Shí‘taí k’an dé, nił’daagut’é. Shí Crisosto Apache húún’zhyé’. Shi Mashgalénde áan’sht’ííd. My name is Crisosto Apache. It's C-r-i-s-o-s-t-o, first name. Last name, A-p-a-c-h-e.
Okay. What year were you born? When I ask you questions, if you wouldn't mind incorporating my question into your answer so as opposed to saying the year, you would say, "I was born in …"
Okay. I was born August 7th, 1971.
Okay. That's great.
I loved hearing that language. I wish we could conduct the whole interview in your native language. I didn't understand a word you said. Tell me about the importance of language to you.
Language I think is very important to one's identity. I grew up on the Mescalero Apache reservation. That's located in south central New Mexico. I grew up mostly speaking English. It wasn't until probably 10 years ago that I started to realize how important language, their spoken language is to a person because it has a huge connection to their cultural ties.
Do me a favor. Look at me, not at the camera.
Okay. It has a really huge impact towards one's own identity in a cultural sense because that language has a point of origin. It wasn't like in 1965, they decided to start speaking that language.
When I started to think about the language that I am still learning, I started to figure out that it has a history. If I learn to speak it, then I become a part of that history. If I maintain it, if I teach it. If I remember it. Even if I don't speak it so well, parts of it are still part of that memory. I think in terms of language, that's how I identify with it.
Part of my identity is Apache, Mescalero, Chiricahua Apache which is Ndé another part of my identity is Navajo on my dad's side which is Diné. I'm slowly learning a lot more of the cultural aspects to my identity. I'm finding out from my dad's side, from my siblings on his side is that I'm salt clan and towering house people clan which is Áshįįhí dine’é and Kinyaa'áanii dine’é. It's really interesting to start to learn that more recently.
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Surprisingly enough, though, but Apache and Navajo are very similar, almost because the language that we call in Apache is Ndé Bizaa and in Navajo is Diné Bizaad. There's Bizaa and Bizaad which are pretty similar.
Aha. Just for people to try to get a sense of that. Is that almost like comparing two languages that we hear about in Western culture, like say Spanish and Portuguese?
Right, right. They're all derived from the Latin phonology or base, family dialect. The Apache/Diné, I guess that would be considered what anthropologists and ethnographers call Athabaskan which ranges pretty much from the Southwest all the way up to the Arctic Circle. Yeah, mostly on the Western side of North America.
Got you. It sounds like for you, discovering, unveiling, tracking your identity, finding your identity, sounds like your identity is not finished or you're at least finding your identity is not finished yet.
Yeah. It's been a lifelong process.
What has been a lifelong process?
Finding my identity, learning about who I am, learning where I come from, learning how that all fits and this whole idea of historical context of just being has been a lifelong journey. It's a journey still that I'm learning about. I don't think I'm finished trying to find out how I fit still because I have to think about my cultural context. I have to think about my political context. I have to think about my gender context, my sexuality. How I fit still, am continuing to fit in these multiplexes of identity.
In a sense, it's a lot of … What do you call it? Intersectional. It's something that I've really struggled with my whole life because you grow up in one sense. You think that that's the way the world is but then outside of that, you start to interact with a lot of other parts of the world. You realize things aren't really the way you thought they were.
Can you give me an example of that?
I was born and raised on the Mescalero Apache reservation. There's a small hospital there. It's still there to this day. They don't use it for giving birth anymore. They simply fly you out to either Albuquerque or Alamogordo or El Paso or the regional medical facility but I was born in that small hospital upstairs. It's a small prenatal unit.
Growing up on the reservation, you're introduced to your culture and you definitely see a lot of Native Americans around. In my particular case, Apache people. You get to know your family. You get to know who your aunts and uncles and that sort of thing, who they are. You then also hear the language being spoken.
From a very young age, I was introduced to that a lot. I didn't leave the reservation very much. There's a small town which we call border town called Ruidoso which we went to a lot because there's food stores there and shopping and getting the necessary things to live but if we need to do major shopping, then we either went to El Paso, to Alamogordo, Roswell or Albuquerque because those were the larger towns.
When I was growing up, I only knew the small neighborhood that I grew up in and everything that happened there but then when we had visited these large towns, I saw that there was a lot more. There's the other, different types of people, different types of customs, culture, modern things. It was really interesting to notice those aspects. Also, television, I think, for what we could watch was a huge influence. I didn't grow up with a lot of TV but from what I was able to watch on TV, I started seeing trends and wanted to become a part of that.
When I was a kid, we used to watch Sesame Street. At the time, I didn't know that when the television station was airing a TV show and it was a local television show, they would air where they were broadcasting from. When I was watching Sesame Street, I always thought Sesame Street was in Portales, New Mexico because after the show, they would show this is where we're broadcasting from. I've always wanted to go to Portales, New Mexico so I could go see Big Bird and the Cookie Monster and all of that. That's what I think I mean in terms of the naïveness of growing up on a reservation and having not too much exposure from an exterior, Western world.
I think about that story and just laugh now because Sesame Street was probably filmed in Los Angeles or something like that. That was one of the earlier lessons I learned about how much bigger things are in the world. Yeah.
