Continuous is my small answer to the large question: how do we as Indigenous people decolonize our sexualities, genders, and the way we treat individuals who identify outside of the standard binary of male or female? I have replied to that question with this ongoing portrait series featuring members of the Indigenous lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and Two-Spirit (LGBTQ2) community.
Continuous explores identity, sexuality, gender diversity, discrimination, and pride and how those elements overlap, diverge, and inform each other. This work is personal and communal. It is the product of the many years it took me to overcome the internalized hatred and fear of my own identity and sexuality. It is in the unity and diversity of the Indigenous LGBTQ2 community where I found the strength to be who I am today. The individuals shown here are a small sampling of that large and variant group. While we are indeed incredibly diverse, we also share many commonalities. Some I have known since childhood, others I have met as a young adult, and some are new and now cherished friends.
I believe that prior to colonization, my ancestors did not discriminate against those who were gender variant or non-heterosexual. I believe that the value of an individual was measured by their contribution to their community and nothing else, leaving queer individuals free from judgment and harm. Contemporary Indigenous activists in 1990 coined the term "Two-Spirit" to refer to Indigenous people who are gender variant or non-heterosexual. This term is also meant to evoke pre-colonial values. I identify as gay, queer, and Two-Spirit. Some subjects of Continuous identify as Two-Spirit as well.
Continuous intends to achieve powerful goals.
Those goals are:
To transform negative attitudes towards Indigenous LGBTQ2 people.
To break down stereotypes and show that we as Indigenous people are diverse in the way we look, act, feel and see the world.
To support the healing of Indigenous communities.
By identifying an Indigenous LGBTQ2 community, Continuous connects us to a growing global community of Indigenous LGBTQ2 people. Through knowing who we are and establishing ourselves publically as a group, we can lend support to one another.
I must stress that although the individuals in this series were willing to share their identities and stories, some LGBTQ2 people cannot safely do so, because of the discrimination that exists. This project is for them, to be one building block of a world where they can live their lives authentically, as they feel best. What you see here is the beginning of a much larger body of work that will document, support, and amplify the voices of Indigenous queer people.
We exist, we are unique, we deserve respect, and we bring beauty to this world.
We are Continuous.
Bethany Horton, 2016
My name is Bethany Horton. I was born and raised in Nome, Alaska. I am Alaska Native and belong to the Nome Eskimo Community. My mother was born in Clover, New Mexico, and she is white – British and Welsh. My father was born in Greenville, South Carolina, and he is Alaska Native and white.
Bethany is not the typical Alaska Native girl. Working on trucks in her spare time, Bethany spends most of her time hunting, fishing, and picking berries for her family and elders who are unable to provide for themselves.
Citing a need for positive role models in the Alaska Native and LGBTQ2 communities, Bethany personally aims to empower younger generations, such as her niece and seven nephews, to be themselves: “no one should be afraid of the life they live, whether they are straight, bi, lesbian, or gay.”
To Bethany, the most important quality in a LGBTQ2 role model is “the ability to overcome troublesome obstacles.”
Ricky Tagaban, 2016
My name is Ricky Tagaban. I’m L’uknax.adi from Diginaa Hit, and Wooshkeetaan wadi from Xeitl Hit. My dad is Tlingipino and my mom is German and Italian.
“Being Two-Spirit means I have a clear path lit with wild opportunities. My career as a Chilkat Weaver began because of my sexual orientation. Before I came out of the closet, I took refuge in my Tlingit culture. Being gay and Tlingit has allowed me to constantly evaluate who I am.”
Ricky “came out” one month before his 15th birthday. To him, it was important: “I don’t ever want to lie about who I am. That would disrespect our ancestors who resisted pressures to assimilate; and the generations of gay people who stood up to police brutality, public humiliation, etc. They fought to make it safe for people like us to live without shame.”
Ricky is grateful to live in the present era: it “encourages me to harmonize the various parts of myself. Where I can hunt, fish, create art, perform as a drag queen, love authentically, and weave with pride.”
Moriah Sallaffie, 2015
I am Uliggag; my English name is Moriah Sallaffie. I was raised mostly in Nome, Alaska, but my family is originally from Mamterilleq (Bethel). Wiinga Yup’iuga (I am Yup’ik).
“I belong to several marginalized communities—women, Indigenous, LGBTQ—and like everyone, I exist in a world that has already defined for me what is considered normal and best:
White. Heterosexual. Male.”
