One Sunday morning in July, I sat with a group of Two Spirit Natives and allies in Osage musician Marca Cassity’s living room to film a scene for their upcoming music video “How Long.”
We had met for breakfast in Cassity’s shady backyard. The talent on the call sheet included Natives from the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, Choctaw, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, and others across the country. Steela Jo Robedeaux (Otoe-Missouria and Pawnee), who lives in Portland, had just come from Oklahoma. Michele Pinkham (Nimmipuu) was wrapping her braids in fur and had brought beads in case people wanted to bead in between filming.
The video portrays the journey of a Two Spirit character moving through their struggles coming out into reconciliation with the help of community. Silas Hoffer, (Grand Ronde), Mr. Montana Two Spirit in 2021, is the video’s protagonist.
In the scene, the community gathers for a healing ceremony for Hoffer, while Hoffer sits alone in a church, confronted by an anti-gay pamphlet. The album was a direct response to a Cornell University Research finding that Anti-LGBTQ discrimination led to a high number— 31percent in 2020— of suicide attempts in Native Two Spirit youth, Cassity said.
We gathered in the living room around an altar for the Challa de las Flores, a healing ceremony that Claudia Cuentas, a mestiza Peruvian psychotherapist with Aymara and Quechua heritage, had prepared. Historic photos of Two Spirit people lined a bookshelf. Before the hearth, red, black, white, and yellow beans were laid in heart shapes on a woven mat with tobacco for healing.
Cassity described the context of the scene based on compelling experiences in their life. They had planned to major in music with the piano before telling family they were gay in the 1980s.
“That did not go well,” Cassity said. They dropped out of the music program, and ultimately studied to become a nurse during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, when some health providers were afraid to touch their patients. Cassity described their self-destructiveness as they came to terms with both the social and religious condemnation of Two Spirit/LGBTQ+ people. They experienced a spiritual intervention at a very low point.
“The building I was leaning against was struck by lightning. It knocked me off the porch onto my back, and as I looked up into the nighttime lightning filled sky, I heard an all-consuming voice say, ‘Stop killing yourself, you are here for a reason.’” Cassity got a guitar, learned to play and began to sing and write music.
In the intervening years, Cassity became a psychotherapist dealing with trauma and devoted themselves to sharing healing with Native Two Spirit youth. As the pandemic began, Cassity and their wife, Kate Costello, production coordinator for the video, had just moved into a home and bought a piano. “I didn’t know if I could play anymore,” Cassity said, but songs came.
Cassity received an NDN Collective Radical Imagination Grant and support from the Osage Foundation to produce a 10-song album focused on Two Spirit resilience and music video of the song “How Long.”
That morning in Portland, Cassity played “How Long” for the ten of us sitting in a circle around the altar. We smudged, burning Palo Santo from the Peruvian jungle and Palmita Dulce, an Andean herb, and cedar from the Osage, while the words to the song, “Hate speech echoing, eclipse my life,” conjured driving home in a car, an affirmation of the Osage grandmother’s road, and the tension in watching for deer, “Fight flight, fight flight/How much longer can I go on?” while Ivan Landau and Evan Benally Atwood (Diné), who identifies as nádleehí rather than Two Spirit, moved around us filming.
We sat with an eagle wing fan, eagle feathers, and Cuentas’ condor feather, those spirit blessings present, too. Hoffer entered the circle and was welcomed home.
Psychotherapists know that re-enacting events awakens emotions. This ceremony, then, held echoes of life events for each of us. The welcome the cast offered this character was a welcome available to each of us at the best of times, when our families and our communities are their best selves.
After several takes the filming was over. We were relieved and touched by the joy in the scene. This was important work. Helping even one person facing self-harm or suicide was worthwhile.
We had salmon from the Columbia River caught at The Dalles that Renea Perry (Tlingit) of Portland All Nations Canoe Family brought. It was communion, a joyful vision of Native resilience.
The video “How Long,” produced by Fran Bittakis and directed by Ivan Landau, Austin Rhoades, and Josué Rivas (Mexica/Otomi), will be released on Indigenous People’s Day in 2022, with a premiere in Pawhuska on 10/21/22 at Big Rain Gallery. See Cornell University’s Center for the Study of Inequality, Public Policy Research Portal www.whatweknow.inequality.cornell.edu to learn how supportive laws, families and peers lower the risk of poor health outcomes for LGBTQ people of color.