Would you say that one of the strands of your life has been trying to figure out how much or what kind of relationship you want to have with that so called outside world and what kind or relationship you want to have with your place of origin? Has that been one of the themes, would you say, or how …
I think this quest that I'm on to better understanding who I am, I have to really take a lot of time to think about where I came from. I think I'm always reminded of that, even though that I'm living in a modern way and identifying in a modern way, there are parts of me because of the history, because of the culture that are still yet uncovered for me. I'd say that probably in the last 15 to 20 years, I've started to find out more about what that means and how close of a relationship I want with that type of identity because it makes a difference.
It makes a huge difference when you know who you are, at least a good sense of who you are because growing up, I grew up with a sense that there was always something missing. I identified as being gay when I was really, really young. When I was 9 or 10. I had this strange attraction to male. They weren't males my own age but they were much older. I remember used to thinking that when I'd go shopping with my mom or we'd go through the grocery store, I'd always be looking at the male figures of wherever I went and started making decisions whether that person is handsome. If I found somebody that was attractive, if I'd just look, I found myself doing that a lot when I was younger.
I knew this idea of being attracted to the same sex. I was very aware of that but I didn't know that, at the time, that was something that had a stigma related to it. It wasn't later until grade school that I started realizing that people weren't accepting of gay people who were people being attracted to the same sex.
Then, just through my peers, I started finding out the words like gay, faggot, homosexual, homo, all those kind of words that associated with what I felt like. I went to the library. I spent a lot of time in the library at my school trying to find ways of looking these things up without being discovered because I wanted to know. It didn't dawn on me that I could go back and ask my parents or my grandparents about these identities because, at the time, I didn't realize that those types of social interactions were acceptable, that they were a part of a community, that they were identifiable ways of expression. I never bothered to ask. I was always encountering these negative aspects of my identity. I put that in the back closet or put it away, tried not to really think about it. By doing that, it pushed out this other person in me that still wanted to know, that was very curious.
Growing up, I didn't really have a mentor. I just discovered a lot of the stuff out on my own. Some of it was not very positive expressions or … I grew up in a very small town. It's a very small town, a seasonal town, touristy. I found out, I used to hitchhike into town from our house and our house was probably 8 miles from town. I used to hitchhike on the weekends or when I had a moment, hitchhike into town. There's an area in Ruidoso that was a swimming pool. I used to go there and sit on the picnic tables and just watch. I used to look at the lifeguards. I used to watch some of the people because they had bathing suits on. That was close enough to satisfy that need to look at the male form without being overly suspicious.
One day, I was sitting there and I noticed that cars kept pulling up and parking. Guys would get up and go into the bathroom. There's a small bathroom off to the side. It dawned on me in the back of my head. I said, "That's an awful lot of traffic to go into the bathrooms." I was maybe 14, 15. Just out of curiosity, I decided to go in there and see why they were … The women's wasn't being visited at all. I decided to go in there. I hadn't been in there before. I, of course, naturally found out what they were doing in there. That became my mode of expression. Growing up in a small town, what do you know? Nobody's there to tell you that.
Let me interrupt for a second. I have 2 questions. One is that at the school where you were hearing these typical taunts, fag, homo, whatever, was this a school that was mostly Native kids or was it a mix?
We went to school in Ruidoso. By population, it's pretty much white. A lot of the students in the classrooms that I had were mostly white. There were a few African-American. There were a few Hispanics, but it's predominantly white. Of course, there were a lot of Native Americans because many of the students came from the reservation and went to school there. I grew up with some sense of having Native Americans around me, especially from the reservation.
When it came to the taunts, did you notice that one group was more likely to be hurling these taunts from the other or was it pretty much across the board?
It was pretty much from everybody. It's typical school age kind of things. You want to fit in so you taunt the people that don't fit in. Again, like I said, I grew up spending a lot of my time in the library reading, trying to find out things because I had a very curious nature when I was a kid. One thing I found fascinating were books. You go into a library and you can choose any number of book and sit there and find things out. While everybody was out in recess, I was in the library.
Yeah, the taunts were from just across the board, from the males and the females, from any of the students that were there, you'd' just hear …
Where they directed at you or where they mostly directed at other kids?
I think it was really not at anybody in particular but it was just …
Yeah, the taunts.
Yeah. It wasn't to anybody in particular.
Just start with saying, "The taunting was not …" so that we know what you're talking about.
Okay. I think, when I heard people talking about the derogatory terms, I don't think that any of those were directed at anybody per se because I never witnessed, as we would call it today, bullying. I never saw any of that but you would hear kids talk about what was socially acceptable and what was not. I would hear people talking about gay people and homos. They just use it like sort of a put down. It wouldn't necessarily be that that person was gay or a homosexual but just to use that term to put them down is what I heard. It may not have been … I think it's really hard to determine whether it is something that was purposeful or whether it's just playing around.
Of course, now we know that that's just not really something we do, to be more respectful of people's identities and how they chose to express themselves. Just as the color of your skin, you can't fault them for that.
I have another follow up question which was when you were at the pool and you noticed the men going in the restroom and eventually, you went in there yourself, was this a mix of Native, white? What do you remember about the men essentially who were basically using this as a place for cruising?
