Two-spirit powwow dancer shares the importance of telling all Indigenous stories

The fact that Indigenous Peoples’ Day and National Coming Out Day both happen to fall on Oct. 11 this year is not lost on Sherenté Mishitashin Harris, a two-spirit gender-queer powwow dancer from the Narragansett tribe in Rhode Island.

In fact, it seems almost meant to be, given that the 21-year-old college student is the subject of a new documentary, Being Thunder, that highlights multiple dualities — being both Indigenous and queer and embracing both male and female identities.

“I think it’s very special,” Sherenté told In The Know. That said, they stress that the LGBTQIA2S community isn’t a modern idea and indeed has Indigenous roots.

And for Sherenté, those roots run deep.

“Many powwow dancers talk about dancing before they could walk and [are] even dancing in our mothers’ bellies,” said Sherenté, a dual-degree student at Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design. “My mother went out into that powwow circle pregnant with me, taking her baby into that circle and hearing the drumbeat and stepping to the beat of that drum.”

While Sherenté learned how to dance from watching their elders and parents, who were champion powwow dancers themselves, one moment in childhood stands out more than most — when they walked into a powwow Grand Entry with their father and saw the Fancy Shawl dancers dancing.

“I remember,” Sherenté said, “from that early age, already having such a longing to be with the women and have my place as a two-spirit person in our community.”

Being Thunder

That evolution, challenges included, is captured in Being Thunder, a documentary directed by French filmmaker Stéphanie Lamorré and is screening at LGBTQ+ film festival NewFest this month in New York and online. (Full disclosure: In The Know by Yahoo’s parent company, Yahoo, is a festival sponsor.)

Lamorré chronicles in moments both large and small Sherenté’s life as a high school student applying to college, a dutiful child to their parents, a sibling among six kids, a local tribal historian and a powwow dancer donning elaborate regalia and dancing among Native women. And all of these moments are intermingled with Sherenté’s two-spirit identity.

“I really wanted to make a documentary about a young Native American person fighting for [their] community,” Lamorré told Women and Hollywood.

“I hope [audiences] will be touched and moved by the story of Sherenté, which is a universal story about love and acceptance. I hope they will understand how deep the desire was to destroy and dominate the Native culture and how hard it is to survive and keep your roots alive against colonization,” she added.

Within the film’s moments of beauty are also moments of heartbreak as Sherenté’s inclusion in the female category is questioned by some tribal members and even powwow judges.

“In a large part, I was very aware of what was going to be coming my way when I decided that I would express my authentic self in dancing in a traditionally women’s style of dance,” Sherenté said. “Being two-spirit, of course, means living in that in-between space of man and woman, and I was lucky enough to have a family that surrounded me with nothing but love and support and knowledge of our old ways. And so when I came out to my family, I did not need to be afraid that I would not be accepted.”

And while Sherenté said they were also generally accepted by their greater tribal community, there admittedly were some unwelcome slights as well.

“I guess my journey really started with a wish for myself to dance, but it very quickly unfurled into a greater journey of needing to be seen for the many voiceless cousins and loved ones that I had that were two-spirit that did not feel welcome in our powwow circle or perhaps only felt welcome as a certain version of themselves that was not their true self,” Sherenté said.

“No one can tell our stories better than us.”

But being able to tell their story, with all of the ups and downs, was crucial for Sherenté — not only for themself and the tribe but also for the communities beyond that.

“If we don’t tell our stories, our stories either won’t be told and the issues that we’re facing will never meet any resolution, will never be taken into consideration by our surrounding communities, or our stories will end up being told by someone who is not implicated by those stories,” they said. “No one can tell our stories better than us.”

Sherenté’s story clearly resonated beyond the tribal lands of the Narragansett and caught the attention of Nick McCarthy, director of programming at NewFest.

“As Sherenté navigates their life journey beyond high school and stands up against discrimination in Being Thunder, their tenacity and their family’s support are an inspiration to all audiences,” McCarthy told In The Know via email about why the festival chose to include the documentary in its lineup. “And we hope the film industry takes note of this marvelously moving documentary and we see even more representation of two-spirit and Indigenous communities next year and the years to come.”

Visibility

That visibility is exactly what Native American and Indigenous people in the U.S. hope to expand, especially as land and water rights remain lingering issues with arguably little widespread attention.

“Our dream, I think, for generations has always been visibility, and that visibility can only come about from telling our stories. That visibility is the answer, or at least the first step, to all of the issues that we’re facing because the issues are allowed to persist because no one knows about them outside of our communities,” Sherenté said.

As Sherenté uses their voice and platform — through social media as well as the documentary — they also want to encourage other Native American and two-spirit Indigenous youth to do the same.

“I want every Indigenous kid to feel empowered and to know and to be reminded that they are something so unique and special and that they should never take that for granted, that they come from powerful people and that their ancestors are still with them every day,” Sherenté said.

“I think for two-spirit people, I want to tell those kids that they do have a place, that they are sacred and special, and that we have always been here,” they added. “Their existence is the dream of their grandmothers and their grandfathers, and that should not be something that should ever be squandered.”

NewFest, the 33rd annual New York LGBTQ+ film festival, runs Oct. 15-26. Visit the festival website to find the full lineup of screenings and events, including Centering LGBTQ+ Indigenous Voices and Perspectives Onscreen, a panel moderated by the author.

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