American Indian/Alaska Natives

The number of LGBT individuals in American Indian and Alaska Native communities is not definitely known, although it is believed to resemble the parameters of the dominant population. From self-reports and the small amount of research findings available, American Indians and Alaska Natives in gay or lesbian relationships report a higher degree of bisexuality than do their Caucasian counterparts.

Historically, some American Indian and Alaska Native communities viewed the role of a native person who was different from other community members as having a strong spiritual component. Being different was seen as a result of a spiritual experience and a path chosen by the Creator or the Spirits for that person. Many American Indian and Alaska Native communities used the term “twospirited” to describe LGBT individuals. Traditionally, American Indian and Alaska Native nations were taught to celebrate the differences and to see all their members as sacred beings fashioned by the Creator. At least 168 of the more than 200 Native American languages still spoken today have terms for genders in addition to male and female. Many LGBT people prefer the term “two-spirited” because it expresses their sense of combining a male and female spirit. It is also considered empowering for a person to choose what to be called as opposed to accepting a label given by another. This may be particularly true for this group. In the past, the culture, language, and religion of American Indian and Alaska Native people were oppressed by the majority culture. Christian missionaries used their influence in converting many traditional rituals into Christian rituals. Many native children were sent to government-run boarding schools and were prohibited from speaking their native languages and practicing their native customs. Along with erasing traditional roles, the traditional respect for two-spirited people also was diminished.

While American Indian and Alaska Native clients are in treatment, it is important to determine their level of acculturation, their tribal affiliation, and the degree to which their sexual or gender identity is accepted by their tribal community and family. In many communities, being accepted by one’s family is a measure of health and connectedness. If the family has difficulty accepting the client’s sexual orientation, recovery from substance abuse may be hindered. Reintegrating the individual into his or her family may help in the recovery process. Becoming reconnected with family is seen as necessary for health in native tradition. Achieving awareness of one’s sexual orientation or identity may occur in a different way for native men and women than for their non-Indian LGBT counterparts.

Values. Some common tribal values are the importance of sharing and generosity, allegiance to one’s family and community, respect for elders, noninterference, orientation to the present time, and harmony with nature. Respect for individual autonomy within the community, respect for family, and honoring the earth are entwined, and each person depends on others for meaning and existence. Traditional beliefs support the existence of a Supreme Creator and the view that each human has many dimensions such as the body, mind, and spirit. Like humans, plants and animals are part of the spirit world that coexists and intermingles with the physical world.

Language. Words are to be honored and not wasted. Language is used to impart knowledge, often through stories. The legends and stories often have specific meanings and involve intricate relationships. Use of symbolism, animism, subtle humor, and metaphors is important. Direct questioning is not as important. Practitioners need to be aware of both their language and nonverbal behavior when communicating with this group.

Nonverbal behavior. Their emphasis on observant, reflective, and integrative skills leads American Indian and Alaska Natives to behavior patterns of silence, listening, nonverbal cues, and learning by example. Some traditional natives would view a firm handshake as intrusive and rude; eye contact is used minimally; and a passive demeanor is appropriate.

Learning styles. Historically, their survival depended on learning the signs of nature, so observation is central to American Indians and Alaska Natives. Learning is accomplished by watching and listening and through trial and error. Cultural norms and values are passed from generation to generation through rituals, ceremonies, and the oral tradition of storytelling. The relationship with a teacher is important, but trust needs to be established.

Healing. Wellness is harmony of the mind, body, and spirit, and native people feel they are responsible for their own wellness. Healing is interconnected with the whole person and rooted in spiritual beliefs connected to the earth and nature. Some traditional practices are the talking circle, sweat lodge, four circles, vision quest, and sun dance and involve community healers, elders, and holy persons (CSAT, 1999b).