Most of the people that I saw and encountered in there were …
Sorry. Say, in where.
In the bathroom?
Yeah basically. Kind of reset that we're at the pool. We're at the pool.
Yeah. At the pool and when I noticed a lot of these people coming in and out of that bathroom …
Sorry. I was shifting. Okay. One more time.
Okay. The pool, when I noticed that these men going in and out of the bathroom, a majority of what I noticed were white men. A lot of them were older. I wasn't really sure what to make of that. Naturally, they ranged from, the people that I noticed were anywhere from mechanics to professional people. There's quite a range of types of people that went in there, men.
I wasn't really thinking about that at the time. I was just trying to maybe experience this because I think at the time, I was thinking that if I don't express myself in this manner, I may never, ever because it's such a small town. I didn't ever think of myself as leaving because I've always thought that I would be associated with this small town, with the areas of the reservation that I grew up in. This was the early 80s.
I remember one time, I became more concerned about the types of interactions that I was having because again, I didn't grow up with a mentor. I didn't grow up with anybody telling me what to do and what not to do. I just did it. That was about the time when I started hearing about HIV or AIDS at the time or that there was this gay plague, as I heard it once and that it was affecting men who had sex with men or sexual encounters or whatever. I did unsafe things back then because what do you know? Then, when I heard how it was contracted, I'm like, "I don't know these people. How am I going to go and find out?"
I remember the first time that I went and got tested. I went by myself. Didn't tell anybody. That scared the living crap out of me to sit there. I guess, back then, you had to wait 2 weeks, 3 weeks before you get your result. I remember just sitting there as they drew my blood and just feeling numb and thinking that it's that small vial that could determine whether I was going to live or die. I was very young. I was 15. Of course, when I went to the clinic, I just asked my mom that I wasn't feeling well. She took me in. Of course, when I'm there, I told the doctor why I was there.
A few questions in here. One, that's a lot of maturity on your part to even think. You were so young to know that you were doing unsafe things, to know that you needed to get tested. Do you have any idea where that level of just understanding and insight came from because I don't think that was probably the case for everybody to be that, I guess you can call it proactive.
Right. I think a lot of that from me was just because my family has always been there. They were taught to be cognizant of what we're doing. I think that that was just taught to me at an early age. I think that's part of the culture about being aware of your surroundings, being aware of the people you interact with because you definitely don't want to cause harm. You want to live in a very good way because you always want to walk like that in life.
I think those are some of the qualities I grew up with, some of the more Apache traditional ways that I was taught. I know certainly more now than I did at that age. I think a lot of it was done out of fear because I did read a lot and I did find things out more so than my brothers or sisters or I would probably say anybody in my school. I was very intuitive. I paid attention. I was very observant. I guess I was always studying. I got very good at doing that.
I think going and getting tested was just wanting to preserve myself a little bit and also becoming more aware because I didn't before that encounter, before that moment of knowing or reading or hearing on the news and started reading literature on AIDS, I had no clue. Then, it became a national issue, of course. Of course, it takes time for you to break away from some of these behaviors. On throughout my later adolescent years, I still was practicing unsafe sex but I was doing it more cautiously. I was being more decisive of what I should be doing.
I think when I was in my mid 20s or later 20s, I decided that I just need to come to grips with this and be more proactive because I certainly don't, I've seen since then some footage of what the progression of the disease or disability as it's now called, what happens. I certainly didn't want to experience that.
I'm curious about the moment when you … You went with your mom to a clinic because you said you didn't feel well. You were still a minor. Did you have to separate yourself from your mom in order to have that conversation with a doctor? How did you work that out?
I was old enough to go in by myself. I just naturally needed … IHS is the Indian Health Service on the reservation. It's certainly different than a lot of medical clinics here outside the reservation.
It's part of the government. They're regulated very differently because the Indian Health Service, it's an organization that offers medical service to a lot of indigenous tribes, actually to all of them. If there's one able to be housed on a reservation, that was most likely where any Native Americans would go, like if I went to Albuquerque, there's an IHS there which I could get my health care service from or if I came here to Denver, I'd certainly look for an IHS service or find one close by.
That's where I could be seen and get medication or whatever.
Was it difficult to say to the doctor what you needed from him?
Oh, yeah. That was the most difficult thing I've ever had to say.
Tell me what you're talking about.
Telling the doctor when I went in to go get my blood drawn and to tell him why because I was having unsafe sex with men in bathrooms, basically. Of course, the look on his face, I think he was really surprised I was having this conversation with him because the only thing he told me after that visit, really, was that I just needed to be more careful, whatever it is that I'm doing. He could tell that I was very frightened and I had no idea of what I was doing. I did take that advice. I started to think about how I am behaving and what I can do.
It was hard. You definitely have to go out of your way to find out information. Nowadays, you can go to your hospital and talk more freely about things but this was the early 80s, the mid 80s. Nobody was having those conversations. Certainly, they weren't having conversations with minors.
I could get this feeling that the guys I was fooling around with, I think they were just happy to have found a willing young person. That's how I saw it. I didn't really think of it as statutory rape or anything like that, that would be criminal to them. I think they were just willing to find somebody young enough to live out their fantasies or whatever it is that they were doing there. I knew a lot of these guys were married. They had children because I was invited to a few of their houses. You could just see by the setup that a few of these guys were married. I don't know. It was a very confusing time for me. A very hard one.
