Harlan Pruden, a member of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, shared his personal experience with stigma and racism in Canada, illustrating the role that colonization plays in health disparities faced by Indigenous people. Growing up, Pruden internalized a sense of shame over both his race and sexuality, but discovered a new sense of purpose and identity after becoming a two-spirit activist.
The first in his family to attend university, Pruden explained that he has experienced and brought about a reversal of fortune in his own life, in which the President of the United States now calls on him because he’s gay and First Nations.
I try to walk in the best way – in a humble way – because it’s for my people that I do walk.
Reflecting on his experience of family violence, Pruden explained that he now understands how his mother’s time in residential schools shaped her as a parent. “It’s how the historical trauma bleeds into intergenerational trauma that kicks off these cycles of abuse,” he said. “You’re absolutely right – we cannot program our way out of it. … My mission and purpose is to restore that which was taken from us – language, culture, who are we as Native people – who am I as ayahkwêw – two-spirit – or nēhiyaw [Cree]?”
Pruden argued that, although a great deal of work has been done in the past 20 years to label and name the disparities affecting Ingenious peoples, the situation has not improved. He praised PACHA’s Vice-Chair, David Holtgrave, for lending his voice to support Indigenous communities and called on others to do the same. Noting that Indigenous peoples make up only 1.5% of the population in the United States and 3.4% of the population in Canada, he said, “Before you I lay the challenge to stand in allyship with us, because we cannot do it. We cannot vote you out, we cannot organize you out, because our populations are so small. So, we must stand in community.”
Highlighting the need to step outside of Western knowledge frameworks, Pruden explained that Elders have evidence-based knowledge that comes from observation of human behaviour, although it takes a different form than scientific study. He emphasized the need to approach Indigenous communities in a way that respects the knowledge these communities can offer.
Pruden also called on Indigenous people to assert their indigeneity. He explained that, although the national prevalence of HIV is 1%, Indigenous populations are so small that this constitutes a serious danger. “There’s no other place in the world in which our blood runs than on this land, so once we’re gone we’re gone,” he said.
Finding a Place for Two-Spirit Voices
In an interview with OHTN staff, Pruden explained that, while the contemporary understanding of “two-spirit” is that it refers to the Indigenous LGBT community, traditional Indigenous cultures did not have equivalent concepts. In the Cree nation, there were four different genders, and gender was determined by a person’s role or function in society rather than whom that person was sleeping with.
Cree society was still hetero-normative, but two-spirit people could travel between the men’s and women’s camps. As Pruden explained, “I, as an ayahkwêw male-bodied two-spirit person, could take a straight Native man as my husband. My husband would do all of the things that were socially expected, including having sex. But, because he was having sex outside of his gender, his heterosexuality would never be called into question.”
Growing up in contemporary Canada, Pruden wasn’t aware of this tradition. He once asked an Elder about two-spirit people, and was told that they were wendigo – cannibalistic spirits that eat children who stray too far from the fire. Pruden explained that the same Elder told him the weaving of sweet grass was emblematic of the Holy Trinity – a sign that his knowledge of tradition had been filtered through a Christian worldview. Reflecting on the impact Christianity has had on two-spirit identity, Pruden said, “A part of colonization is that homophobia is well and alive within… certain sectors of the Native community.”
Pruden explained that two-spirit people have also struggled to fit into the dominant LGBT community in North America. “Racism is very much alive,” he said, “and so there’s a lot of stigma when we try to engage in work or interact with that broader LGBT community. … In many respects, for many years, we were a lost or displaced people. [Most of] the Native people didn’t acknowledge or wants us, and the LGBT community didn’t make us feel welcome. That speaks to what we carry in our hearts, which then informs a lot of the way in which we engage with the world.”
As a two-spirit activist, Pruden has made it his mission to recover this history to instill greater cultural pride within his community.