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…
Kelli Twoteeth – September Community Spotlight
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 and in Indian Country.
This month we spoke with Kelli Twoteeth. Kelli ran in House District 79 in a recent special election and is currently a community organizer with Montana Native Vote and is also affiliated with Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana, the ACLU of Montana, Helena Indian Alliance, and the Lewis and Clark County Democrats. We sat down with Kelli to explore their experience in running for office as well as their life experience as a two-spirit individual.
Organizations: Montana Native Vote, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana, ACLU Montana, Helena Indian Alliance, Lewis & Clark County Democrats
Where are you from?
I’m from Helena, Montana.
Would you mind sharing with us what your experience was in running for office?
It was a special election process that doesn’t happen often, so my experience is probably different from a lot of other people. In my experience with the Lewis and Clark Democratic Committee, the way they handled House District 79, was amazing and if you want to run for office as an Indigenous person, or if you want to run in general, I just say go out there and do it.
What inspired you to run in that special election?
On average, it takes a woman nine times to be asked to run for office before she actually considers it. I was asked by my Helena community, maybe over 100 times, and nobody really told me how. How do you run for office? So I saw it as an opportunity to put my name in the hat and get my name out there.
It’s interesting that you mentioned that, on average, women are asked at least nine times before they make a solid commitment to running. Why do you think that is?
Running for office as a woman is hard and just putting yourself out there in office, in general, is hard. To be an Indigenous woman and run for office? Women like me are not supposed to run for office, but this year is the year of the woman. Running for office is a hard task, so to do it as a woman is hard enough, and then to be a marginalized community member and a woman as well, it almost seems impossible. We have candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. We have candidates like Deb (Haaland) and Sharice (Davids) who are running for Congress and it’s really inspiring and it’s really making us step out of our comfort zone and create change. I think it’s amazing.
Oftentimes folks get lumped into that generic category of being LGBTQ. There obvious nuances. Would you be comfortable sharing a little bit of the nuances for you within the community?
So I just recently decided to use my pronouns like they/them/their. A little bit of the reason why I did that is I was actually walking around in Billings and somebody was like, “Sir, how’s it going?” And I was like, “Oh, it’s going great!” Then they were like, “Oh, no, you’re a beautiful lady.”, and I realized at that moment I didn’t really like any response to that. I did like him calling me sir. I didn’t like him over correcting himself and calling me a beautiful lady. Growing up I wanted it to be like my dad a lot and he taught me how to change a tire. He taught me how to change the oil. He taught me how to do everything and I wanted to dress like him. I wanted to be a firefighter like him, but it also really wanted to be like my grandmother who was a powerhouse Indigenous woman. I remember when she told me I had to traditional dance and I couldn’t grass dance and I cried for like five days. So, the reason that I go by they/them/their is that I have the strong male presence that raised me, but also the strong Indigenous woman that raised me. I’ve dressed very androgynously and I also carry myself that way as well. I just feel like that’s a pronoun that makes me feel like myself and I didn’t know that until I met other non-binary friends of mine. Then when they would start calling me they/them/they’re, It made me feel a sense of identity and confidence. I just recently cut off my hair, which is a big thing in the Indigenous community, and I did it to accept my new identity. I’ve never felt more confident by going by my true pronouns and dressing the way I feel, and also presenting myself in the way I feel in the world. So it’s nice to finally be able to do that and it’s comforting.
Knowing that there was an attempt to put on our Montana ballots an initiative that would have put in a bathroom bill. What does the bathroom bill mean to you and what does that signify to you about Montana?
It was really hurtful to see that. A lot of my really good friends started out Transvisible (Montana), which is an amazing organization and everyone should go like them on Facebook. They fought against that bill and just (hurt) seeing how much it really affected them. This bill actually came out before I even knew I was non-binary before I was even able to figure that out. But I knew as a gay woman, I felt really hurt and I felt so much for my trans friends and my non-binary community that I have around me. What it says about Montana is yeah, Montana is a problem but also it didn’t pass. It didn’t even make it on the bill. So they failed pretty hard. That also says a lot about Montana too, and that also says, even though we are a red state, we are not this conservative, hateful people that other people try and play us out to be. In fact, we’re very loving and I was hurt by that, by that bill, and I’m glad it didn’t pass.
What would you want the outside world to know about all of the communities that you consider home?
I want them to know how loving we are. In my community and my family, we have gone through a lot of trauma. My dad died when I was very young. Our grandmother, who was our sole cultural everything, and the backbone of our family, just died two years ago. Although we go through a lot of trauma, a lot of hurts, a lot of pain, we’re also so resilient and so strong and the courage that runs through our veins is impeccable. Also humor. I would like them to know that although we go through a lot of trauma, the humor that we have, and the laughs that we share are the medicine that keeps me going every single day. If somebody could, from the outside looking in, I would like them to know, although we do go through trauma and pain, we are some of the most joyful and amazing humans and individuals that I’ve ever grown up with, and that’s just amazing how our Indigenous community is and they should know how loving we are.
What is one change you would want to see in your community within the next five years?
I would like to see a change in criminal justice reform. I feel within our community, and especially in my personal experience with my family, we get stuck in the criminal justice system. We’re continuously trying to drive to work, to pay for fines, to pay for traffic violations. I think that our criminal justice system targets poor people, and not only poor people, but also marginalized communities. I know when you’re stuck in the system, sometimes it feels easier to give up than it really does to keep going. We need a drastic change to our criminal justice system so that we can feel, as a people, that we’re not stuck and held down by something as simple as traffic fines. So I feel like the system really sets us up to fail and that’s something that needs to change now.
Thank you Kelli, for your time.
A special thank you to Kelli Twoteeth who agreed to speak with us. Thank you to bensound.com for the music. To listen to other Community Spotlights, please visit www.westernnativevoice.org/communityspotlight.