I think that was the moment when I started discovering substance abuse or substance, chemical dependency. It started out with cigarettes and then pot and then the drinking. I'd say that got progressively worth until my mid 20s.
Let me ask you this. I don't want to lose that thread but with all this you were going through at quite a young age and with no mentors, as you mentioned, when was the first time that you met or talked to somebody who was, in some way, a mentor to you around your sexuality.
Okay. When I was younger, I did confide in a couple of people because my mom, she went to church regularly. She took us along as well but she also believed in the cultural traditions, spiritual beliefs. I was going back and forth. In the church that we went to there, the pastor of the church at the time had children. I became really good friends with one of the kids. It was around my age. We go fishing, we go on hikes, we go hang out and ride bikes. Sometimes, I would stay at their house or he'd come and stay at our house because our family was very close with the church. We became really good friends at the time.
I came out to him because I didn't know. I felt like finally I'm getting a good connection with somebody and it was a male. Maybe this would be something we could talk about so that I can have a way of relating. We were fishing once and I told him. I said, "I'm not sure how to say this but I think I'm gay." There was a brief silence. Then, he just turned and said, "You know, I don't know what that means but I'm sure it's okay." Then, I started to explain to him what that was. He says, "Oh, I think I've heard kids talk about that." We started talking a little bit about that. We started talking about sexual encounters and stuff. He had only experimented with girls. I think our friendship was that. He would talk about his experiences and I would talk about mine. That's pretty much how it was. He was adopted by the pastor from a different tribe. He was Native Americans as well. It was a really interesting to grow up knowing I had told somebody.
I thought, "Well, if I can tell this person who I don't know as well, maybe I can tell my family." I told my older brother. He had a different reaction. He got really upset. Knowing the two ways of that experience, it made me back off a little bit about telling people.
It wasn't until I was 17, I finally came out to my mother. We're in the kitchen doing dishes. I just came out and told her. I said, "I don't know how you're going to react to this. I don't know what you're going to say, " I said, " but I don't care. I have to start dealing with this because it’s a big part of who I am." I just told her. I said, "I'm gay." She paused for a good while. Then, she later came back and told me that, "You're my son. As far as I can tell, you're our gift from the creator. You were given to me. Naturally, I have to love you unconditionally but," she said, "My hope is that whatever you chose or whatever happens in your life, that you're happy and that's all I care about." I was 17 when I came out to my family. Knowing that my mom was okay with it, I thought I would somehow begin to rectify some of the struggles that I had growing up and start to find out more because there has to be more out there.
I'm the first one in my family to have a high school diploma. I'm the only one in my family that has any type of higher educational degrees. Through this discovery, it's led me to do work that has benefited me. A lot of that is in the form of writing. It's still a journey for me to continue to discover this but I also rely heavily on some of these memories and have written about them extensively because I think that, aside from the physicality of this world, the writing is the only thing I really have that's very personal. Yeah.
With regard to alcohol abuse and chemical dependency, give us a little bit of a sketch of how you went down that path and then, what happened when you realized this wasn't going to be helpful to you.
Growing up on the reservation, like I said, it's a very different world. Maybe I can explain that a little bit more later as to why it's so different. We grew up in a little neighborhood here. My cousins and them grew up in another little neighborhood within walking distance through the forest. On the way there, one of my uncles has a house. They drank pretty consistently. They would sometimes pass out and when they did that, we'd always go and steal whatever they didn't finish and run off and drink it. We'd always hang out around my uncle's house and wait for those moments when they were passed out and take whatever liquor was available. We did that off and on because they were pretty consistent with that, like I said.
That was our first experience. I was probably 10, 11. We would try it. It would make us feel good. There's that first moment where you get drunk and you're not really drunk drunk but you're feeling good. We really depend on those moments. Then, pretty soon, as we got older, we started asking people to buy us liquor. In the interim, we discovered pot. I'd smoked a lot of pot when I was a teenager, started again the same age, around 11. One other thing that we did a lot of growing up. This didn't really last that long but my cousins, they coerced us into doing it because it was available and it was free, if you could find it was huffing. That was really big growing up. I experiment with it a little bit but it didn't become a point where I needed to do it but my cousins and them did that a lot more often than I did.
Those were pretty much the 3 main ones growing up was smoking cigarettes, smoking pot, huffing and drinking. Yeah. It wasn't later … What?
Huffing would be just whatever you could find?
Yeah. It would be markers. It would be spray paint. It would be gasoline. It would be sometimes household cleaners. The way to tilt the bottle to get the butane out of it. It was very dangerous. At the time, you don't know that. You just do it. Again, there's just nobody around. Both my parents, they worked. We come home after school. This is what we did. I lived remotely that there weren't cops coming and going as often. There's forest, you could walk maybe 30 feet and you'd be in the thick of forest. You just sit there for a few hours. Nobody's going to bother you. Me and my cousins, we just sit around and we do that and sit there and drink or smoke cigarettes and whatever.
