Moving Closer to My Ancestors Means Letting Go of This Gender Binary
River Ian Kerstetter
It was a scene familiar to many of us: boys on one side of the gym, girls on the other. And me, in the middle, not wanting to join either side. As I grew older, this sense of being in the middle grew, and I came to understand myself as someone who related to both men and women. I had never heard the words transgender, Two-Spirit, non-binary or queer. But despite my lack of language, my sense of self could not be contained by gender norms.
Over time, I recognized that my playful gender expression made some people confused or even uncomfortable. I learned to hide parts of myself in some spaces, as I became aware of the misogyny around and inside me that did not want me to feel like I belonged. Thankfully, I also began to recognize that there were others like me.
Online spaces especially informed my early explorations of queer community. Fragments of blogs and wiki pages hinted at histories and communities larger and richer than what I was being taught in history books. In college, I came out as gay, and hoped this category would let me be myself. In many ways, it did. I was able to express my sexuality and gender in ways that others could understand. But I continued to wonder why I didn't feel fully seen or understood. I began to see gender for what it is: a spectrum of social and personal constructions that change across time, culture, and geography.
Similarly, I also found myself in obscure corners of libraries and the internet as I searched for representation of indigenous people beyond my immediate family. I was raised to be proud of my heritage, but living far away from Oneida and Iroquois communities in Wisconsin and New York left me with a sense of isolation at times. As my awareness of identity and history grew, I had new questions about myself and my ancestors. Why didn't I see queerness represented in indigenous spaces? Why didn’t I see more Native people in queer spaces?
My grandmother, Rose Kerstetter, has spent much of her life researching and revitalizing ceramics traditions of our Oneida and Iroquois ancestors. As she has shared her knowledge with me, I've learned that something we both have in common is the desire to connect to our ancestors. Knowing this helped me frame a conversation about our ancestors. I knew it would be a sort of coming out; and while I'm lucky to have many loving family members and friends, my fears and internalized misogyny haven't always made this process easy for me. I also know that for some indigenous people, talking about the past can be difficult, so I wanted to approach the subject with respect and an open heart.
After explaining what Two-Spirit means and asking her what our ancestors might have thought, she responded, "That's very interesting. I don't know what traditions we might have had. But our way of life changed very quickly after white folks arrived. You never know what might have been lost." Importantly, she encouraged me to continue searching for clues.
The more I learn, the more questions I have. Perhaps my ancestors didn't need to separate non-conforming individuals through language or practice because of their fairly egalitarian culture. Another possible insight lies in our language. The Oneida language has two kinds of feminine pronouns. While their meaning is fluid and depends on context, one form can be used when a person's gender is unknown or unimportant. The other form can be used for women who are taller, stronger, or speak in a lower voice than other women; perhaps examples of language reflecting the diversity of gender. Though, I still wonder what this would mean in historical and contemporary Oneida cultural practice.
I remember meeting another Oneida person who identified as Two-Spirit for the first time at a QPOC event in college. Witnessing someone standing in both their queerness and indigenous heritage gave me permission to imagine new possibilities for myself. I didn't know if I was Two-Spirit or what traditions around queerness my ancestors may have had. However, beginning to ask these questions led me towards a deeper understanding of myself and how I want to move through the world. I have come a long way in the process of unlearning colonial gender norms, coming to understand my body, my inner sense of self, and the ways I interact with others as existing beyond the category of "man," the gender I was designated at birth.
I will never know everything about my Oneida ancestors. However, my desire to feel closer to my ancestors doesn't stop me from imagining new traditions around gender. Categories, languages, and traditions that honor LGBTQ+ people offer us belonging and meaning, but all attempts to categorize humans by gender and sexuality may always fall short. As I look to the vast diversity of human experiences, I am called to not only honor the past but imagine new futures.
Yawʌʔkó / thanks to: Rose Kerstetter, Hoka Skenandore, Patrick Del Percio, Kenzie Allen, Sam Wein, Xemiyulu Manibusan Tapepechul, and everyone at Color Bloq.
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Research for this essay came from the following sources:
Abbott, Clifford. "Oneida Teaching Grammar." 2006. https://www.uwgb.edu/oneida/Grammar.html
Medicine, Beatrice (Lakota). "Directions in Gender Research in American Indian Societies: Two Spirits and Other Categories." Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 3(1). 2002. https://doi.org/10.9707/2307-0919.1024
Shraya, Vivek. I'm Afraid of Men. Penguin, 2018.
"Two-Spirit." Lumen Learning. https://courses.lumenlearning.com/culturalanthropology/chapter/two-spirit/
Vowel, Chelsea (Métis). "Language, culture, and two-spirit identity." 2012. http://apihtawikosisan.com/2012/03/language-culture-and-two-spirit-identity/