International feature: Indian Blood – HIV and Colonial Trauma in San Francisco’s Two-Spirit Community

International feature: Indian Blood – HIV and Colonial Trauma in San Francisco’s Two-Spirit Community

HIV Australia | Vol. 13 No. 3 | December 2015\

By Andrew Jolivette

Indian Blood1 is a study conducted by Professor Andrew Jolivette, exploring the intersection of gender, sexuality, mixed-race identity and HIV among mixed-race, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and/or two-spirit (MLGBTQ2s) identifying American Indians living in urban areas.

The following is an abridged version of a speech Andrew delivered at the 2015 Australasian HIV & AIDS Conference in Brisbane on 18 September.

Andrew Jolivette delivers his address at the 2015 Australasian HIV & AIDS Conference, Brisbane, September 2015. Photo: Amanda James (James Photography Services), courtesy of Australasian HIV&AIDS Conference and ASHM.

Halito. Buenas tardes. Bon Jour. Kia Ora. Good afternoon. Much respect to the Jagara people and the Turrbal people, for allowing me to speak on your country. I also want to acknowledge the other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of this country.

I come here humbly and as a guest with an open heart and a thankful spirit for all that you and your ancestors share and sacrifice so that we might all gather here today as Indigenous peoples of the earth.

I am the son of Annetta and Kenneth, the grandson of Gertie and Howard and Isabella and Andrew. The great-grandson of Allie and Eli, Francois and Rosina, Eva and Edward, and Curtis and Leila.

I come from the Opelousa and Atakapa nations of southwest, Louisiana. Of a mixedblood Afro-Latin people – made-up of the lifeblood of American Indians, West Africans, and Latin Europeans.

I introduce myself in this way so that you will know who I am and where I come from as a fellow Native, Indigenous person and as a fellow relation.

Today is our day. Today is our time. Today is our day to tell our stories and to remember and reflect on all we have struggled through and all that you have accomplished since the onset of the HIV/ AIDS epidemic over 30 years ago.

Today I share the story of fifty Indigenous American Indian mixed-blood men and transgender identified people from the San Francisco bay Area who represent over two-dozen different nations. In sharing their story today, I also share my own story.

I’d like to open this story with a quote and a short passage from the introduction to my new book, Indian Blood: HIV and Colonial Trauma in San Francisco’s Two- Spirit Community:

‘HIV and AIDS is something that I have learned to live with. It’s also something that a part of me feels happened for a reason. I wasn’t sure if I should disclose my status in this way here today.

‘I spoke with a colleague about it and he said, “How will disclosing impact you? Will it benefit you? Are you giving anything up?”

‘I thought to myself, as a gay man of color, I have a responsibility to disclose. This is a very personal decision, but in indigenous communities and in communities of color we lack faces to make this pandemic real.

‘If you’ve never known someone living with AIDS, now you do. You know my story and in sharing it I hope that others will know that they can live with this. They can have a career, a family. They too can find love again.

‘Over the past three [eleven] years I have learned AIDS is not me. I am me. AIDS is only one other part of my life.’

The quotation that opens this chapter comes from a mixed-race, gay, American Indian man.

His story is not an uncommon one. For American Indian people today, HIV/AIDS, gender, sexuality, and mixed-race identity intersect in complex and traumatic ways in the absence of community support, cultural buffers, and stress-coping mechanisms to combat colonial oppression.

This is my story too. I open with my own story because I deeply believe in the practice of research justice.

Research justice is about seeking solidarity with research participants. It is about working with, not on research participants to weave a narrative, a set of life histories captured in one of many moments in time.

In fact, to understand the very nature of the colonial haunting that has displaced, removed, relocated, and perpetrated mass acts of genocide (i.e., kidnapping, boarding school abuse, sexual assaults, murder, forced sterilisation etc.) against Indigenous peoples, researchers must understand the significance of what Maori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith (1999) has termed ‘Indigenous methodologies.’

Smith argues that for most Indigenous peoples because of the abuse and lack of access to write about our own communities, research is considered a ‘dirty word’ to most Native peoples in the Americas and the Pacific.2

Thus to build a research relationship based on solidarity and justice one must consider research as a ceremony.3

When I was diagnosed with AIDS nearly 13 years ago, in October of 2002, I had 35 T-cells and a viral load of over 500,000. I thought I was dying.