Recently, Moriah made the decision to move to Iqaluit, Nunavut, to live with her partner.
“An elder, a friend, asked me about my move: ‘I hear you’re moving for love. What’s his name?’
I paused and replied, ‘Her name is Jesse.’”
Moriah’s friend was silent before changing the subject. “I was heartbroken,” Moriah writes, “I felt rejected.” It was through meaningful relationships with other women, that Moriah learned more about, and felt more empowered to be, herself.
Her friend then told her that not that long ago, when a man or woman—no matter what their sexual orientation—found a partner and brought them home, their family was happy and welcoming. “That is how it used to be,” he said. Homophobia was not traditionally practiced in Alaska Native communities. Moriah writes, “The colonial mindset has been imposed upon us and forced us to adopt lifeways, ideas, and understandings that are so backwards that we reject ourselves and other community members.”
To Moriah, “too much is at stake when we do not define ourselves; it’s time to change the narrative:”
“We are — Beautiful. Perfect. Powerful. Indigenous. Two-Spirit. Queer AF. LGBTQ.”
Bonnie Maroni, 2016
I am Bonnie Maroni. My biological mom, Theresa Beltz, gave birth to me in Anchorage, Alaska. I am 1/4 Inupiaq and according to some family, my dad was Athabascan. My biological mother never revealed to me who my father was. My adoptive mother, Kathy Williams, is related to me. Her mother and my grandmother were half-sisters.
Growing up in California in a pre-internet world, Bonnie relied on her family to introduce her to Alaska Native culture. “It wasn’t an accurate representation,” Bonnie laments. “My family was far removed from the community. When I moved back, I experienced culture shock.” She was shy; she kept to herself. “I may have the blood and appearance, but I do not have the experience.”
Bonnie is not personally immersed in her culture, but she is proud to know her ancestors survived in such an incredibly harsh environment for many centuries. She is also proud to know that families who are immersed have persevered in the face of colonialism intended to erase Alaska Native cultures.
“Outside of Alaska, I am considered exotic. In Alaska, I deal with racism both in and out of the LGBT community.” She points out: “as recent as 1998, Alaska residents voted to define marriage in the state constitution as ‘between a man and a woman.’”
Bonnie believes visibility is important: “Alaska Native youth rarely get to see someone in the media that looks like them, nevermind someone who is not heterosexual or does not conform to gender identities.” She believes that projects like Continuous are a spotlight for the celebration of diversity.
Atiġa Tuiġana, Ulġuniqmiuŋuruŋa. I am Inupiaq. My namesake is Tuiġana. My family is from Wainwright, Alaska, which is about 90 miles southwest, down the coast from Utqiaġvik. My aapaaluk is the late Billy Blair Patkotak Sr. and my aakaaluk is Amy Patkotak (Bodfish).
Tuiġana has been told her eyes show more years. She concludes the reason for that is, despite the advances in equality, “the stresses of being Inupiaq, queer, and a professional are taxing. It isn’t all rainbows and I want people to know that.”
Tuiġana “came out” to her mother by way of text. “I hope you don’t disown me!” she typed. Her mother gave her the silent treatment for three weeks—not because she didn’t want her to be queer, but because she thought, even for a moment, that she would disown her daughter for being honest about who she is.
Tuiġana’s family is overwhelmingly supportive, but many others in her position are not so lucky. There’s a lot of confusion, shame, and pain being closeted, especially in a village where many do not talk about being LGBTQ2.
“Being out is important, because when you aren’t, it causes psychological damage, especially from hiding yourself from the people you love. More importantly, being out stops the internal struggle you live with daily. It’s freeing yourself from that. It’s important to be out when you’re comfortable and feel safe doing so, because as an ‘out’ person you’re a visible member of the community. Being out reaffirms that being LGBTQ2 is a normal thing and needs to be talked about.”
Andrew Miller, 2016
My name is Andrew Miller. My Inupiaq name is, Senungetuk, after my great-grandpa, which later became our family’s surname following the 1918 Influenza Epidemic that hit Wales, Alaska, and the arrival of missionaries. I am originally from Nome, Alaska.
On whether or not he has hid his identity in the past, Andrew says: “I was never ‘in’ the closet. I believe that everyone has an intuition of when or if it is important to be out of the closet.”
