woman have joined in creating each new life; all humans bear imprints of both, although some individuals may manifest both qualities more completely than others. In no way does the term determine genital activity. It does determine the qualities that define a person’s social role and spiritual gifts.” Indigenous activists at the third Annual Native American Gay and Lesbian Gathering, which took place in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1990, defined Two-Spirit as a term for an Indigenous person who contains both a masculine and feminine spirit. A Two-Spirit individual can also identify as being LGBTQ+. Two-Spirit people may be recognized by their community and Elders, or self-identify as Two-Spirit.

Two-Spirit has become a contemporary umbrella term, one created by and for Indigenous people. While the term is important, I have been searching for a word closer to home. This past fall, an Elder from my region shared with me an Inupiaq word in my dialect that bears similarities to the term Two-Spirit. She said with excitement, “there is an old word for someone like you.” That word has not been used in the more recent history of the Bering Strait region of Alaska. I hope that word will be remembered and used once again. I believe it is essential to have conversations like this within all Northern Indigenous communities—to learn and reclaim the words in our languages for what we now call LGBTQ+ and Two-Spirit peoples, if such words exist. It will connect us to our ancestors within this time of healing today.

Jenny Irene Miller, <em>Andrew Jake Miller</em>, 2016. “My name is Andrew Miller. My Inupiaq name is Senungetuk, after my great-grandpa, which later became our family’s surname following the 1918 influenza epidemic that hit Wales, Alaska, and the arrival of missionaries. I am originally from Nome, Alaska.” Jenny Irene Miller, Andrew Jake Miller, 2016. “My name is Andrew Miller. My Inupiaq name is Senungetuk, after my great-grandpa, which later became our family’s surname following the 1918 influenza epidemic that hit Wales, Alaska, and the arrival of missionaries. I am originally from Nome, Alaska.”

My project Continuous is by and for our Indigenous LGBTQ+ and Two- Spirit community. Continuous aims to transform negative attitudes toward Indigenous LGBTQ+ and Two-Spirit people, breaking down stereotypes and showing that we, as Indigenous people, are diverse in the way we look, act, feel and see the world. Ultimately, Continuous was born to support the healing of Indigenous communities around gender and sexuality. The inspiration for the project was my desire to have out and proud Indigenous LGBTQ+ and Two-Spirit role models in my community, and for our people to see individuals like themselves represented in media. Currently, there are youth and other Indigenous LGBTQ+ and Two-Spirit peoples who cannot be out because it is not always safe—being out is often a privilege. Not everyone has accepting family members and safe homes or communities. Some individuals may experience micro-aggressions, homelessness or physical and mental abuse for being LGBTQ2+. For me, coming out was not easy and took many years. I have been fortunate and am grateful for the community I belong to. Since coming out, I have never felt so welcomed, uplifted and seen for who I am than I do with my Inupiaq family and the Indigenous community members I have gravitated toward. My hope is that other Indigenous LGBTQ+ and Two-Spirit peoples will have the same support from their family and community.

As I and other Indigenous LGBTQ+ and Two-Spirit individuals continue to voice who we are, the healing of our communities will continue. Art is one avenue where I know this can happen. Continuous inspires dialogue and brings a face to the urgency of recognizing Indigenous LGBTQ+ and Two-Spirit peoples. It was conceived to help us better understand the impact colonialism has had on Indigenous peoples, and how many of us have internalized homophobia and transphobia, and treated LGBTQ2+ peoples as less than human. I hope, in reading this, you find ways to connect and uplift Indigenous LGBTQ+ and Two-Spirit communities and non-Indigenous LGBTQ2+ peoples alike. Together, let’s create space for Indigenous LGBTQ+ and Two-Spirit peoples to flourish.

This is an article from our Spring 2019 issue, themed on SPACETIME.

Jenny Irene Miller

Jenny Irene Miller is an Alaska-based Inupiaq artist originally from Nome, Alaska, but who grew up in both Nome and Fairbanks. Jenny is a photographer who also works with video and sound art.