I went through the scare of thinking I had liver failure which was the result of taking the drug Septra to fend off the pneumonia that had invaded my body. It turned out I was allergic to the medication which raised the enzyme levels in my liver.

At the time of my diagnosis I was just 27 years old, a graduate student trying to complete a dissertation, at the same time that I was working a full-time job as a middle school dean and teaching as a part-time lecturer at San Francisco State University.

While I struggled and thought my life might be over, I never struggled in the way that the men and transgender people from my project with the Native American AIDS Project struggled. The way they and many in our communities struggle.

I completed my dissertation and Ph.D. just five months after being released from the hospital, 25 pounds lighter at that time from the pneumonia … I have still faced many health obstacles and personal struggles.

In 2012, my mother passed away from breast cancer, and just a year and a half ago I myself was diagnosed with stage I prostate cancer.

While my health has been a constant up and down battle, I see the bright light in sharing my story. When we open our hearts, when we become vulnerable, when we share our stories and our ancestors stories we start to heal, we become whole again. We find balance.

Because of my academic training and personal interest in mixed-race studies I set out to understand how experiencing life as Indigenous and mixed impacted one’s chances for contracting HIV/AIDS.

What I learned on the journey is that like so many other facets of Indigenous life today, colonialism still attempts to rob us of the ability to tell our stories and to be our full selves.

The Indigenous people in the study shared so many painful and traumatic stories that were interconnected. These stories speak powerfully to the social and psychological patterns of what I term ‘two-spirit cultural dissolution’.

That is when we think about some of the traditional ways that same-gender loving Indigenous people around the world engage relationships and life we see that colonisation attempted to destroy that way of life and as that system of cultural support and well-being was dissolved so too were many of the necessary and foundational protective factors that can reduce risk for HIV transmission.

In Indian Blood – my study of the intersections of gender, sexuality, mixed race identity and HIV – I examine the impact of colonial and neocolonial repression of Native agency and subjectivity through the development of a Psychosocial Nexus of HIV Risk.

The Indian Blood Psychosocial Nexus of HIV Risk Model (IBPN HIV Risk Model) outlines historical and contemporary factors impacting the spread of HIV/ AIDS among MLGBTQ2s, and includes six interconnected psychological and social factors that produce high-risk sexual behavior.

These factors include: two-spirit cultural dissolution, historical/ inter-generational trauma, gender and racial discrimination, mixed-race cognitive dissonance, sexual violence, and stress coping in urban Indian kinship networks.

I argue that as the spiritual, socioeconomic, and cultural significance of two-spirit individuals dissolves – through colonial contact with Europeans – mixed-blood American Indian queer people experience ruptures in their social and cultural support networks that under normal circumstances would serve as protective factors against external discrimination.

As discrimination against two-spirits increases from contact to the present there is a breakdown in traditional/ tribally specific values, beliefs, and practices that lead to detrimental experiences with inter-generational trauma.

These traumas within the context of the Mixed-Race LGBTQ and Two-Spirit experience are manifested through racial and gender discrimination, mixed-race cognitive dissonance, and sexual violence.

If these traumas are left unaddressed from a diverse range of two-spirit cultural ethics then we can expect weak stress coping mechanisms within urban Indian kinship networks.

The only way to create more effective harm reduction models is through a return to a two-spirit cultural ethic of support, inter-generational mentoring, and ceremonial healing.

I want to briefly share a few quotes from the participants in the study to more carefully explain the six interrelated factors that produce high risk for HIV among mixed-blood Native people.

I want to say that while this study is small, and was done in one area of the United States, I do believe that it may speak to similar trends throughout the Americas and the Pacific.

Factor 1: Two-Spirit cultural dissolution

‘You know, I’ve been to places where I’ve met people, like myself on the reservation [who also attended boarding schools] but obviously didn’t like themselves enough because they didn’t want to do nothing for themselves.

‘But, um … I got beat up. I got the shit beat out of me so bad you wouldn’t even recognise me it was so bad. I got kicked in the face about 25 times by this guy with boots on.

