When I saw Little Big Man years ago, I had mixed feelings. I almost wished Dustin Hoffman wasn’t in it. I thought it was one of his worse performances, bouncing between clownish and Capital-A Actory, and his character took up most of the time while being the least interesting part of the story. When you removed him and all the paint-by-numbers scenes in the White community, though, I thought that what was left was a marvelously nuanced, human, and warm-hearted depiction of one Indian society, with both pathos and a lot of good humor. Chief Dan George was unforgettable, and the rest of the Indian cast fleshed out a captivating vision of Cheyenne life that was not so much better or worse than White culture than it was just wonderfully different, and tragic in its loss. It was like Things Fall Apart for the Plains.
Of natural interest to me was the inclusion of a gay character who was understood and respected and given a place of honor in his tribe. It was my first introduction to the history of LGBT people in pre-Columbian American societies. When the Supreme Court ruled on DOMA last year, I thought back to this, and wondered whether marriage equality was truly something new on this continent, or if we were just returning to a status quo that had existed before the European invasion. After just a little Googling, I found some articles documenting that gay couples had indeed been happily married members of their communities right on this spot, centuries before Stonewall. I also found links to a documentary about contemporary LGBT Indians and their attempts to reclaim a past which, like much that was good in traditional cultures, was wiped out of memory by missionaries and boarding schools. I just got a notification that it’s streaming on Amazon Prime, and watched it today.
Two Spirits bears a lot of similarities to The New Black, which came out last week. Both are one-hour documentaries distributed by PBS, both deal with the status of gay people within minority communities, and both use a specific current event as their framework. That’s a convenient narrative device, but I was again left wanting more, wanting a longer-form piece with time to take a broader view and tell more stories. In this case, I would gladly have spent another hour getting to know the leaders of the Two Spirit movement, learning about their backgrounds and the response to their activism.
I’d also have liked to have heard more about the legacy of European cultural assimilation. In the African-American community, one of the great undiscussed ironies is that Europeans kidnapped Africans, indoctrinated them with Christianity, and used it as the justification for why they should accept their status as sub-human property, and now their descendants have adopted Christianity and are using it to justify treating their own brothers and sisters and sons and daughters as undeserving of equal rights. The New Black never touched on this. Two Spirits talked about the European conquerors’ violent reactions to gay-inclusive Indian societies and touched very briefly on homophobia among contemporary Fundamentalist Christian Indians, but there’s a lot more to be told about how White prejudices replaced traditional acceptance and how contemporary gay Indians have had to rediscover and reclaim their heritage.
I don’t mean to belittle this effort. It’s an important start, and I hope it will be a catalyst for more ambitious work in this area. It’s definitely worth a look if you want something short to round out your Pride Month viewing.