It wasn't until I went to college and started doing other types of drugs. Cocaine, meth or crystal … Crack is what it was called back then. Then, LSD on top of still drinking but drinking a little bit more if I wasn't, I'm able to get a hold of those others. It wasn't until I was 25 or 26 when I realized that I'm repeating the same pattern when I was a teenager as dangerous living but it was in a different form. It wasn't with sex this time but it was with chemicals. I realized that pattern at an early age and decided I've got to do something about this.
By that time, you know, you started hearing that people on the reservation that I grew up with are dying. They're getting in car crashes or overdosing and whatnot, suicide, killing themselves. All that kind of stuff. I pretty much grew up with that.
I think you covered what kind of substances you guys were into. Also, you started to see the ramifications in the lives of your peers. Was this all where you leading in the direction, of the point you reached when you said, "This just isn't going to work out for me?"
Yeah. It's, like I said, it was probably when I graduated college with my associates and decided to start figuring things out versus relying so much on these bad things that I was doing to resolve my not knowing who I am. I think it was at that moment that I realized that I've got to do something with this because I realized also that nobody's going to tell me. Nobody's going to take me by the hand and say, "You know what? This is what you got to do. This is what you have to do."
A lot of what I know now has been through self-discovery. I've been leading my life in the way that I need to, now. All going back to a beginning which is finishing school, learning more about what it is I want to write about, developing my writing, getting back in this mode of doing something, being more proactive and maybe, teaching something to others in the process, developing something. Yeah.
I had asked you a little bit ago who was the first person who was a mentor to you. I wondered if there were any others because it's one thing as a theme for me and for others I've talked to is it's one thing to start having sex with men and become active sexually but it's another thing to leave behind the negative ideas we had about our own sexuality and begin to have a more positive [crosstalk 00:44:38]
Sometimes that happens in a variety of ways. I wondered how that happened for you, especially give your culture's rich appreciation, in some ways, of variations in sexuality.
I started to think about that more often and …
Think about what?
I started thinking about my sexualized identity about when I finished college. I think one of the things that really helped me start to think about parts of who I am are having conversations with my friends in school. There are a few people that I've been friends with all these years that I was able to have meaningful, comfortable conversations with. One of the first people that I can identify early on is one of my writer friends. His name is James Thomas Stevens. I was looking at his work because in his work and in his writing, he also addresses the idea of sexuality, the relationships between people. The more I read and I certainly have kept up with his writing all these years, about what it meant because he was always writing about the interaction between two people and what that should look like. There are moments where he compares that two rivers that join and using the metaphor of a lot of different things like one of his books is "A Bridge Still in the Water" which talks about the land bridge, the Bering Strait. In a lot of ways, that is seen as a connection, as a relationship.
During a lot of that, reading about relationships, I think, started me on this road, really, on how to acquire that and how to become more observant with those interactions in myself.
Early on, he's one of the first gay people that was teaching me about sexuality, about sensuality, about spirituality and not being ashamed about it, that there are exterior influences that can help you get to where you're going and that you don't really need the dependency of chemicals or bad, dangerous sex or whatever, all the stuff that you can do in a much more healthy way. He told me once that you can always read about it but it's something that you can change once you're already a part of it, meaning that you can read about a lot of these tragedies and stories and you can still relate to it but if it's in your own life there's nothing you can do about that.
Explain that a little more.
I think I've had conversations with him in terms of looking at my own tragedy and my own ways I chose to express it in a very negative way. If it's too late then I can't change anything about that but I can always read about those kind of tragedies in stories, in literature, if I need to understand that more rather than using myself as the experiment I can see and learn to criticize that experiment by somebody else's experience.
What were some of the things in your own life that you feel like you were trying to work out? What were the, I guess you would say the wound you were trying to heal?
I think the biggest one was …
I'm sorry. The biggest wound.
The largest conflict that I was trying to resolve and I think I'm still trying to do that now is not having a better relationship with my biological father. In this case, it was a relationship I was having with my stepfather. That, I think, still haunts me to this day. My stepfather was a very abusive person. I would probably say he's a narcissist. He never thought that he was wrong in any sense of his being, even while he was doing all these things that were mean and cruel. He was in love with my mom or if I could say that but he only wanted her but didn't want the children that came along with it.
He treated us very poorly. He also, I think, resented the fact that we weren't his boys. I think that is the one thing that still taunts me to this day is not really resolving that. He's still alive as we speak. There's some moments where I think, "Why isn't this guy not dead yet?" — which is a hard thing to think about but that's just how I still see him. He has diabetes. He has a pacemaker. He still drinks. My mom divorced him. I helped her with that whole process but somehow, he still managed to find his way back. He left for a while. His family didn't want him because he's not the nicest person.
On the flip side, after all these years, I've made the connection with my biological father which was a totally different experience that I think I'm very happy with because it balanced everything out. My relationship with my biological father, for however much time we had, it filled some void in me that was just so cancerous. I think it healed a part of those feelings that I was having.
I think I really tried to hold onto that the most. My father passed in 2003. I still think about him. I think about the conversations we had. One of the things that he told me while he was still alive was … It was me and my older brother that had been separated because we were my mother's sons with my biological father. He since had other children but he said, "One of the things I would get up in the morning is pray towards the sun is that I would pray that my two boys would come back to me, they would come back to me with no bad feelings." It happened. We ended up going back, rekindling this relationship. I think that made him very happy.
