T he last time Fochik Hashtali* spoke with her close friend Poe Jackson, he was telling her about his plans to start a mental health group for transgender people in Slab City, a section of southern California known for its community of squatters.
It was a Saturday evening in April and the 21-year-old, who identified as Two Spirit, a term typically used to distinguish members of the Native LGBTQ+ community, had just moved to the area, according to Hashtali.
After a childhood in Tennessee spent dealing with poverty and bullying, he had traveled to the encampment in the hopes of being accepted for who he was, Hashtali explained. Jackson, a Wyandot descendent, told Hashtali that he wanted to help people heal, âdo art, calm down, talk about trauma healthilyâ.
One month later, law enforcement recovered Jacksonâs body from the Coachella Canal, near Slab City, and ruled his death a homicide.
âI couldnât believe it,â said Hashtali.
âI was like a train wreck. I cried myself to sleep that nightâ.
Violence against the Native LGBTQ+ and Two-Spirit community is prevalent. It stems from heteropatriarchal violence and racism coming together to put the community at an elevated risk. And yet it remains largely overlooked.
The Sovereign Bodies Institute and the California Rural Indian Health Board, released a report this month highlighting the issue in California, which has more people of Native American or Alaska Native heritage than any other state in the US, according to the most recent census.
The report found that of the 18 respondents who identified as Native LGBTQ2, 60% experienced domestic violence and 40% experienced child abuse. But perhaps most alarming was that almost all had experienced sexual assault and nearly 90% had experienced two or more forms of violence.
âWe know that Native people are targeted for violence because of racial stereotypes, jurisdictional complexities that in a general culture of lawlessness is created when law enforcement donât respond meaningfully to crimes against Native people,â said Annita Lucchesi, a Cheyenne descendant and the founding executive director of the Sovereign Bodies Institute.
âOn top of that, law enforcement agencies especially can be a good olâ boys club and can be very hyper-masculine, and are not necessarily spaces that are going to be welcoming or safe or supportive to folks in different gender and sexual identities,â she added.
Comprehensive research and data on the issue is extremely limited. Lucchesi said there are few safe spaces for members of the community to share their experiences, as well as the homophobia and transphobia that is built into victim services, law enforcement and even data collection.
Aubrey Dameron. Photograph: Courtesy of Pam Smith
In SBIâs own work, repeated requests for data from county and state agencies as well as law enforcement were not honored.
âReally the only people that could speak to Indigenous experiences of violence at all, were Indigenous queer folks themselves,â she said.
Violence against the Native LGBTQ2 community in the US has existed for hundreds of years.
Historically, many tribes were known for not only accepting and respecting this community, but honoring its members. Some had their own distinct linguistic identity terms.
But colonization upended that way of thinking. The report explained that, âEuropean colonizers worked to erase Indigenous ideas of LGBTQ2 identities, community roles, and traditional responsibilities to undermine Indigenous communitiesâ cohesion and strength.â
The 2015 US Transgender Survey, the largest survey focused on the trans community, found that 65% of the 319 respondents who identified as American Indian or Alaska Native reported being sexually assaulted. It also found 60% were denied equal treatment, verbally harassed and/or physically attacked in the past year.
In Oklahoma, for example, the case of Aubrey Dameron has radiated across the Native community. The trans woman and member of the Cherokee Nation who dreamed of becoming a news reporter or a singer, has been missing for over two years.
Her aunt, Pam Smith, said the then-25-year-old reportedly left her motherâs house early in the morning to meet someone and hasnât been heard from since. She said she was convinced something bad happened to Dameron because sheâs trans.
âItâs hard to keep hope alive, that, you know, she will be found alive,â she said.
Initially when the family reported her missing, Smith said she remembers being told by a law enforcement officer from the Delaware county sheriffâs office, who was handling the case, that they didnât believe she was missing. When asked why, he reportedly said because of her âlifestyleâ, which Smith took to be a reference to her being trans.
âIt has not been handled well at all,â said Smith. âI believe she was, you know, disregarded, because sheâs trans, sheâs Native.â
The sheriffâs office declined to answer any questions about the case, instead referring all requests to the FBI. A spokesperson for the FBI said in an email, âout of respect for the ongoing investigation, we will continue to refrain from commenting on its substance.â
Dr Roger Kuhn, an enrolled member of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians who identifies as Two Spirit Indigiqueer, is a professor at San Francisco State Universityâs American Indian studies department, said he believed it was impossible to talk about the Native LGBTQ2 experience without also talking about violence.
âI donât know that I know a Two-Spirit person that hasnât experienced some kind of violence based on their identity,â he said.
In Kuhnâs own life, he said he remembers being hit as a young child and made to feel ashamed about his Native identity by his father, who is white, and being bullied at school for his sexuality. As an adult living in the Bay Area, he said he still gets called homophobic slurs.
âWhen those violent acts happen to me, I always think about it as like, âwow, this is happening to me as a Two-Spirit person.â I donât separate this and think, âOh, itâs only because Iâm gay or itâs only because Iâm Native,ââ he said. âNo, itâs happening because Iâm both of these things. And itâs happening because people donât understand.â
But in recent years there have been signs of a positive shift, according to Andrew JolivÃ©tte, Louisiana Creole of mixed Ishak, who serves as the chair of the ethnic studies department at the University of California, San Diego.
He said he had noticed more tribal communities establishing pride awareness month, celebrating what it means to be Two Spirit and truly trying to protect the community. He gave the example of Tohono Oâodham nation in Arizona, which earlier this month established June as Pride Awareness month.
At the city level, Kuhn highlighted the Bay Area American Indian Two-Spiritsâ annual powwow. Meant to celebrate the Two-Spirit people and boost visibility, in February it saw 5,000 people attend the event virtually.
Kuhn said taking part in these types of events and spreading awareness about the community is about healing and transformation.
He said: âItâs about taking those stories of violence and transforming them to, âOK, how have we survived and how can we thrive.ââ
*Fochik Hashtali is a pseudonym