The Puyallup Tribe of Indians is embracing its gay and lesbian members, and it’s doing it in a big way.
Although the tribe recognized same-sex unions in 2014, it hasn’t until now publicly acknowledged that it has lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) members.
“We knew there were (LGBT) people but we just didn’t talk about it,” tribal council member Annette Bryan said of the tribe’s attitude.
That changes on Sunday when the tribe will raise a custom-designed Puyallup Tribe Pride flag at its headquarters in Tacoma. The four-hour celebration that follows will be a mix of tribal songs and drag queens, food and speeches.
The tribal council proclaimed July as Pride month and donated $25,000 to help fund the Tacoma Pride celebration on Saturday.
The impetus for the tribe’s actions was a social media post tribal chairman David Bean saw two months ago. In it, a tribal member offered her support to LGBT tribal members who were struggling with their identity.
The post got Bean thinking. He has a 31-year-old gay son.
“He was embraced by my daughters, by my wife, everybody was happy for him and celebrated him,” Bean said of when his son came out as gay. “He wasn’t encouraged to stay in the closet or hide it.”
Other gay Puyallups haven’t had the same reception during the tribe’s post-colonial history, Bean said. The council action, he hopes, will end that.
“We’re taking the action to say you are our family members, our community members,” he said. “We love you and you are beautiful and we’re going to support you.”
In many respects, the actions put the 5,000-member Puyallups ahead of other, bigger tribes that have been wrestling with LGBT issues for years. The 300,000-plus Navajo nation, for instance, has a law that prohibits same-sex marriages.
What does it mean to be both gay and Indian in 2019, 50 years after the Stonewall uprising kicked off the gay rights movement in mainstream America?
The tribe, in its proclamation, acknowledged a history of discrimination, inequality and violence toward LGBT people in the modern era. Traditionally, same-sex relationships and varying gender identities were accepted in many tribes across North America, according to numerous ethnographies and tribal histories.
LGBT Puyallups say their tribe has come a long way in acknowledging that same-sex orientations and differently gendered individuals were once an accepted part of their tribe.
Sunday’s ceremony, they say, will be another step forward in recognizing the contributions of present-day LGBT people and accepting them as equal members of the tribe.
The News Tribune spoke recently with three LGBT Puyallups and the tribe’s culture director about their lives and the tribe’s history.
NATIVE AND TRANSGENDER
Kristopher Gribben-Earl, 36, owns his own business in Tacoma, American Indian Landscaping. He’s a burly man with a touch of male pattern baldness.
Gribben-Earl is a Puyallup tribal member and he’s a transgender man.
“I was born female,” Gribben-Earl said recently. “My whole life, I didn’t fit in with the girls. At all.”
Gribben-Earl was born in Tacoma but grew up mostly in Michigan, raised by his mother. His father was a Puyallup tribal member.
“I couldn’t stand looking at myself,” Gribben-Earl said of his puberty years when he was a girl. At the time, he didn’t know transitioning from female to male was a possibility.
After moving to Texas as a young adult he met a transgender man. Gribben-Earl began transitioning to male at age 21.
In 2007, Gribben-Earl moved back to Tacoma as a man. He had facial hair and had changed his name.
Acceptance of his male gender was mixed among his large tribal family. To this day, Gribben-Earl said, an older brother will not refer to him as a man.
“He’ll respect me and use Kris but he refuses to use male pronouns,” Gribben-Earl said. “He also introduces me to his children as their aunt.”
Gribben-Earl takes the long approach to changing minds.
“I’ll let him come around,” he said.
Gribben-Earl’s father, now deceased, was accepting of his transition from the start, he said. So were those he needed for help.
The Puyallup Tribal medical clinic and its staff are supportive, he said.
“I don’t have to struggle to find a doctor,” he said. “In the beginning of my transition I did have to go through that.”
Once an active member of the LGBT community, Gribben-Earl is more focused on his personal life now.
“I’m a dad, I’m a soon-to-be husband,” he said. “I’m a small business owner. My time is wrapped around my family.”
Being part of the Puyallup Tribe also gives Gribben-Earl a sense of belonging.
“I have felt more support from the tribe and the community,” he said.
Other tribal members, Gribben-Earl said, have asked a lot of questions but have not been resistant to him.
“I can feel their curiosity,” he said. “They want to learn. They are ready to embrace and go back to way things should have been.”
Gribben-Earl is what some Native Americans refer to as two spirit – a person who embodies both male and female qualities. The term’s definition can vary but Gribben-Earl said it refers more to transgender people than it does lesbians or gays.
Individuals that today would be considered transgender have long been part of Native American culture, said Connie McCloud, the Puyallup Tribe’s culture director. She is not a member of the LGBT community.
“We’ve had males in our community that would identify as females and would take on female roles,” McCloud said. “They would have been accepted in the community and considered to have special, spiritual gifts.”