He also struggled with alcoholism. Eventually, that's what took his life. He had diabetes but continued to drink while he had diabetes. Naturally, it made him blind and it took his kidneys so he was on dialysis for some years. Then, one day, he just decided not to continue that. In the final week that he was alive, me and my brother went by his bedside and watched the slow decline.
When my father passed. Of course, dealing with death because for some reason, I always see myself as the center pole that holds up the structure. I always have a hard time seeing a lot of these things because or trying to allow it to bother me or make me feel vulnerable because I feel like I have to be strong for everybody else in this moment where something tragic happens. I have to still hold myself together to get through it.
That was the same when my father passed. It wasn’t until after he passed that I was by myself on this desolate road to go visit my mother to talk to her about this, that I pulled off in the middle of the road, the highway, got out of my car and just let out this yell because it was the first time I'd felt death that close to me. I was alone. It was in the middle of the desert. I still think about that. I've written about it. What do you do? Again. That's a question I always ask myself.
I think now, I think that's the thing I hold onto the most is my writing. My writing keeps me together. It's my sense of security. I think, being able to tell my family that I'm gay, I think that helps me a little bit in terms of feeling okay with myself because I know with a lot of the advocacy work that I've done. I've met so many young people who have never had that. It always makes me cry. I won't do it there in front of them but when I'm alone, when I'm thinking about life, when I'm thinking about myself, these are the things I think about is how unfortunate a lot of people are with not being able to have a strong sensibility of who they are or not being able to express that fully because their family doesn't support them. That keeps me going.
One question I have. A number of years ago, I was a producer reporting for a network program focusing on sports but it was sports that is part of society at large. I did a profile about a Native American distance runner who was really a top achiever. He was aspiring to make the Olympics but he'd gotten into some really difficult battles with substance abuse, like getting really successful in his running and then sliding backwards. One of the things he talked about was the pressure to fail on the reservation, that if you stick your head up and say, "I'm going to do something different. I'm going to be better," it can be perceived as not very well by your peers on the reservation. I wanted to throw that out there, see if that's anything you've experienced or what.
I haven't lived on the reservation for a number of years. I go visit every now and then. There is some truth to that. The more successful you become in the Western world, as I call it, the more too good you become for people on the reservation.
A lot of times, how I've dealt with that is wherever I go on the reservation, I take my mom with me because our culture is matrilineal. As long as my mom is there, I can use her as my shield from that because she'll talk for me so that if people have questions, I can answer them but if she's not there, it leaves me vulnerable because I don't live there now. I've made my life out here. I'm more successful out here in the Western world off the reservation. I'm able to do a lot more.
I've always told my spouse, Todd, that I know I failed in life if I ever have to move back to the reservation because that's my last resort. If nothing ever works out for me here, I know I can go back there but I don't want to. I think reservation life is just too difficult. I don't think a lot of America knows that. I don't think a lot of America knows how difficult being Native American is as a part of your identity, as a part of your expression, as a party of your sexuality, as a part of your history. Those are the things I grapple with the most, that even though America is built and it's here and I'm a part of it, it doesn’t hesitate to remind me how we got that way. I think I can thank my culture for at least leaving a small room for acknowledging my sexuality, for acknowledging my identity and that there was a purposeful expression for that. I think I still rely heavily on that, even long before Stonewall. Those are small triumphant moments for the LGBT movement.
I think one of the things they fail to realize is that there were these purposeful moments, meaningful moments in Native Americans culture that celebrated … There she goes again. Those are some of the things I think about as far as the history.
Now, don't get me wrong. I think the LGBT movement is a good one. It's a meaningful one. They've done so much but I think I equate it to a metaphor that it's much like a car versus horse and buggy on a dirt road. A car can speed up really fast and the horse and buggy is just still plugging along, trying to survive. I think Native people are like that.
You identified as two-spirit, is that correct?
Okay. Unfortunately, I think we're going to have to just hope for the best with regard to the bird. Maybe we'll just …
Remember to get some room tone when we're finished.
We'll get room tone, yeah, which is a technical thing. Yeah, my question is so now you said it changes. Can you talk about because that's a term that some people are familiar with, others not. Could you start off maybe by saying what two-spirit even means? Maybe, if you can or you can just talk about how you relate to that term.
I remember telling the story about when I came out and I came out as gay. Growing up, that was the term that I knew but when you tried to explain the word gay to a bunch of Native American elders or people that you grew up with, what they naturally think as gay is these flamboyant people and running around and partying and what is really a stereotype. When I say, "Gay," to my culture, that's how they envision me.
It wasn't until later when I was early 30s that I was exposed to the term two-spirit. The term, I think, is just used very loosely. It's a very generic term but it doesn't identify all Native tribes. It was a term that came around in the late 80s, 1989. Two-spirit is a term that many Native-American LGBT people used to identify themselves versus LGBT because of the history, because of the identity, because of the culture. They're on opposite ends of the spectrum. They've used that term to self-identify, to give them some type of empowerment about how they want to identify and has nothing to do with the Western world. I thought that that was a good thing.