‘Just totally beat up on the reservation, nobody came to help, nobody helped me ….

‘After leaving I got into a relationship but then I started using again. So it was like, you know what?

‘You’re gonna go back to the reservation and end up back where you were, go back down hill – sobriety.

‘That’s why I came here. I needed to get the sobriety. And that was the main thing. Because what was up there for me was no longer [working].

‘You know there was like … a mile of death up there, really serious death up there. So to me, like when death is always open, all those old people are definitely gone, those people are definitely gone.’

— Indian Blood Focus Group Respondent, 2012.

The process of two-spirit cultural dissolution for MLGBTQ2s American Indians has taken place over many centuries and the damage brought forth by colonisation and on-going settler colonialism has led to the dissolving of two-spirit cultural support networks.4,5,6,7

The dissolution of two-spirit cultural practices is a direct result of religious missionaries and government officials who worked to erode, destroy, and reshape gender and sexual practices within Native communities throughout the Americas.8

Factor 2: Historical and intergenerational trauma

‘I grew up by myself and um, a lot of ducking and dodging, you know, a lot of, it was just a constant.

‘A constant life you know, so um, and my family didn’t know how to deal with it cause my mother was working all of the time, she didn’t know what was going on, and I don’t know, I was drunk a lot too, you know.

‘I started smoking cigarettes, I learned how to inhale when I was about 5 or 6 years old and I liked it. I was smoking and my sister would let me smoke.

‘By the time I turned 13, my mother allowed me to smoke cigarettes, she allowed me to smoke weed, she allowed me to do speed, she let me do whatever I wanted.

‘As long as I did what I was supposed to do you know.’

— Indian Blood Respondent, 2012.

Historical traumas are culturally, economically, and spiritually transferring from one generation to the next leading to inter-generational traumas that are not only endemic within Native communities, but these experiences with trauma are also central to US polices of control, paternalism, and global imperialism.

Factor 3: Gender and racial discrimination

‘I’m short, I’m fat, and I’m red. And I ain’t upset about it. When it comes to dominant culture I’ve never related. I mean never.

‘I always look at values, well on the contrary I kind of take an opposing view, is that what they call it?

‘Identity to me is still kind of problematic because of quote ‘gay/queer’ culture. I was never ‘out’, but I was labeled as being out, so I was the person that other people came out to, both male and female.

‘Historically, I’ve always, ALWAYS, been at more comfort with um… female identity.

‘Whether it’s biological, mostly biological female, but it’s just that femaleness. If I’ve got a choice, if I’m gonna kick it with the boys, hetero or gay or queer, or I’m gonna kick it with the dykes, I’m going with the dykes.

‘ Cause I can relate, I understand those dynamics.’

— Indian Blood Respondent, 2012.

Gender and racial discrimination is mitigated through stress-coping mechanisms that range from substance abuse to exercise, to cultural activities for the majority of participants in the study.

Not every form of stress-coping equally reduces high-risk sexual behavior. In fact, some stress-coping strategies actually can increase risk for HIV/AIDS transmission among members of this population demographic.

Factor 4: Mixed-race cognitive dissonance

‘Like ya know racially, I’m like a quarter white, but I don’t feel white and I don’t look white, so … Um …

‘People can’t often tell, cause I’m so mixed about what I am actually. So um… Like Latinos will think I’m Latino, Filipinos will think I’m Filipino.

‘Ya know, some Asians will think that I might be part Asian or something, and Indian people will often think I’m Indian or Mexican or something. I’m just racially unidentifiable often.

‘Um, I think that growing up I felt a difference between the way like white people feel about themselves and their privileges.

‘Like I think they feel more entitled often to things. And I’ve actually seen that a bit in my family, because I know like the side of my family that’s like Latino and Asian they came from a colonial place..

‘And also like my dad on the Cherokee side, he was racist too. He like did not like Black people. And I’m not sure if that was a part of being white or part of like the Indian side.

‘And I sense, ya know, knowing what the community is like now in Oklahoma it’s probably both.

‘Yeah so I not only experienced racism, feeling discriminated against, but I also saw just people in my own family discriminating against other people.

