It’s Native American Heritage Month and it has been full of heavy events for the Indigenous community. From the ongoing resistance efforts at Standing Rock to a polarizing election conclusion and today’s complex observance of Thanksgiving, we continue to live in a nation where Indigenous people are still fighting to be heard.
Today we’re elevating the words and experiences of Black Cherokee trans activist Holiday Simmons, of Atlanta, Ga. We asked a few questions on his thoughts on current events, Thanksgiving and his thoughts on Indigenous trans representation.
What are your thoughts on Thanksgiving and how it’s celebrated in the mainstream?
My feelings on Thanksgiving are changing as I age. They used to be really resistant to the holiday. I used to get upset when people would tell me “Happy Thanksgiving.” I would have a meal with my family where I grew up in St. Louis. Then, I would meet up with the Native community just across the Mississippi River in Hokia, Illinois. It’s a town with a bunch of ancient mounds and a lot of tribes from the Midwest would come and gather at this area. On Thanksgiving, they would have this ceremony. I was tight and anxious about it then.
As I’ve gotten older, I feel like Thanksgiving has been so co-opted. Indigenous people really would gather and have a big feast during this time of year – because it’s the harvest time. But the idea that some group set peacefully with white folks and white folks were shown the right way – it feels like such a myth. I’m starting to divorce the Pilgrims and Indians story to one that gets back to keeping up with the season and how they would get their bounty for the harvest and gather with their families.
I want people to think of the original meaning, how it’s been co-opted and how non-Natives can decolonize the holiday for themselves. That could mean learning a traditional dish to cook, going to an Indigenous ceremony that day or the next day buying holiday gifts from Native-owned companies.
What’s been on your heart with the events at Standing Rock and after the 2016 election?
It’s been a hodgepodge of things. I have been impressed and intrigued by the approach of the resistance at Standing Rock before the election and afterwards. I’m intrigued that people are calling themselves water protector or prayer warriors not using the language of activist or organizer. If you do the Google Analytics the words most used are protection, prayer and warrior. I think that’s a very indigenous way of thinking of resistance and I’m impressed by that. It comes from trying to balance out the imbalances instead of “trying to get my piece of the pie” or “take back what’s ours” which I see as more Western capitalistic colonial view of the earth and its resources.
Post-election, I’ve been intrigued by how people have been scrambling to fight and preparing for this new regime. I haven’t quite found my place in that because I pray for my oppressors as much as I pray for myself and the oppressed. I need them to do right and to stop doing the asinine things they do. I don’t want to have an “us versus them” mentality.
What are some ways you hold on to your heritage?
I am slowly learning the Cherokee language. Language preservation is a huge thing. It’s hard for me to speak conversationally because I don’t use it all the time. I’ve started to introduce myself in Cherokee at some events to decolonize how we greet each other and keep the language on my tongue.
This is personal. There’s a tradition called “Strawberry Tent” for people who have menstrual cycles and they used to go off to a separate space and they would get to be pampered. It was considered a gift to be bleeding. People were there to maintain the space all of the time and greet you and entertain you. That’s something my mom would always do with me back when I would have a period. On the first day, she would take me to get ice cream. So on my own I continued that. I always tried to celebrate when I bled.
In general, it’s just a different way to look at my body and even though I was bleeding as a trans man – I was never ashamed of myself. That’s very tied to my holding on to my heritage.
What are some of the issues that you feel need more traction in the larger fight for trans equality?
I just had a great conversation on the Seneca Reservation in Upstate New York about two months ago with a group of about 15 Indigenous trans people on intersections, overlap and the departure of trans identity.
I’m interested in decolonizing what I call “Trans Infrastructure.” Being trans at least in our country is so much more than an identity; now we have conferences, support groups, special clothing websites and more. Now that doesn’t mean we have it well and equality is there, but we have language and infrastructure. There are even whole organizations like TLC. There’s a way that the building of the infrastructure around trans identity follows a Western, white colonized framework. I’m interested in bringing in some of the traditional ways of thinking of gender into that infrastructure and hacking it a little bit. We know the world is super binary including the trans world. A lot of gender nonconforming people have similar aspects of their lives to being trans or two spirit because it’s a departure from this binary. I have another philosophy beyond the “born in the wrong body” one. It’s just a blessing to experience life from different genders and it was once a highly revered one culturally. We are gender translators. We are so anointed and blessed to have that experience in one lifetime. That’s one aspect Indigenous trans folks can bring to the larger trans organization.