July 19, 2019

Steps Toward LGBTQ+ Equality on Pine Ridge

Kelsey Hill

Pine Ridge reservation is becoming a more inclusive space for LGBTQ and Two Spirit Natives.

Last week, the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council passed a same-sex marriage ordinance, making the Oglala Sioux Tribe (OST) the first Native American reservation to adopt a marriage equality law in South Dakota.

Two days later, the OST Law and Order Committee passed a resolution recommending that the tribe adopt a hate crime ordinance to include verbiage modeled on the Matthew Shepard Act. While South Dakota’s current hate crime law was adopted in 2002, it does not protect gender identity or sexual orientation. If the OST ordinance is passed next month when it comes to a vote, Pine Ridge tribal citizens would be protected by law from anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

The issue of LGBTQ rights was brought to the current council’s attention by two women, Monique “Muffie” Mousseau and Felipa De Leon, who grew up on Pine Ridge but found that they could not be married there in 2015.

“My wife called the tribal courthouse because it was legal across the United States. So she called the courthouse to see if we were able to get a marriage license from here, from our tribe,” said De Leon. “But they wouldn’t give us one.”

The couple eventually married at Mount Rushmore, but also began petitioning OST in May of this year so that future same-sex couples could marry legally on their ancestral homelands. Their successful petition has updated tribal domestic laws not altered since the 1930s.

Mousseau says that the denial of a marriage license was part of a larger pattern of discrimination and violence against LGBTQ people—especially those who are Native.

“We have seen and felt and heard the pain, the cries of suicide, sexual assaults, rapes, murders.” Mousseau said. “We have had to come back to different funerals, different events concerning LGTBQ. And nothing has changed as far as the gay bashing.”

As of 2015, a survey from the Center for American Progress and Movement Advancement Project reported that 36 percent of transgender Native Americans have lost a job because they are transgender. The National Alliance to End Homelessness reports that “homeless youth are disproportionately African-American or American Indian and are often from lower-income communities.”

Natives Americans have the highest rate of suicide in the country, and Native LGBTQ youth are at an elevated risk of suicide or self harm. In a 2012 national survey, over half of all Native trans and gender-nonconforming respondents had attempted suicide. Additionally, Native Americans make up four percent of all anti-LGBTQ homicides.

"Nothing has changed as far as the gay bashing.”

– Muffie Mousseau

The hate crime resolution passed at Pine Ridge provides an opportunity to create a safe and equitable space for all LGBTQ people on the reservation. The measure is currently up for further discussion and debate by district councils. The Tribal Council will vote on it next at its meeting on the fourth Tuesday of August.

Traditionally, Lakota culture—like many Native nations around Turtle Island—has long honored the LGBTQ/Two Spirit way of life. The term winkte in Lakȟótiyapi (the Lakota language) means a “two-souls person” and can be used generally to describe someone who is homosexual or transgender. However, during colonization via Jesuit priests, this word was misconstrued to mean “a plant or animal having both male and female reproductive organs.”

Thanks to the work of Mousseau and De Leon, the Oglala Lakota people are on track to reclaiming their ancestral traditions. The couple, having grandchildren now, believe it’s important to institute protections in their tribe so that their descendants can grow up in a place that recognizes the equality of all beings, regardless of who one loves.

“It’s a start,” said Mousseau. “And our biggest concern is for the health and wellbeing of the next generations.”

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