Andrew understands and stresses the importance of representation for the well-being of the LGBTQ2 community: “I strongly feel that any depictions of hope and/or inspiration, especially from Continuous will elicit some sort of connection that I believe is needed and desired” within the Alaska Native LGBTQ2 community. “Being part of this project helps me by knowing that I could possibly be making a difference in someone’s life and give hope to them, that they are not alone. I want to inspire at least one person to believe they are not wrong for simply being who they are, and they are not as different as they may feel. That we are the same, we are human.”
Andrew states that his family keeps him grounded. “My mom Charlotte, my aunt Leah, and my sister Jenny give me strength.”
Will Bean, 2016
My name is Will “Kusiq” Bean. I live in Anchorage, Alaska, and my family is from Wainwright, Alaska. I am Inupiaq, Aleut, and Athabaskan.
Will is passionate about projects like Continuous, that strengthen the LGBTQ2 community that currently lacks quality conversations about being queer:
“By increasing our visibility, I hope it will inspire other LGBTQ2 Alaska Native persons to become more comfortable with their own identity. I think if we learn the words our peoples have used for persons like us, we can bring together Alaska Natives and LGBTQ2 identities to create a strong and thriving community.”
“It’s important to be visible to various communities, especially for the youth. I mention the youth because I, myself, didn’t know any adult LGBTQ2 persons and the ones I did see were on Logo TV. That took a toll on my self-confidence because I didn’t fit within that limited perspective of what a gay male is supposed to look or sound like.”
For Will being part of Continuous, “allows me to look inwardly to examine where these two identities come together and from that I draw personal strength. I believe the more you know about yourself, the stronger you can be as a person. I don’t just say, ‘I am queer’ or ‘I am Alaska Native,’ but proudly state, ‘I am a queer Alaska Native’ and I feel empowered by that. I’ve struggled with being queer and being Alaska Native but I’m realizing that I’m neither but both together and I am proud to be a part of these beautiful communities.”
Toini Anna-Liisa Alatervo, 2016
My name is Toini Anna-Liisa Alatervo, I am Inupiaq and Finnish, and a University of Alaska Anchorage student. I work as an accountant and have four pets whom I love dearly. My greatest passion is making art and finding myself in nature. I identify as a lesbian Alaska Native who is proud of my heritage and identity.
Representation is important to Toini because it shows other Alaska Native LGBTQ2 people that they aren’t alone, and can foster a supportive community. “Growing up, I struggled coming to terms with my identity and not knowing the possible support groups or programs available. I felt confused and at a loss to who I was.”
After Toini’s parents divorced, her father gained custody of her and her two siblings. Shortly after, they moved to a new town. “Coming out was tremendously difficult. From ages 8 to 13 I lived in a new town and was isolated, with limited socializing opportunities with peers around me.”
“I couldn’t relate to conversations people carried over liking someone of the opposite sex. One night I was watching Ellen DeGeneres’ stand-up act, “Here and Now.” After watching that, I realized my sexuality. Several months later, I introduced my sister to The L Word and opened up to her about my sexuality. She gave caring support, while the rest of my family felt indifferent. Today I still have relatives who don’t agree with my sexuality. Nonetheless, I feel strong being myself, knowing who I am and staying true to that is the best choice I have ever made.”
Bonnie Irene Nicholson, 2016
I am Bonnie Irene Nicholson. My Eskimo names are Tatoulk and Enoungalook. My mom is Emily and my family comes from Wales, Alaska. My family name is Tokeinna. I am Inupiaq, and was born in Nome, Alaska.
When Bonnie “came out” to her family when she was about 18 years old, her honesty was met with negativity. Her mother ignored her (hoping it was a “phase”) and her brother told her she had a “mental illness.” Regardless of the rejection she received by her own family at an early age, Bonnie stands by her honesty: “I am just me being me.” She says, “I hope others look at my whole being, and do not just focus on my sexuality.”
Today, Bonnie serves as a role model to the children she works with on a daily basis: “I teach them to have a work ethic. And I build their confidence so they can strive to be something more in life.”
Rhonda Sparks, 2016
My name is Rhonda Sparks. I am Siberian Yupik and Caucasian. My mom is from Savoonga, Alaska and my dad is from California. I am Alaska Native, I have a wife, I am a mother, I am a coach, I am an athlete, and I am a woman.
To Rhonda, sharing photos of LGBTQ2 individuals shows the uniqueness, which will reduce some of the stereotypical images of what it means to identify as LGBTQ2. “You don’t have to be one or the other, just be yourself. That’s important, to be yourself and be comfortable.”
Growing up in Nome, Rhonda found she gravitated towards kindred spirits. Many of her close friends from childhood are also queer. “We knew from a young age we were like-minded people.”