‘So I knew often the weird dynamics that race can play just in your own immediate family.’

— Indian Blood Respondent, 2012.

MLGBTQ2s feel both conscious and unconscious pressure to surrender their power in naming themselves in an ethnic/ racial sense because other people will always expect the mixed-race subject to respond to the same fixed identity that they ascribe upon them.

The ascription of ethnic and racial identity upon MLGBTQ2s also produces challenges in developing a congruent, collective social memory and sense of true community membership.

Factor 5: Sexual violence

‘At the age of 8, I started, or I was being raped. I was raped from the age of 8 until I was 18.

‘Right or wrong I actually did the one thing that they tell you not to do and I actually resisted, so I experienced some extreme violence. I suppose I’m kind of a case study.

‘I was just 8 when this all started. So the behavior that I took on displayed during that time, was atypical. I tried to resist.

‘But yet it’s in the American paradigm, let’s blame the victim, and I was just a bad student.

‘And it’s like no I was just doing the best I could with, ya know, I was just doing the best that I knew how given the circumstances.

‘Later I got into the BDSM [bondage, domination, sadomasochism] world. Hmmm, I wonder why? BDSM. Pain baby, pain!’

— Indian Blood Respondent, 2012.

Two-Spirit Bodies (TSBs) experience psychological assault, physical violence, negation and erasure as a result of colonial and settler-colonial narratives concerning the performance of gender and sexuality within the singular context of Western categorical definitions that lead to what Eduardo and Bonnie Duran (1995) describe as soul loss.

Factor 6: Stress coping in an urban Indian kinship network

‘It felt like … It almost felt like just because we’re Indian and we don’t hang out or things like that but I mean …

‘I always wanted to be friends with Indians, but they always seemed kinda like I was … I felt like not really Indian because I was raised by White people so it was kind of …

‘I was always kind of shy and I didn’t identify with Indian issues. But um … It was when I came to NAAP that I was able to find out about BAAITS and all these wonderful organizations that have to do with American Indian people.

‘So I learned how to bead, and like all these wonderful things like I’d been wanting to experience all these wonderful things for many years and I never knew that I could because I just never thought about it.’

— Indian Blood Respondent, 2012.

Effective, ethnic-specific, and culturally competent health care practices can strengthen stress-coping mechanisms within urban Indian MLGBTQ2s communities while also reducing highrisk sexual behaviors that lead to the transmission of HIV/AIDS.

Well organised, consistent, and empowering urban Indian kinship networks can also reduce the psycho-social risk factors associated with the IBPN Model.

The culmination on this study will be a two-year cultural leadership, peer mentoring intervention.

A Stress and Wellness Rubric will be developed to assess differences from the beginning of the intervention to the end to assess the effectiveness of the Inter-Generational Healing and Leadership Model on participants.

Data and rubric measures will be published in peer-reviewed journals, and additional funding will be utilised to focus on a national study/intervention.

Let today be the beginning of a new day where blood is what sews us back together not what tears us apart.


1 For further information about the study, see:

2 Smith, L. (1999). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Zed Books, London.

3 Wilson, S. (2008). Research is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods. Fernwood Publishing, Halifax.

4 Giley, B. (2006). Becoming Two-Spirit: Gay Identity and Social Acceptance in Indian Country. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.

5 Jacobs, S., Wesley, T., Lang, S. (1997). Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality. University of Illinois Press, Urbana.

6 Morgensen, S. (2011). Spaces between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Decolonization. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

7 Roscoe, W. (1998). Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

8 Tinker, G. (1993). Missionary Conquest: The Gospel and Native American Cultural Genocide. Fortress Press, Minneapolis.

Andrew Jolivette is Professor and Chair of the American Indian Studies at San Francisco State University, where he is an affiliated faculty member in Educational Leadership, Sexuality Studies and Race and Resistance Studies.

His forthcoming book, Indian Blood: HIV and Colonial Trauma in San Francisco’s Two-Spirit Community. (University of Washington, May 2016), explores the efficacy of an Indigenous stress coping mechanism along with a new intervention model on Inter-Generational Healing and Cultural Leadership to reduce HIV risk among multiracial, two-spirit populations.