The same would have been true of people who were born as women but took on male roles and presentations, she said.
That changed when white explorers, settlers and missionaries came to Puyallup lands.
“The greatest change in acceptance came with the introduction of Christianity in our communities,” she said. “Here in the Northwest, Christianity was a very new concept.”
Catholic and other churches had a large influence on native beliefs, McCloud said.
“They were the ones in charge of boarding schools which removed children from homes,” she said.
Boarding schools, which included the Cushman Indian School in Tacoma, sought to erase Indian culture from native youth. That would have included any expressions of gender or sexuality that didn’t fit Christian morality.
“With the introduction of Christianity came a very different set of norms and rules,” McCloud said. “It became punishable if you didn’t abide by their norms.”
That mode of thinking persisted into McCloud’s youth. As a girl, McCloud got messages from her family that assimilation was necessary for survival. “What was said to me by my parents and my grandparents is that being Indian is no longer useful to you,” she said.
In 1892, Richard Pratt, a white educator of Native Americans, gave his “Kill the Indian, and Save the Man” speech — a blueprint for forced assimilation.
But at the same time, anthropologists and historians were documenting a Zuni Indian named We’wha who today remains one of the most well-known two-spirit Indians of her time. We’wha was a lhamana or berdache — those born with a male body but who dress as and take on female roles in Zuni culture.
Born in 1849 in what is now New Mexico, We’wha encountered white people and Christianity late in life. We’wha, according to those who knew her, lived mostly as a woman and performed female duties — gardening, laundry — but was also a respected leader among male peers.
Tribes across North America had similar traditions — many that don’t fit neatly into today’s LGBT acronym but instead might be considered a third or fourth gender.
At age 16, McCloud left the Puyallup reservation to attend an Indian art school in Santa Fe, New Mexico. There, she met many out LGBT students.
“A few of the students would talk about how difficult it was when they went home,” she recalled. The exception, she said, was a young man from a pueblo tribe who was accepted by his people as a gay youth.
No word exists for gay, lesbian or bisexual in the Puyallup language, Twulshootseed, according to Chris Briden.
Briden, 43, is a language teacher for the Puyallup Tribe. There is also no special word to describe the relationship he has with his husband.
“A man could choose to have a man as a partner but there’s no words to describe a gay relationship,” he said.
The idea of gender roles and how they developed or were assigned to people in Puyallup culture were fundamentally different than the mainstream world, Briden said.
Abilities were separate entities that came to you — if you were a good person, Briden said.
“The ability to fish came to a person and they come to men more often than they come to women,” he said.
But when those abilities came to females they were considered special occurrences.
“Weaving was considered a female job,” Briden said. “But if a man had that ability he was usually better than the women and if a woman had a hunting ability she would tend to be a better hunter than the men.”
Briden grew up in Seattle but spent a lot of time on the Puyallup Reservation with his family.
Growing up, cousins and classmates would use derogatory language toward gays. So did older family members.
“Even my elders had been so influenced by colonization and negative things that they had issues themselves,” Briden said. “They weren’t free from the psychological effects of growing up in the Cushman School.”
When faced with hateful language, Briden would fall back on the teachings of his tribe and his deep love of nature.
Briden and his husband have been together 17 years.
“I’ve noticed much more acceptance in this community than ever before,” he said.
OUT ON THE COUNCIL
Growing up lesbian wasn’t an option for Puyallup Tribal Council member Annette Bryan, 52.
“I had a girlfriend before I had a boyfriend,” Bryan said of her early teens. “But because society expected me to get married to a man and have two kids and a home and a cat and a dog and a truck and a car and a white picket fence that’s really what I thought I was gearing towards.”
Bryan was born in Seattle but moved to the Puyallup Reservation at age 10 where she still lives today.
She got married to a man soon after high school and had a son and a daughter.
“The societal norms were being pushed on me and looking back I see that very clearly,” she said.
When Bryan was 30 and divorced she met Nancy Haack while both were students at the University of Washington Tacoma.
“We had so much in common,” Bryan said. “We became best friends and we fell in love and I realized I was completely happy and felt completely accepted for the first time in my life.”
The couple have been together 22 years.
Bryan’s family accepted her coming out immediately. That isn’t always the case with native youth.
“I see some of our young folks struggling with how do they tell their parents, how are they going to be accepted. Feeling like they don’t fit in,” Bryan said. “I really don’t want any individual to feel that way.”
Bryan hopes the official recognition the tribe is giving its LGBT members will help. She wants young LGBT Indians to know they can be anything they want to be.
“I would hope they would feel like they can be Puyallup Tribal members and be part of the LGBT community and be proud of who they are.”
Flag raising and celebration
When: 1-5 p.m. Sunday
Where: Puyallup Tribal Headquarters, 3009 E. Portland Ave., Tacoma
What: Remarks, food, entertainment
Admission: Free and open to the public