Western Native Voice works year-round to inspire Native leadership so our communities flourish. We are excited to share with you Western Native Voice’s Community Spotlight, designed to highlight grassroots organizing and individuals creating change from across Montana…
Adrian Jawort – January Community Spotlight
We recently sat down with Adrian Jawort, a Northern Cheyenne author and journalist for Indian Country Today to discuss the recent article titled “Native American ‘Rednecks’ and Colonized Anti-LGBTQ Conservativism”. Adrian shared with us how their article was received by the public and the self-discovery that had inspired the article.
Hi Adrian, please tell us where you’re from.
Grew up in Billings, Lockwood actually, but I’ve always had strong ties to reservations. Of course. Busby is where my family’s from. I was back and forth from there and I actually lived on the Crow rez for a couple of years there and even lived in Fort Belknap in my early twenties.
Tell us about your work as a writer and journalist.
My primary job is journalism and I also do literature. I do these literature anthologies. Hopefully, I have another one out this year, called Off the Path: Three, that is going to be out and I’m promoting Indigenous literature. It’s got tapped into writers from New Zealand, so that’s cool and cross-cultural things. Indigenous literature and fiction writing, it’s important to me and a lot of it’s based on reality. I call it beautifully bleak. I always want to go for tears. If we’re not crying ourselves then it’s not ready.
Adrian, what inspired you to write the article, and in particular, where did you come up with the title?
That title alone I can see is pretty problematic. That’s why I put the rednecks in (quotation marks). It was based on something Sherman Alexie had said and even quoting him nowadays, with all his controversy surrounding him, that’s problematic too. Reading that quote is an apt description. People are baffled about that. I gave a brief speech about LGBTQ people and Trans at a Not In Our Town thing. The next thing you know, in Fort Peck we had an anti-trans bathroom bill and people were like, just shocked by that. That’s a thing we don’t talk about, that’s like airing our dirty laundry. No, we don’t do that. Then even if you do the response has been, well, you’re being divisive. It’s easy for someone online that lives in Minneapolis or in Seattle and tell me I’m being divisive when I live in billings, where we voted down a nondiscrimination ordinance protecting LGBTQ people. You see the stuff evolving and more and more young people even are buying into this stuff. Ironically, they think it’s being rebellious to not be a social justice warrior and they’re sitting there adopting these beliefs from old white Republican guys. A lot of people are just in straight-up denial and that’s because history has been so whitewashed. There was a quote from George Catlin who expressed it best. Being an artist, he was observant. Being a Christian, he was painting a ceremony of a two-spirit person, I think from the Sac and Fox tribe, and he was just totally disgusted by it and everything. He said the one thing we have to do is make sure this is erased from the records. They really did try to do that. There’s not very much record of it, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. They didn’t record the history of women either. They’re always a background character, but that doesn’t mean, they weren’t important to the tribe. It’s a straight-up denial. “No, no we weren’t like this.? The other flip side reaction is always the “well that’s lateral violence” from the more liberal Natives, which I’m kind of used to because I just dive straight at topics. I did one called “The Native Role in Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women”. People were like, “Oh wow..you’re not..we don’t talk about our role.”
When I did it, it was the 80 percent statistic and a breakdown of that. It was basically debunking that statistic not to show that we’re bad, but it’s acknowledging the problem. That’s the thing. Like this LGTBQ phobia, etc., in Indian Country. The first thing you have to do is acknowledge it. If you don’t see the problem there, how are you going to fix it? Something that spurned (the article) too is people are baffled that you see tribal chairmen sitting behind Donald Trump and people are just like, “wow, why would they do that?” They just can’t fathom it.
Did you get any positive feedback regarding your article?
As I said, there’s a lot of people that are saying that this is divisive, of course. I shouldn’t be, as I said, airing our dirty laundry. At the same time I’m getting inboxes and messages from people I didn’t know. This Apache was saying, “thank you, thank you for writing this. This needs to be said, we need to say this.” That Apache person opened up and told me his whole experience. This is how I grew up. He actually had an exorcism performed on him He thought he was going to go hang out with a group of kids, and then it was a setup where they held him down. A lot of people have been opening up with stories like that, saying it really needed to be written. If people don’t like it they should learn to be empathetic to that because in the article it says, imagine this, imagine that, and I was deliberate in doing that. Imagine living the reality of what they’re going through. They don’t have to imagine. They’ve lived it.
There was an email, I got from some guy who said, “it takes courage to return to a time when such a thing did not take courage. I admire that.” That’s what he said about the article.