Before that, the other term that I was accustomed to was berdache. It took me a long time before I realized that that term was considered derogatory. I quit using that term but then I started to think about that term two-spirit. I started to think that that term is a term that many people who want to identity with some cultural aspect but don't have any clear, direct ties to that culture, though they may be Native American or of Native American ancestry who live in urban areas who have been disconnected from their culture. That's the only term that they can come to grips with to identity who they are.
What maybe changed my mind was when I went back and started talking about sexuality from where I come from and speaking the language and how to use or how to identity with that. One term that I found was Ndé’isdzan which is a man and a woman is the term that has a male and a female put together. It's the only term that I know of that closely resembles what I am because of how I think of, in my mind. I know now, we use the word trans and those types of terms that coincide with that but I don’t necessarily see myself as a woman and I don't necessarily see myself as a male. Biologically, I'm male but how I move in my culture, how I move in my identity is very fluid but then the term two-spirit doesn’t fit me either because I have cultural ties. I am a member of a tribal community.
For me to be out in the urban area, it just seems like a contradiction for me to say, "Well, I'm two-spirit," because that would imply that I only know the urban sense of what that means when it's a much more larger context because when you look at it, you have about 566 or -62 federally-recognized tribes. Within each one of those tribes there are languages that are spoken, there are cultures, their traditions that define who these people are, there are dialects. Within these families there are terms already there for people who chose to express themselves in an LGBT way. That's how I come to understand that terminology. Now I just tell myself that I'm a Native LGBTQI person / two-spirit. If they want to talk more about than, then in my culture that's called Ndé’isdzan.
How do you spell that word? Can you spell it in English language for our transcriber?
Yeah. It's n-d-e-i-s-d-z-a-n. Yeah. There's a poem that I've written about that which talks about this idea of gender and sexuality and identity being immersed in our chromosomes. It's something that's been there since the beginning of time or the beginning of the existence of male and female because so much in our culture is defined by that, we have the harsh rains which are male. We have the light rains that's female. Our ceremonies, they go in a cyclic cycle between male and female. There's a moment where an intersex. That moment is the time that we become both male and female. We have to be in balance with that concept in order to fully understand who we are as people. It's crazy that the term two-spirit only defines the gay and the lesbian which is both a male and a female, when it's supposed to embody both. The term originally was meant to embody both, not continue the binary of male and female. I don't know. It's a continued identity. It's not really solidified. There's so many forms of it, still.
Great, great. Thank you for explaining all that.
Interesting. I just want to ask, how much time do we have left on this card?
Okay. Perfect. One thing I've been wanting to ask. This farmer I interviewed yesterday, he grew up in a Catholic family in Iowa. He basically went to seminary before he realized that the life of a priest wasn’t for him but really from an early age, he saw his sexuality as a gift that god had given him. Even coming out of this Catholic tradition, where a lot of people wouldn't see it that way. I was really impressed because it wasn't just, "Okay, I guess god loves me, too." It was like, "No. This was a gift." Does that resonate with you at all?
Yes. I think that who I am and how I am was purposeful, meaning that as much stigma as people can place on my identity or similar identities, that I still have found a way to make it relevant. I know just by speaking with a lot of other Native American people before this idea of Western culture, a lot of those concepts, a lot of them see so called two-spirit people as gifts, the original, some even say that they're direct gifts from the creator. Two-spirit people are here to bind both male and female together to be that energy that holds them where a lot of them become medicine people, still to this day.
On my tribe, a lot of two-spirit people become medicine people. I do think that, in a sense, it is a gift. It's a gift for myself and a gift to my family because of how I chose to walk, how I chose to express myself, how I chose to look at things, look at my environment, look at how the world is evolving exteriorly and interiorly in others. I think that if you are able to see that balance and incorporate that balance as you are meant, there's nothing wrong with that. Of course, if you believe in anything of the Native American culture, we're supposedly living in the fifth world where things are supposed to be unbalanced. There's a moment where that balance will find itself again. Maybe this is where we're exactly supposed to be as how we were intended. That's how I like to see myself.
Of course, I don’t want that to be confused with that I'm better than the next person because of course, we're all human. We all have needs. The needs are similar. The love is unconditional need. That's what I really strive for. There's a lot of things that in life I still don't understand but that doesn't stop me for wanting to understand them because in understanding a lot of the strife in the world, it allows me to incorporate what I've learned into who I am. That allows me to understand myself a little bit better and to build better relationships with people.
Of course, we're living in a very turbulent time now. We have the relationships abroad and what's happening with the religious stuff that's happening in the Middle East, even the bombings that have happened, the one in Florida. You are brought to this current situation now. You're forced to recognize it. You're forced to see it. I think it even goes beyond just not being LGBT but just wanting to be human. I think my scope of looking at myself is how do I become a better human because I look back at a lot of our cultural teachings. That's really what it's about, not that we're still separate from the rest of the human race but how can we become in balance again but I think that's what we all want.
Yeah. I have 3 final questions and then I'll have you read your poems.
One of them is and let's try to keep these relative short because I want to make sure we have time,
[crosstalk 01:15:29] and we're doing this one fixed amount of time recording.
