Talking Circle brings ‘two-spirited’ Native Americans together

Shirley Hoskins, the founder of the Native American Health Coalition, had never met a gay or lesbian Indian before she found out her son was gay. “My son was not infected with HIV, but I then wanted to find out more about it. I didn’t know a lot about it, but I wrongly assumed that it was a gay, white disease.”

That was 19 years ago, but Hoskins, a Sac-Fox and Kickapoo Indian, said that she attributes that event to the start of her mission to provide education and services to the Native American community. She began to wonder how many other gay Native Americans there were and whether the community as a whole was receiving education about HIV.

“I started looking for statistics on Native Americans and there just weren’t any,” she said. That was when she was introduced to Jay Johnson of the National Native American Aids Prevention Center. “He had just started his job that very week for this new endeavor, and it really was a chance meeting. His job was going to be to try to start collecting data on Native Americans.”

“I got involved in community issues and got on a task force,” she explained. “We began looking for statistics and found that the government seemed to be tracking only gay white men.” Hoskins added that she later found out from a pastor that there had been many Native Americans affected by the AIDS virus but that the community still had no overall awareness of the disease.

Hoskins left a lucrative job to work in AIDS prevention at the Good Samaritan Project. She was the only woman in the program and the first minority hired. Because statistics were being tracked only in the white population, no services were geared for minorities affected by the virus.

“I only worked for them for two years, but I learned a lot from it. When I heard that they were starting to need services for minorities, I later understood that they meant different economic services. Up until that time, most of the men affected in the white community were educated and had insurance to cover their illnesses. The services that they started needing when it affected people of color were basically services for the poor.”

She stayed in contact with Johnson, who told her of a grant intended for a grassroots study on AIDS among the Native American population, and she applied for and won the money. The study, which involved four Kansas and Missouri tribes, as well as urban Indians, lasted for a year.

Hoskins then formed the coalition, which became a separate entity in 1992. Since that time, the coalition has expanded to Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kan., with its education programs, emergency assistance, and clinics. “Our core focus has always been drug and alcohol education and intervention, because that is the issue that is at the core of our problems in the community,” she said.

Although the Native American population is estimated at around 3 million, it is hard to track, because most don’t live in one centralized area, such as the reservations. Hoskins’ own family had left the reservation for better economic opportunities but had maintained a connection to their culture through religion. “About 75 percent of Native Americans are what we call urban Indians,” Hoskins said. “And most of that population is younger.”

HIV is growing at a larger rate among minority youths ages 13 to 24 than any other segment of the population. The coalition has targeted its HIV prevention programs mainly among its youth but has always had a primary goal of educating the general Native American population about HIV awareness and prevention.

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The coalition recently was awarded a grant from the U.S. Conference of Mayors that includes HIV outreach funds and educational funds. As a result of the grant, Joe Bentley, outreach health educator for the coalition, started the Talking Circle. The Talking Circle is a group of people who get together to talk about health issues that affect people who are “two-spirited,” the English translation for gay identity.

The group meets the last Wednesday of every month at the Grand Avenue Temple at 205 E. 9th Street. “We might watch a video, and we’ll talk about the video and HIV prevention, safer sex, substance abuse, social interaction, and spiritual beliefs,” Bentley said.

He added that the group discusses a variety of spiritual beliefs, because it is the European-American religions that have stigmatized gays.

“In the traditional Native American perspective, two-spirited people were spiritually endowed,” explains Jim Goodtracks, case manager for the coalition’s HIV-AIDS outreach education. “If a person was two-spirited in a tribe, they were unique, and it was understood to be a blessing to be unique. Many of the people looked to these people for fulfillment of their spiritual needs.”

Goodtracks also attends the Talking Circles, and as a licensed social worker he tries to address concerns about how two-spirited members are perceived in the community. “I think one of the main problems is the isolation these people feel, both individually and culturally. This link provides spiritual and moral support among the community.”

Because of the stigma that European-Americans brought to this country about being two-spirited, the traditions among Native Americans began to split, and most two-spirited Native Americans prefer to hide their homosexuality.

“In trying to adapt to the European ways, homosexuality was not accepted, and getting Native Americans to stand up and say that they are gay, lesbian, or bisexual is very hard now,” Bentley said.

Bentley said that reason explains why it is so hard to count the number of two-spirited Native Americans, not to mention the number of Native Americans infected with HIV. “They have hidden themselves,” he said. “Another reason is that although we number around 3 million people, that is still a very small segment of the overall population. Some Native Americans may only be part Indian and choose to list themselves as white.”

Because the Native American population is so small, just a few cases of HIV could have a tremendous impact on the entire population, and census records have long been thought to underestimate the number of Native Americans in the country.

“What our people need to understand is that funding for programs like ours depends on the numbers. That is why it is so important for our people to stand up and be counted in the current census,” Hoskins said.

The Talking Circle members vary from month to month, according to Bentley. “We started out with only about four members,” he said. “We average now about 12 members.”

Bentley said that the members who participate in the circle are mostly two-spirited men but that he has had some women join the group. “I don’t limit the participants to just Native Americans or even homosexuals, because we all have something we can learn from one another. HIV can affect anyone; it is not just a gay white man’s disease.”

Talking Circle member Dennis Saygers has been openly gay all of his life but is not Native American. He learned about the group through a flier and thought it sounded interesting.

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“I have learned a lot about other cultures and about HIV,” he said. “We get together and have a nice meal, and it brings a sense of kinship. It is an opportunity for all of the community to come together and learn.”

Other initiatives the coalition is working on among the two-spirited Native American population is collaborating with Haskell Indian Nations University and the University of Kansas, both in Lawrence, Kan. They also participate in the Gay Pride Parade and the AIDS walk and set up a booth at the coalition’s largest fund-raiser, the Kansas City Pow-Wow, held at Bartle Hall each November.

Bentley said that the coalition has a lot of aspirations for continuing to help the two-spirited Native American community. “This year we will be working on trying to gather statistical information and we will also be setting up an HIV testing booth at the pow-wow. Some people in the Native American community have a sort of stigma about going to hospitals and clinics, so we will bring it to them.”

One of the areas that Hoskins said the Native American community is lacking is long-term medical care for people infected with HIV/AIDS. “We have outreach programs,” Bentley said, “and now we will work on building centers that can care for our people.”

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