February 21, 2015

Brandon Stabler remembers the taunts he heard as a boy growing up in Walthill, a village of about 200 homes in the middle of Indian Country on the Nebraska side of the Missouri River.

All those names he was called. All those slurs are now a blur of hateful and hurtful words. Stabler, a member of the Omaha tribe, recalls feeling unwelcomed by a culture that never returned his embrace.

When he was 21, he packed what clothes he could in a green duffle bag and hitched a ride with a friend to Florida. He found himself sleeping on the sand, he said, on South Beach, with just $20 in his pockets and a resolve to leave Nebraska behind.

“All my life, I was told that being gay was wrong, especially at the reservation,” said Stabler, now 32. It wasn’t always that direct, but “I felt like nobody liked gay people.”

But there was a different time, when gays and lesbians were not only accepted in Native communities but, in some cases, revered because they embodied the “two spirits:” male and female.

The Omaha called two-spirited tribal members “mexoga.” The Lakota called them “winkte.” And the Navajo used the word “nadleehe.”

Myron Long Soldier, an Omaha elder who lives in Lincoln, harkened back to a time when Native Americans treated two-spirited people with sacredness and reverence.

That began changing with forced assimilation, he said, as Catholic friars and other evangelists swept into Native America along with the U.S. Cavalry to impose their will and culture on the people of the frontier.

And the white man’s religion introduced the concept of sin in describing two-spirited people, Long Soldier said.

Long Soldier hopes young Native Americans will be empowered to step out into the open “as the people they are” as LGBT communities struggle for greater awareness and acceptance in mainstream society and Native cultures.

The influences of Western culture, as well as social and religious indoctrination, have generated conflicted thinking about sexuality in Native cultures, said Nettie Grant Sikyta, the director of youth programs and suicide prevention at the Indian Center in Lincoln.

As a result, she said, gay youth, Native or otherwise, “have sometimes been ostracized and identified as different. They’re unique, and that doesn’t make it a bad thing.”

Traditional tribal culture, she said, espouses acceptance. “We try to view other people as the people they are, not what they are. I think our culture is one that is more accepting.”

Clyde Tyndall, the Indian Center’s executive director, said a creed of acceptance is indeed the way of his people and that more must be done to help gay and Lesbian youth.

“Younger generations need to be taught the respect that older generations had” for two-spirited people, said Tindall, who straddles both his native culture and his Christianity.

“Back then, things were different,” Tindall said. “Elders thought there was certain wisdom (two-spirited people) possessed because they might see things differently than everybody else.”

Stabler, who is now openly gay and is in a committed relationship with a non-Native man, concedes he does not know a lot about the old concept of “two spirits.” But he yearns for the old ways of thinking about gays and lesbians.

“I wish I had learned about ‘two spirits,'” Stabler said. “Maybe I wouldn’t have felt left out and lost. I’m very happy and proud for those tribes who still believe in it.”

He says tribes need to be stronger allies, particularly in marriage equality. “There is nothing stopping them from allowing gays and lesbians to marry,” he said, asserting that tribes have their own authority to grant same-sex marriage licenses.

Stabler wants to be remembered as the first Native American man to marry another man in Nebraska — when it becomes legal. He hopes that day will soon come.

“I love who I am,” Stabler said. “I am gay, and I am a Native American man. I am both, and I am very proud of that.”