The first question is does someone like yourself say, 15 years old, once upon a time. Any young person who feels him or herself to be different and is about to step out and is full of trepidation but determination. What advice or insight might you give that young person?
I would probably tell them to not be afraid.
Just tell them what you're talking about. To a young person so I know who you're addressing.
Younger people now, I think, are living very instantaneous. They want everything to happen so quick, very tangible. I think one of the things that I would tell younger people are people who are still trying to figure themselves out because it happens later in our age as well. There are late comers as they're called. I want to tell them to not be afraid. Times are definitely different now and I think they're getting better.
I would also encourage them to be very courageous because it's, as afraid as we are for the things that we don't understand or the things we don't want to reveal, it's actually not that bad because we have come from worse times, from worse situations. I think we can live through any of those adversities because we've built a community. There's communities everywhere. Doesn't matter how alone you've felt. I've felt alone in many situations. Here I sit.
Great, great. Second question, what is your hope? In some ways, you've expressed it but what's your hope for the future?
My hope, I think my hope for the future and I'm always a big believer of this is that we have to move to become better to one another. I know that that's a far reach. There's many people who have said that before me but I think if we get enough people to say that simultaneously, that would make a huge impact. I think that's always been a fantasy of mine that if you could just stop the world in one second and have everybody turn to the person next to them and love them unconditionally, how much of a difference that would make in that one moment.
People don't realize that. People don't realize how much power they have in greater numbers. I think right now, we all have blindfolds on. If we all took that off at the same time, how much discovery would we make? It's really sad. I think that's one of the things I see now is that remove your blindfolds, remove the things that keep you from going forward.
Great, great. Last question. What value do you see in a project like OUTWORDS?
A project like this, I think, offers visibility.
A project like OUTWORDS, I think, offers visibility. It offers opportunity. It offers a way for people to access similar stories and similar experiences. To know that there is a time where you can feel comfortable and talk about your experiences. Somewhere, I know somebody may see this some time and they may get something from it and maybe even from myself if I go back and hear other people's stories, that I know that there's a likeness.
OUTWORDS, I think, is a project that gives voice to where there is none. It allows people to live. I think that it's a moment where I think we, as LGBT people can take that and give memorial to ourselves because I think the future needs that.
This poem is called Double Heli(x) from my book "Genesis" — for my biological parents and brother.
Shí ma—Shí tąą
before their whispers
an underpass on I-25,
vowed never to forget,
she held on to us
like taut memories,
he woke every morning
like loosened prayers,
the two of them
setting a chain
divided by erroneous
eminent plateaus, entrenching basins
they managed to inhale
the same docile air,
there is nothing
complicated about this union,
only the ever gaping
space between them,
although we derive from
identical ruptures of fluid,
we all grow intrinsically
further and further apart,
credulous like driftwood
wafting upon murky irrigate pools,
binge drinking, drug overdoses,
violent beatings, late night hitchhikes,
survival & poverty, childless,
traumatic denial, IHS visits,
DUI check points, virulent empty houses,
regurgitating head lamp shining
opaque like misty angel fog—
This poem is also from my book "Genesis." It's called Hole (x).
strobe light quickly chases tiny slow dust,
at closer view, a rainbow reflects brightly
through an acrid acrylic plastic pin hole,
bodies slump in shadow while fingertips
spackle wide strips of liquid on dark walls,
water drop tangles inside this distant room,
limpid fluid stirs slightly, passing through
fluent strobing film, floating motifs settle
around peepholes where onlookers kneel,
split moments place erratic flicker screens,
oxidizing glottal faces erode remittent lust,
silver, red, green, blue, purple hues illume
naked eyes, latent bodies exhibit glim shots
of full penetration, rubber shades fail in the
vivid salvation against blinking LED nodes—
I gradually slip back inside that lurking place,
I slowly slither back inside a black partition,
I deliberately park behind complacent spit stops,
behind light slivers and pelvic thrust rehearsals,
under vinyl flaps, claret double swinging doors,
back and forth,
back and forth
illumination on black lacquer wall—x
cross twinge hair of pornographic lament—x
flesh nodule on fumbling light—x
This is the last thread in my book from "Genesis."
emergent emanation from birth, like a cosset lamb,
he is placed inside a shoe box, no constitution of place
towards ts’áł / ts’áál, cradleboard
towards kúghą / hooghan, home
towards Ndé bíkeya / Diné bekéyah homelands
towards Ndé bizaa / Diné bizaad language
life acquisition of identity toward x
oppugn to mescal gathers, burnt wood gathers, sheep harvesters
after salt is extinct, towering houses topple
a return to origin, beginning, center fire, home—
daaneest’ągu – August says - everything ripens
ix: nineteen seventy-one
daa ‘ik ł’ idá ‘ádaajindi
Part of my identity is Apache, Mescalero, Chiricahua Apache which is Ndé another part of my identity is Navajo on my dad's side which is Diné. I'm slowly learning a lot more of the cultural aspects to my identity. I'm finding out from my dad's side, from my siblings on his side is that I'm salt clan and towering house people clan which is Áshįįhí dine’é and Kinyaa'áanii dine’é. It's really interesting to start to learn that more recently.