Rhonda feels great comfort in the love she shares with her wife, Fawn. Early in their relationship, they weren’t shy to show their love. One day Rhonda’s dad saw two ladies walking and holding hands. He tried to think of a snide remark then realized that one of those individuals was his daughter. He thought, ‘holy shit.’ He then came to the realization that there are probably more people like Rhonda and Fawn in the community.
Having self-pride hasn’t been easy. “There was a lot of crying, because I wanted to share who I am with family. I thought my family would disown me. I am Two-Spirit. I knew I was different. Family and friends, they knew. I wanted to share this bit of self-identification and they are supportive.”
Rhonda believes outreach and education about being LGBTQ2 is needed in rural Alaska, because it’s currently lacking LGBTQ2 support. “There are elements of, ‘I don’t belong here, so where do I belong?’”
Jenny Irene Miller, self-portrait, 2016
I am Jenny Irene Miller. My Inupiaq name is Wiagañmiu. My mother is Charlotte (Senungetuk) Miller. I am a descendant of the late Helen and Willie Senungetuk of Wales, Alaska. My late grandmother is Cora Olson and my grandfather is Larry Olson. I use my full name with my art, to pay respect to the two elders I was named after, Jennie Omedelina, and Irene Kakik.
Jenny believes that while some often view their cultural and LGBTQ2 identities as separate and disconnected, they are actually integral to one another. “Being Inupiaq means I have a rich cultural history. I am a descendant of the Iñupiat generations that walked before me. I have a large, supportive community. Understanding my Inupiaq and queer identities through an Indigenous worldview means I am living my life in a way that is true to myself, while recognizing my cultural values. It means not allowing society to shape how I present myself, who I love, what profession I can aspire to take on, and where I am going. Two-Spirit means bringing those two identities together and being strong and proud.”
The path to self-acceptance took her all the way into her adult life, and was hindered by childhood experiences. “I witnessed the harsh words and actions that my brother, Andrew “Jake,” was subjected to because he was gay. I hid genuine parts of myself, thinking others’ hurtful opinions were superior to my own. I internalized hate, first for being Inupiaq, then for being gay.”
Healing came in the form of her mother’s acceptance and unconditional love, the LGBTQ2 friends she surrounded herself with, and realizing that her Two-Spirit identity is an integral part of her that makes her whole. “I know that being out is not only important to myself, but also for Indigenous youth and those who are unable to be out.”
Anthony Capo, 2016
My name is Anthony Capo and I am from Egegik, Alaska. I am of the Sugpiaq people native to the southwest shores of Alaska, and the Taino Indian people native to Puerto Rico.
Anthony is openly gay, but admits, “It was not easy coming out, but I like to think I’ve gained some self respect by doing so. Being closeted perpetuates the idea that being gay is wrong when it is not. Why should I hide something that should be celebrated?”
As a child, Anthony believed that he was the only gay Alaska Native boy: “it was a very lonely feeling.” To Anthony, spreading the awareness that this community is out there is imperative to the health of many LGBTQ2 people. “It creates strength in numbers,” and in turn, “provides a better understanding of who we are.”
Today, Anthony finds strength in his Alaska Native culture: “we are a proud, yet humble people.”
Kellen Baker, 2016
My name is Kellen Baker. I’m from Nome, Alaska, and my parents are John and Becka Baker.
Kellen on being Alaska Native and LGBTQ2: “Most of the time, I feel like these are two identities that do not fit together. And much of the time, I feel like I don’t quite fit into either of the two identities. I am Inupiaq, but I look white, and that’s what everyone I meet assumes. I feel like the older I get, the more often I am assumed to be straight. I suppose that means I have to come out to every new person I meet.”
“Representation is so vital. Growing up I had no role models. There was no example for me to see how I could possibly fit into my community other than as a person to be ridiculed and ostracized. Children internalize social cues long before they grasp any concept of their own sexuality, and people don’t realize their homophobic rhetoric is often inadvertently directed toward their own child. Representation normalizes queer people; it lifts us from social ridicule to social power.”
“When I was 20, I went on exchange to a college on the East Coast. It was like becoming a new person. I never came out to anyone there; nobody even asked. I started dating a guy—nobody cared. When I came home I realized I needed to actually come out. That was pretty difficult, emotionally, but I have a supportive family and they treat me exactly the same.”
