Chris Finley, Ph.D.

Colville Confederated Tribes

First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) is pleased to launch a new online series of essays that focuses on Native justice. With generous support from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), First Nations invited multiple experts to discuss the root causes of Native injustice and highlight possible frameworks to move forward toward Native justice.

This essay by Dr. Chris Finley, assistant professor at the University of Southern California, focuses on Native justice and 2SQI (Two Spirit-Queer Indigenous) rights. In this essay, Finley argues that analysis of gender and sexuality is key to decolonizing our communities and seeking justice for our people – all people. She says: “Simple inclusion is not enough.” She emphasizes that decolonization and healing can only come when we practice love for the land and one another.

About Dr. Chris Finley

Chris Finley is a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes located in what is now called Eastern Washington state. She received her Ph.D. in American culture from the University of Michigan and is a co-editor and contributor to “Queer Indigenous Studies: Critical Interventions in Theory, Politics and Literature” (University of Arizona Press, 2011). Currently, she lives on Tongva land and is an assistant professor of American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California.

Queer Indigenous Sexy: Love and Queer Justice
in Native America

By Dr. Chris Finley

For most Native communities, being 2SQI (Two-Spirit Queer Indigenous)[1] is traditional. Yet, Indigenous nations, families, and communities are not always respectful and inclusive of 2SQI. Like many ideas of tradition in Native communities, it depends on who you ask and the context.[2]

I am excited to be asked to discuss Indigenous queer and Two-Spirit issues because sexuality is rarely discussed within Native American studies or in Native communities, even though we love to gossip about who is having sex with whom. Sexuality, since colonial contact, has judgment, normalizing, and discipling ideas attached to it, and no one wants to say the wrong thing. Often, sexuality seems too decadent and something we can worry about after the revolution.

But what if queerness and sexuality is the revolution and path toward peace and justice in Native communities?[3] What if working on these inequalities, lack of knowledge, and injustices in our communities has the power to transform us into more loving, just, safe, and interesting nations? Our fear or resistance to think about genocide, heteropatriarchy, settler colonialism, and antiblackness as interrelated means we will continue to internalize these projects of violence and destruction. We, as Indigenous people, queer people, and people, generally, will continue to fight within and among ourselves. Why should we all agree? Because we are Indigenous? We barely know one another.

Importantly, I am arguing for us to work on issues that do not require the settler colonial nation-state to pass laws or recognize the pain and suffering that it has caused almost everyone. Rather, start recognizing one another as beings we want to be with.[4] In the meantime, Indigenous peoples can facilitate justice by healing the legacy of colonialism in our nations, communities, and families by working together to challenge the institutionalization and internalization of heteropatriarchy in our governments, laws, attitudes, ceremonies, and our interpersonal relationships. This is the beginning of a future of Indigenous life and social justice in Native communities and nations.

Homophobia is not a political and institutional problem exclusive to Indigenous nations. A stereotype about Indigenous people that I wish was true is: “Indigenous people are really understanding and accepting of queer sexuality and gender fluidity.” This is not always true. For many communities, sometimes inclusion of queer issues might be good enough. For Indigenous nations, it is not.

We have already lost so much and so many. 2SQI people should be recognized as honored and beloved members of Indigenous nations and communities. Simple inclusion is a start, but it is not nearly enough. Many 2SQI youth are alienated from their families and nations because of their sexual orientation or their gender presentation.[5] With the high rates of suicide and drug addiction among Native youth, we need to make our Native nations safe for 2SQI youth. The land does not judge who we love or how we perform our gender identity. The land only wants our care, attention, and love. Why should human beings demand heterosexuality when it limits the care we can give to one another?

One of the ideas I want to challenge is that queerness is a settler injustice that came with modernity and settler institutions. 2SQI people are not consequences or results of colonization. I challenge the idea that queer Indigenous or Two-Spirit people didn’t exist before the colonizers came. We existed and were part of our nations before settlers came crashing into our worlds.