Your article mentions the introduction of non-indigenous religion as a source of the “colonized anti-LGBTQ conservativism”. Would you mind going into more detail?
I’m always empathetic to their point of view. Even if I don’t always agree with it because I actually grew up in the church. I still go to church so it’s not like I’m just like throwing the middle finger out. I mean, it’s an Assemblies of God Pentecostal church and my dad was a church deacon for 25 years. I just studied religion a lot. It was a natural curiosity for me to delve deep into this. So I was able to do it objectively rather than just saying screw colonization and just leaving it like that. That really doesn’t explain (a thing). I see a lot of Christians that are good people. They’re starting to conflict Christian Christ-like behavior with Republican beliefs that are anything but Christ-like, or even traditional Native wise. It’s how they veered and sold out your ancestral beliefs of tens of thousands of years with some southern Bible belt bigot’s belief. The politicization of religion. That’s what people have to stop and realize they have to stop doing that. It’s not all about politics, not about our side versus their side. It’s our side as tribal communities.
This article you wrote feels very personal. Could you talk more about your journey of self-discovery while writing this piece?
The journey is something I’ve been talking about it with certain select friends. One person that really inspired me was Natalie Wynn she does this “ContraPoint”. She’s been getting a lot of press for her YouTube videos. Just seeing what she went through when she came out. She was like, “did I make a mistake doing this?” She said, “you can always handle the alt-right edge lords, but when it’s coming from your own community, it genuinely hurts. I just (saw) how she handled that artistically. She started creating characters based on her experience and just kept developing them. She did a TED talk that was really inspirational, just talking about that experience. She talked about her experience on one of her videos and it mirrored mine 85 percent. I was like, holy crap. Even her rugged sense of humor, I just totally (got). I was thinking if I had grown up in a more liberal environment that wasn’t Billings, Montana if I lived more traditionally and if evangelicalism hadn’t become so ingrained in Native communities, I probably would have gone full transition.
I’m content with who I am, just being non-binary, gender fluid, being honest with myself, and everything because for a lot of years there I was basically a functioning alcoholic. Any feelings like that regarding myself or introspection, they were washed away by (alcohol). Although I was an activist and everything, it was a way of detracting from myself. I want to do everything right about other people, help other people, but myself, I became toxic. It was like really hurting those around me, lost my family and hurting my daughter and my daughter’s mom and I can’t blame them, in hindsight. Hiding from myself and everything. That wasn’t the sole reason why, but it compounded a lot of things. Grief and everything where I just couldn’t really focus on myself. I’ve been sober for a year and a half now and you have time to actually focus on yourself, and be honest with yourself and that’s what the piece helped me do.
What message do you have for LGBTQ youth out there who may be starting, or in the middle of, their journey of self-discovery?
Your tribe used to except you. They probably still do they just don’t know it. There’s nothing wrong with just being yourself and you are not alone. I always felt alone and I almost felt like I put myself on an island. The online community has been a big thing to utilize. Don’t be afraid to reach out because, as I said, you are not alone. There’s always someone out there who’s gone through the same experience or similar experiences and just even airing out that story about the person talking about being exorcised. I don’t think it’d be that extreme, but I’m sure it felt better that they’re able to talk to someone about it.
What advice would you give people on being a good ally to LGBTQ individuals?
Just recognizing that it’s not traditional to shun LGBTQ people, it’s a natural thing. Try to show empathy. That’s the main thing. That’s what the society lacks a lot of with all this divisiveness. Everything is black and white, everything’s right or wrong, their side our side. That’s what I tried to do while writing that article about colonization, trying to empathize. Because these are good people I know that are Christians and they do believe this, but I try to empathize with them. Not to say I agree with them, but just to say this is where they’re coming from. This is how it got that way.
What about the adults out there who may be listening and haven’t yet come out to their community?
Similar to what I said for the youth, you are not alone. I mean me, myself, I just kind of shoved it down for about 15 years since my mid-twenties and I’m almost 40. This is part of me. I just had the admit it. I was getting tired of trying to justify it in other ways. It might suck. Some people might have bad reactions and I can’t promise anyone that it’s going to be all good. When you come out, if you come out, you have to go to the grocery store and be out, go out in front of actual crowds and everyone knows you. You’ll go to your family Thanksgiving and be out. If you even have a family and that’s going to be the reality. I’m not going to promise anything, but at the same time, it’s freeing in a sense, the strong sense.
Adrian is currently writing fiction based on their recent transition experience as well as working on the feature film Perma Red. We’d like to thank Adrian for their time and for sharing their story.