“Just Check In”: Talking about Well-being with Two Spirit & LGBTQ+ Elders

Alternative version of the Paths (Re)Membered logo.

Sadé Heart of the Hawk: I am Mi’kmaq First Nation from a small reserve in Nova Scotia, Canada. I’m presently living on the land of the Quinnipiac in Connecticut. I’m the Tribal Lead for the Zero Suicide Institute and as such, I get a chance to work with our people all over Turtle Island. I am a Two Spirit elder and medicine keeper of the New England States Two Spirit Society. I just started my 75th rotation around Grandfather Sun and still work full time, still dance competitively, still make my regalia. I’m living  my best life.

Bill Hall: I am a Tlingit Indian from Southeast Alaska. I’m of the Raven clan. I have been living with HIV since 1986. I am an elder for the Urban Indian Health Institute and a community advocate for the Native American community on HIV.

In this moment, what most contributes to your health and well-being?

Sadé: All you have to do is look in my closet and see how many ribbon skirts I’ve made to know how challenged I’ve been in the past two years by the isolation away from our people, away from our gatherings. So many things have been canceled, so many things I depend on for connection with my community and with other Two Spirit people. It’s been extremely hard on me. We’re relational people, we depend on each other. Our ceremonies, our gatherings, our talking circles and sweat lodges—all of the medicine has not been available to us. It’s been really hard on me and other old ones like me.

It’s starting to return. Montana had their Two Spirit Gathering for the first time live this past August. They had taken COVID precautions—you had to wear masks, and they had to check your temperature every single day, and you had to show your vaccination card. BAAITS is going to do their powwow live in February, and I will be there. But they’re doing a hybrid so we’re not going to get the thousands of people we usually get. It’s been extremely hard, extremely hard.

Bill: Even pre COVID isolation was a huge problem for elders in the gay community. That’s part of the gay culture. People ask me why I don’t go to the bars anymore. Well, the gay culture is if you’re not young, beautiful, and buff, you’re invisible. On top of the health problems that our older generation is suffering from already, they isolate, and they get stuck in that isolation. COVID has really exacerbated the isolation, especially if you live alone, and you have to shelter alone. It’s been a rough two years for me because pre-COVID I was so involved with many groups. I went to meetings. I was constantly going to seminars, conferences, speaking engagements, and it just stopped all of a sudden. And because of my age, I had to isolate. COVID affected the elderly more drastically. So the loneliness and depression have been really difficult to deal with. I’m not used to being alone so much. When everything stopped, it was culture shock for me.

How can community step up to help fill that gap and combat that isolation?

Sadé: Every once in a while, I’ll put on my Facebook page a little picture—three elders with long hair flowing behind them. Not male, not female, just elders. And I say, Check in. Check in with an elder. Say hello. People don’t realize how appreciative we are of that, of people just saying, “How are you doing?” “I’m thinking about you.” 

Facebook has been a blessing for many of us. I’ve been part of a number of elder/youth circles, where the elders are teaching the youth and the youth are sharing their knowledge, and there’s this beautiful interaction between the young ones and our elders. Having the opportunity for the children, for the young ones and the old ones, to actually listen to each other is a beautiful thing. 

I did something like that at the Montana Two Spirit Gathering in August. I set up two lines—a line of young Two Spirit and a line of elder Two Spirit people, and I had them talking to each other, responding to questions; the youth telling the elders what they want to know, the elders telling the youth they have a place in the circle. It was very powerful. 

I think social media is our key in these days, because we don’t know what’s going to happen or when it’s going to happen, or if it’s going to happen, if we’ll ever have a new normal. We really need to be creative about ways in which we can mitigate some of this isolation we’re feeling and some of this depression that comes with it. I’m an “FBI,” a Facebook Indian. I love it. Some people hate it, but it’s been a blessing for me in this time, because we can stay connected. Kids know how to navigate that space. They took Gathering of Nations and put it online, so we could all watch. I thought that was wonderful

Bill: I agree. For me what helps is people checking in on me. Calling me or emailing me or texting me to ask, How am I doing? Do I need anything? Do I want them to go to the store for me? That has really helped. It’s amazing, a text will come in right when I’m feeling the lowest, and I’ll feel my mood change. It’s been a long two years, and that has really been a blessing to me. Zoom meetings, too, keep me kind of connected. There are still long periods of time where I’m just sitting alone watching movies, so I enjoy that outside contact of a phone call or a text.

Anything else you’d want our readers to know about the health and well-being of Two Spirit and LGBTQ+ elders?

Sadé: There hasn’t been a whole lot of attention to Two Spirit and LGBTQ+ elders. People think if you are an Indigenous person and over the age of 60 or 70, you’re seen as a wisdom keeper, a knowledge keeper, someone to be treasured in your tribe. But that doesn’t always hold true for Two Spirit people. We don’t all live on our ancestral lands, and if we do, many of our Tribes are acculturated. In the boarding/residential schools, our people were taught there was something fundamentally wrong with us as Indigenous people and something even more wrong with us if we were Two Spirit.

So yeah, it’s wonderful to be an elder. And it’s beautiful for me to be Two Spirit. However, not everyone sees that beauty. Our Two Spirit elders need to feel that we’re honored and respected not just because we’re old, but also because we’re Two Spirit and were once considered sacred.

Bill: I agree a lot with what Sadé said. I was raised in boarding school, having been taken away from my family when I was nine years old. It really is difficult to be an elder. We may not be accepted by all of the community, but there are a large number of Two Spirit people we can pass on our wisdom to. We know the way.