Written by Amber Miller (They/Them)
See more work from Amber at www.aois21.com/aois21-annual/the-aois21-annual-2016
“In the scars of my knees you can see children torn from their families bludgeoned into government schools You can see through the pins in my bones that we are prisoners of a long war”- Not Vanishing
In this article, I will explore the life and impact of Menominee two-spirit lesbian activist, formidable writer, and fierce warrior with a blade to the throat of corruption and injustice; Chrystos. From a harsh upbringing riddled with sexual, physical and emotional abuse, mental illness, and the pain of surviving on the streets as a Native American in a world that silences their very existence, Chrystos self-educated themselves and became a voice for the broken, beaten, and oppressed. To this day, their accomplishments as an Indigenous rights activist and poet has been widely recognized, won numerous awards, and politics are an essential part of their writing with their life as a lesbian and Native American being unapologetically at the forefront of it all. For their own personal preferences, I will be using they/them/their pronouns.
Chrystos was born off-reservation in San Francisco, California as part of a group referred to as urban Indians on November 7th, 1946 to Euro-immigrant mother and Native American father. There is not much information about their parents available, although they inherit their native ancestry from their father, who unfortunately was depressed and ashamed of his Menominee heritage. As a child, they suffered abuse from not only their father because of his depression, but sexual abuse from another close relative and experienced a tumultuous and abnormal childhood due to these factors. Consequently, growing up English was not their first language, but since they resided amongst Latino and African Americans in urban areas and housing projects, they soon picked up some of the African American street slang, only to be reproached and ultimately demeaned for using this style of language. Despite being subjected to mistreatment at the hands of their parents, Chrystos was taught to read by their father who was also self-educated with only a night school degree and began writing poetry at age nine. It is said that their father had a varied and vast library that they had full access to and they preoccupied themselves with the works of Shakespeare and Plato in addition to keeping a journal. However, 8 years later at the age of seventeen, Chrystos was placed into a mental institution for a summer, and claims that “survival on the streets would have been uncertain if that had not happened.” They continued in and out of such institutions for several years, until coming to the realization that doing so only exacerbated their issues and left to pursue other things.
Secondly, provided that their native heritage is one essential part of their identity, I believe it is important to take a deeper look into that to understand and assess the perspective of their work. The Menominee are a federally recognized Native American tribe with their rich history and origins beginning in the now known state of Wisconsin. Originally occupying 10 million acres; the tribe’s land is a little more than 235,000 acres today due to colonization and more than several treaties with the United States in the 1800’s. Having 8,551 tribal members, it is located on ancestral birthplaces and includes 5 main communities, 407 miles of roads, 187 rivers and streams, and 53 lakes. According to their official website “Although the Tribe has over 8,700 members, less than half are able to reside on the Reservation due to the lack of employment opportunities, available housing, and an aging infrastructure that is incapable of sustaining current demand, let alone take on additional residents or economic development opportunities..” which could explain why Chrystos was born off reservation but we may never really know for sure.
By the same token, another important aspect of Chrystos’ identity that has profoundly impacted their work is being two spirit. Two spirit is a distinct gender rooted in Indigenous people’s culture that describes someone who fulfils one of many mixed or crossed gender roles found traditionally among many Native Americans and Canadian First Nations groups. In a similar vein, it is also a term for describing the LGBTQ individuals in their community who encompass a combination of spirits such as a masculine female or a feminine man. Additionally, Chrystos notes that their lesbian identity is also an imperative part of their work and is not afraid of writing about their experiences with their partners in that regard. When asked by a radical artisan interview series if being queer influences their work they indicated “Being a queer woman has given me independence that is not possible for straight women. I’ve never had a boyfriend I had to appease or tone myself down in order to protect his ego. Being a lesbian is being an outlaw – I get to name my own poisons” (two of which include bitterness and anger). They also mention that their lesbian identity has given them the freedom to think about what they want, and the liberty to write poetry instead of raising babies.