Maria Christina Crouch, 2016
My name is Maria Christina Crouch. My Native name is, Tavo, in the Deg Xinag language, meaning “is swan.” On my mother’s side, our family names are Rude and Ticknor, and we are Scandinavian and Deg Hit’an Athabaskan from Anvik, Alaska. On my father’s side, our family name is Galvan, and we are Coahuiltecan Mexican from Monterrey, Mexico. I grew up between Anchorage and Wasilla, Alaska.
“I came out as bisexual in 2014 through an op-ed piece in the local news. Being a bisexual woman who is married to a man, I felt like my sexuality was almost invisible. Bi-invisibility is real and it hurts. I felt like I was living closeted, and I was not true to myself. Given the political climate, same-sex marriage, and social opinions, it was important to me to take my power and declare who I am as an Alaska Native and bisexual woman.”
“Being Alaska Native and LGBTQ is a blessing from Creator/creation. I am responsible to share my story and voice to give power and energy to those who may feel alone, disempowered, and even rejected. We are all connected, and while we each live our own truth, our connection is the great truth; human beings are one. I see my identity as not only the intersection of my uniqueness and diversity, but also the intersection of who we are created to be and who we chose to be before we entered this life in accordance with supporting others.”
Kalynna Ashley Paangunnaq Booshu, 2016
I am Kalynna Ashley Paangunnaq Booshu, daughter to Rene and David, and sister to two brothers—Lonny and Emery.
For the first five years of her life, Kalynna solely spoke the Siberian Yupik language. It was not until she started school, at age six, when she began to learn English.
Traditional foods have always played an enormous role in Kalynna’s life. Subsistence traditions originally intended for men, such as hunting moose, boating, and fishing, were extended to Kalynna, a female, at an early age.
Kalynna is overwhelmingly proud of her heritage. To her, to be Alaska Native is to be colorblind; it is to be gender blind; it is to greet anyone with a smile. It is to “be respectful, and mindful of surroundings,” most notably when it comes to elders and locally available food.
On “coming out,” Kalynna says, “I simply was and continued to be as I am. I wasn’t concerned about what the world thought I should be.”
Heather Fitts, 2016
My name is Heather Fitts. I am Ts’msysen (Tsimshian) Indian of the Laxsgiik Eagle Clan in Metlakatla, Alaska. In English, “Metlakatla” translates to, “Peaceful Saltwater Passage.” My family can trace our heritage back many generations to a tributary of the Skeena River in what is now British Columbia, Canada. That tributary is the traditional territory of the Ginaxangiik People of the Mosquito. My ancestors belonged to a house called “Liaam Laxha,” which means “The Eagle Walks in the Sky.”
“I think it’s fairly easy to determine my orientation, visually,” Heather writes. “It can be uncomfortable in certain circumstances.” Heather just lives her life; but sometimes, merely existing is met with fear, prejudice, and hate.
Despite unpleasant reactions from others, she remains true to herself. Being gay is just one aspect of Heather as a person: “It does not define me, nor does it change who I am or the direction of my moral compass.”
Other facets that make Heather who she is include her family and heritage. When she first considered speaking to her mother about being gay, she was fearful: “I was scared to death I would be disowned and forever disconnected from the family I was raised with and based some of my identity on.” While her mother was surprised, she was accepting. This is her daughter, whom she loves. Heather still has not breached the topic with her father: “hot topics were simply avoided.” She hopes to talk to her father soon.
Heather believes that being LGBTQ2 can sometimes be “an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ issue. Continuous shows many faces, backgrounds, and cultures - substantive realities that should be shared and celebrated.”
Heather aims to strengthen her identity by learning the Ts’msysen language: “Language is such a strong link to our identity, in maintaining and rebuilding culture. Our language was one of the first things taken [and many other Alaska Natives’ languages] when missionaries came.”
My name is Redano, but I go by “Red.” I am originally from the village of Gambell on St. Lawrence Island, Alaska.
Red believes, “being out is important. There are things that one will find out about themselves, often new parts of oneself in the process. There were parts of me that I didn’t know about myself, until I came out. When I did come out, I did so on Facebook. I received calls from family members, who told me I was going to hell because of my sexuality.”
Following the negativity and shame, Red was seen at the emergency room for suicidal ideation. His family did come around and now accepts Red for who he is. He writes, “I am very comfortable with myself now.”
After coming out, Red has become a role model for those who are “in the closet” and are ready to make changes in their personal lives. “I have family members who have bravely presented their true selves on Facebook as well, and to our family.”
all artwork and content © jenny irene miller