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Indigenous Ways of Knowing (IWOK)

As sovereign nations, tribal governments maintain the power to determine their own governance structures, pass laws, and enforce laws through police departments and tribal courts. Tribal governments provide multiple programs and services, including, but not limited to, social programs, first-responder services, education, workforce development, and energy and land management. They also build and maintain a variety of infrastructure, including roads, bridges, and public buildings.

Historically, many Indian tribal governing documents (like tribal constitutions), are patterned after the U.S. constitution. This means that the underlying assumptions of who is being served, who is a citizen, and other normative assumptions undergird many tribal governance documents.  These founding documents – like the U.S. Constitution – often assume that citizens are genderless (therefore men) and have no sexual orientation (therefore are straight), etc. 

Disparities & Gaps in the Law

Increasingly well-documented, Native American LGBT and Two Spirit individuals face amongst the highest disparities across all social and health indicators. These disparities lead to cumulative outcomes that affect every area of life. For example:

  • 19.1% of Native American gay male couples live in poverty (as opposed to 2.7% of white gay men). Overall, one out of every five children of gay and lesbian couples is poor, compared to one out of every ten children of married opposite sex couples. However, nearly 41% of children being raised by Native American same sex male couples live in poverty.
  • 20% of Native American trans people live in extreme poverty, and they are more likely to be HIV positive. 
  • While Native Americans have the highest suicide rate of any population in the US, 56% of Native American Trans respondents in a national transgender survey had attempted suicide.

These disparities do not need to be permanent – there are ways for tribal governments to utilize their sovereignty to address the structural barriers that many LGBT and Two Spirit Native Americans face. The Tribal Equity Toolkit creates ways for Tribal governments to adjust their codes and policies to include and reflect the experiences of Two Spirit and LGBT tribal members. By making simple adjustments to policies – like the definition of family or extending hate and bias to cover sexual orientation and gender identity – Tribal governments can better recognize and protect all of their tribal citizens.

Background & Analysis

In 2009 IWOK began working on Two Spirit and LGBT Equality issues in Indian Country through a generous grant from the Western States Center’s Gender Justice Program.  During this early partnership IWOK redesigned activities from the Center’s Uniting Communities Toolkit and re-framed many of the curriculum tools to reflect the unique worldview of Tribes and Tribal People.  IWOK also re-articulated the issue within the essential frames of sovereignty, self-determination and culture and rooted our work for equality in this core belief: 

The work of decolonization can’t thoroughly happen without also addressing issues of Two Spirit & LGBT Justice. Colonization taught Tribal communities a great deal about homophobia and transphobia, as we work to consciously reclaim and return to our traditions we must also reexamine how the effects of colonization remain enshrined in Tribal Policy, Law and Structure. For Tribal Nations, LGBT Equality and Decolonization are inextricably linked, one cannot be truly be achieved without the other.

Return to the Tribal Equity Toolkit homepage

Indigenous Ways of Knowing (IWOK)

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