Correspondingly, inspired by what they define as the pain that white culture caused their father, Chrystos uses their work as a tool to articulate the Native American experience as both urban and lesbian. Their writing includes diverse and chilling commentary on social justice, feminist themes and political issues such as colonialism, the erasure of Native Americans, genocide, class, gender, the corrupt prison systems, white supremacy and so much more. Considerable anecdotes of their childhood experiences are also present in their writing as they revisit life on the streets in urban communities, their time spent in mental institutions, patriarchy, incest, love, sex, hate and so on. Powerful, riveting, and heartbreaking, their work is largely intended for First Nations people, in which they aim to raise awareness about the voices and stories of their people, people of color, and lesbians. Their most notable works include Not Vanishing, Dream On, and In Her I Am, and an anthology they co-wrote with Tristan Taormino titled Best Lesbian Erotica 1999 (1999). Other compelling poems include There Is a Man without Fingerprints, In the Brothel Called America, and Dear Mr. President. They have won the Audre Lorde International Poetry Competition, the Sappho Award of Distinction from the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, National Endowment for the Arts grant, the Human Rights Freedom of Expression Award, and the Lannan literary award.
Continuing on, in regards to their activism, Chrystos has worked to free Norma Jean Croy, a Shasta-Karok Indian who was allegedly convicted of murder during the 70’s (but was later released in 2005), and Leonard Peltier, an imprisoned Native American of over 20 years, who according to the case website “was convicted for the deaths of two FBI agents who died during a 1975 shoot-out on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.” It is said he is considered by Amnesty International, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, National Congress of American Indians, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, and many others that he is a man who needs to be released. They also participate in activist work for the rights of tribes such as Dine (Navajo) and Mohawk. Over the years their focus and concern have included a diverse range of issues such as violence, hunger, drugs, land theft, Palestinian rights, abortion, and domestic abuse but they have since devoted most of their time and efforts to the aid of Indigenous peoples.
Now 71 years old, Chrystos currently lives in Bainbridge Island, Washington where they have resided since 1980. In a 2011 interview they were asked if they felt they had been successful with using their writing as a tool for political and social change to which they replied: “I feel I have failed utterly to affect social change, because there is still war, still rape, still prisons, still starvation, still clear cuts, still sexual abuse of children, still torture, still rampant injustice of all kinds. The world hasn’t changed nearly enough to suit me...” In spite of this, they also note that many have come to them stating their lives were saved by their work. Their statements are a testament to a true activist, one who knows that there is always more work to be done. Most importantly, what they want us to take away from their work is this: to experience what it means to be our true selves, to expand and grow, to work for the causes that arouse us. Chrystos desires for us to be inspired to stand up for justice and injustices despite the ever-growing darkness we are surrounded by in this world. Chrystos hopes that we, as readers and as people will be motivated to out-smart the white supremacy that plagues this world and our lives, with the purpose of creating realities that operate for the benefit of all, not just some. They write with the hope that their work will help other suppressed minority people to share their voices. We as a community know just how important representation is, and even more so for minorities and marginalized people, so for all Chrystos has given us, these are the things we can give back.
“If you can speak
you can be angry
if you can’t speak bang your fork
If you’re furious with me
because I haven’t mentioned something
you’re angry about
get busy and write it yourself
There is no such beast as too angry
I’m a canary down this mine of apathy
singing & singing my yellow throat on fire
with this sacred holy purifying
spirit of anger”-
Excerpt from They’re Always Telling Me I’m Too Angry by Chrystos
[Disclaimer: Some of the sources may contain triggering material.]
“Brief History-About us.” Menominee-Nsn.gov, www.menominee-nsn.gov/CulturePages/BriefHistory.aspx.
“Chrystos - The Art of Dismantling.” The Art of Dismantling,
“Chrystos.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/chrystos.
“Chrystos.” Voices from the gaps, conservancy.umn.edu.
“INTERVIEW WITH CHRYSTOS.” Black Coffee Poet, 24 Nov. 2014, blackcoffeepoet.com/2010/09/15/interview-with-chrystos/.
Leonard Peltier Case Facts, www.freeleonard.org/case/.
Munn, Bonnie. “Links.” Dancing to Eagle Spirit Society - TWO SPIRITED PEOPLE, www.dancingtoeaglespiritsociety.org/twospirit.php.
Norma Jean Croy - National Registry of Exonerations, www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Pages/casedetail.aspx?caseid=3842