A Forgotten Pioneer: The Two-Spirit Activism of Barbara Cameron


Too usually, pioneers like Barbara Cameron—a Hunkpapa Lakota, lesbian, Two-Spirit chief, AIDS activist and social organizer in San Francisco’s Native American group—are forgotten or written out of historical past.

The time period “Two-Spirit” is an umbrella time period used to indicate Native American individuals who embody each female and male spirits. It was adopted by homosexual and lesbian Indians, like Barbara Cameron. (Robert Giard / Copyright Property of Robert Giard)

Every March, we rejoice pioneering figures in girls’s historical past. We rightly replicate on the accomplishments, insights, and management of ladies reminiscent of Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Jane Addams and plenty of extra. These girls modified the course of American historical past.

One such lady who helped change America, however who’s hardly ever remembered, is Barbara Cameron. Born on Might 22, 1954, Cameron grew up on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. A Hunkpapa Lakota, Cameron packed so much into her 47 years—a lifetime of group organizing and activism on behalf of Two-Spirit folks. 

The time period “Two-Spirit” is an umbrella time period used to indicate Native American individuals who embody each female and male spirits. Adopted by homosexual and lesbian Indians in 1990, Two-Spirit is an English translation of the Northern Algonquin phrase niiz manitoag. By adopting the time period Two-Spirit, homosexual and lesbian leaders in Native American communities underscored their dedication to make their struggle towards the dual prejudices of homophobia and racism seen to Native and non-Native People.

Barbara Cameron embraced this new time period as a option to introduce Two-Spirit folks to all People. However who was Barbara Cameron? 

Cameron was a lesbian, an identification she described as “like a swish however studied ballet.” She was raised by her grandparents and taught from an early age that she was “particular.” Cameron definitely recalled feeling “completely different” as a baby, which meant that the constructive reinforcement that her grandparents supplied was a fine addition to her nonetheless creating sense of selfhood. Cameron’s self-confidence was additionally helped by the truth that she was a promising pupil. 

“My grandparents all the time informed me I may do something I needed or be something I needed,” Cameron later recalled. If her grandparents nurtured her, Cameron recognized a task mannequin in Beatrice Medicine, an anthropologist and Sihasapa and Minneconjou Lakota, whom Cameron strove to emulate. 

Cameron left the reservation to pursue her academic desires, first at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, after which on the San Francisco Artwork Institute. She arrived in San Francisco in 1973 and went on to have a profitable profession as an artist and photographer. However it was her work as a group organizer and activist that modified folks’s lives.

Within the Seventies, racism inside San Francisco’s homosexual and lesbian group meant that LGBTQ Native People had few cultural retailers and restricted social sources to name on. So, they created their very own—and Cameron led these efforts.

In 1975 she co-founded Gay American Indians (GAI) with Randy Burns, a Northern Paiute. Collectively, Cameron and Burns turned pioneers in San Francisco’s homosexual and lesbian Native American group. As a forerunner to up to date organizations such because the Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits (BAAITS), the GAI supplied homosexual and lesbian Indians with a protected area to socialize, community, and to entry details about assist companies.

In 1991, Cameron mirrored on her private journey and the modifications she’d seen in San Francisco for the reason that early Seventies. “Lately,” Cameron noticed, “two spirited persons are turning into extra seen  in our communities.” By now a veteran of group organizing in San Francisco’s Two-Spirit group, Cameron noticed this new time period as a path to Native American empowerment. 

Bay Space American Indian Two Spirits at San Francisco Pleasure in 2013. Within the Seventies, racism inside San Francisco’s homosexual and lesbian group meant that LGBTQ Native People had few cultural retailers and restricted social sources to name on—so, they created their very own. (Scarlet Sappho / Flickr)

The event for Cameron’s 1991 speech was the funeral of Phil Tingley. A homosexual Kiowa man, Tingley had moved to San Francisco from Oklahoma in 1971. A person of immense intelligence, compassion, and heat, Tingley labored with Indigenous kids and advocated for homosexual and lesbian Indians. These roles gave Tingley the chance to play an lively position in constructing a way of group for Two-Spirit folks within the Bay Space. Tragically, AIDS took Tingley’s life too quickly. It was now as much as folks like Cameron to proceed his work.

Barbara Cameron had a capacious mind and a eager understanding of American politics. Her private papers, archived on the San Francisco Public Library, reveal the breadth of her mind and the depth of her politic expertise. These deeply private writings reveal her ardour to repeatedly work for a extra simply society. In a single unpublished essay, she writes “that my political activism is essentially because of the truth that I’m an Indian.” Rising up on the “rez,” witnessing the hypocrisy of organized Christianity, and studying about the US authorities’s makes an attempt to destroy Native communities impressed her political activism. Cameron distills all of this in her 1991 eulogy for Phil Tingley. It’s an unbelievable doc: it’s a deeply private testimony, poignant historic reflection, and a public celebration of Two-Spirit futures.

Cameron understood the significance of nurturing group amongst San Francisco’s homosexual and lesbian inhabitants. She additionally acknowledged that doing so meant confronting racism head-on. The truth is, she by no means shied away from a chance to name out racism and homophobia in Native and non-Native communities. Her 1991 speech was no exception. “I’ve heard straight Indian folks discuss homosexuality as a white man’s illness,” Cameron defined, “nevertheless it’s homophobia that’s the white man’s illness.” Underscoring the historic significance of her message, Cameron insisted that “smallpox decimated lots of our folks and so has homophobia.”

With HIV/AIDS disproportionately impacted Native folks within the early Nineties, and racism and homophobia nonetheless very a lot a part of America’s political and cultural life in 1991, Cameron’s phrases underscored the fearlessness of her management. 

However as a Two-Spirit pioneer, Cameron did greater than confront prejudice; she impressed folks. In that very same speech, Cameron spoke about how “it’s vital for us as Indian Individuals as we reclaim and revitalize our languages and traditions to incorporate the heritage and contributions of Indian lesbians and homosexual males.” She concluded with a profound but succinct message that continues to be true at present: “To know and perceive that being lesbian or homosexual is an Indian custom.”

Barbara Cameron devoted her life to this message. In remembering the Phil Tingley’s legacy, she constructed on the information he’d shared along with her and which she in flip shared along with her group. Importantly, Cameron wasn’t alone; there have been different Two-Spirit pioneers within the Nineties. She shared the burden of management with folks like Randy Burns, Clyde Corridor, Stephen Barrios, Richard LaFortune, Janet Noticed Eagle, and plenty of others who labored in San Francisco and in Two-Spirit communities throughout North America.

Cameron’s life ended immediately in 2002, aged simply 47. At her memorial service, Tom Ammiano, San Francisco Board of Supervisors president, remembered Cameron’s “advantageous qualities of coronary heart and thoughts.” Cameron used these qualities to make life higher for Two-Spirit folks, to champion for the rights of these troubled with AIDS, and to care for girls impacted by violence. 

Right now, it’s price reflecting on pioneering Two-Spirit leaders like Barbara Cameron. At an Elders panel organized to rejoice this 12 months’s BAAITS powwow, the Southern Cheyenne Elder Marlin Fixico spoke movingly about how he’s a part of the “first era of Two-Spirit Elders.” After all, tribal communities throughout North America have lengthy had particular traditions and titles to discuss with folks with fluid gender and sexual identities, however Fixico is correct: He’s a part of the primary era of Elders to self-consciously nurture Two-Spirit identities and communities. It’s a era that builds on the life and legacy of Barbara Cameron. 

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