Many Native nations have their own stories and traditions of Two-Spirit people existing long before the arrival of the settlers. We were part of the stories and traditions of Native communities, not just tolerated as non-normative outliers or as liberal multicultural exceptions to straight cis males because that is not how most Indian people organized power or identities. It was done through the mother and kinship and our relationships to place, seasons, animals, plants, and other Indigenous nations.

In my nation and many other Native nations, wealth was based on how much you could share with others and not on how much you could hoard and keep to yourself as a method of maintaining balance and justice. Indigenous nations cannot let settlers take our 2SQI traditions and make them possessions of colonialism. Or use queerness to dispossess, discipline, and displace 2SQIs from our nations and land bases. Queerness and Two-Spiritedness are ours. I’m not letting settlers have it or take something else sacred from us. 2SQIs are not part of colonization. Trying to make us all straight, assimilated, working-class, boring, cis-gendered, third-class  citizens of the U.S. is settler injustice.

As I’ve argued in other places,[6] Native people and nations that try to be heteronormative and police gender in our communities have not stopped settlers from hurting us or taking our land. Because of this, we will not be able to decolonize our nations, communities, land, or minds without an analysis of gender and sexuality.

Without decolonization and ridding our communities of heteropatriarchy, there will be no justice or place for 2SQI people. As Indigenous peoples, we know we cannot lose one more life or risk alienating 2SQI youths from a colonial world that makes our presence here almost impossible. All life is sacred to us, and we must be stewards and elders who consciously mentor future generations to have an understanding and acceptance of queer issues.

Heteropatriarchy and gender binaries are used to make conquest of the United States a non-violent and natural affair. I am not here to masculinize the Natives because some Native scholars have been trying to do that since the American Indian Movement and this has not stopped settler encroachment in the last 50 years. In fact, it delayed a general acceptance of gendered analysis in Native studies for decades.

Yet, Native peoples have always resisted settler intrusion. Native women have resisted heteropatriarchy in the academy and in our communities. The plunder of this continent required the genocide of Indigenous and black peoples because the land needs to be empty of people and turned into a commodity to be bought and sold among settlers, and Turtle Island turned into a baby country called the U.S.

Of course, we resisted this in all sorts of ways because Native peoples wanted justice for our ancestors and something different for future generations. For Indigenous peoples around the globe, settler colonialism is not only in the past, but also in the present.

But I want to challenge the futurity of genocide. Jack Halberstam writes: “[Franz] Fanon, according to Moten, wants not the end of the colonialism but the end of the standpoint from where colonialism makes sense. In order to bring colonialism to an end then, one does not speak truth to power, one has to inhabit the crazy, nonsensical, ranting language of the other, the other who has been rendered a nonentity by colonialism.”[7]

In other words, I want to build a world where colonialism and heteropatriarchy do not make sense. I speak the language of the other so the ghosts, survivors, queers, and targets of systematic genocides or the other nonentities of colonialism can hear me and know they are not forgotten, and Natives and non-Natives can work for a better world for everyone. Survivors of genocide have documented stories, body counts, and damage from being a targeted population slated for death. But this has not ended injustices against Indigenous peoples.

Tell your future selves that surviving is no longer enough. We are here. We are alive. We need to have dreams of the future where survival is not the only goal. I have dreams of being together and in relation with you and not because you feel sorry for me and want to save me and help me, but because you want to care and just be with me. Being present with one another is significant. The listening and conversation around these ideas is most important.

Decolonization is happening. To me, it is the most important contribution to the field of Queer Indigenous studies, which offers healing with or without settlers. Not to say that colonialism is over, but we can begin to heal, anyway.

Jamacia Osorio, a Hawaiian poet, educator, and activist, discusses her fraught relationship with Waikiki. When she was young, her family would go to the beach for celebrations because Waikiki is part of Osorio’s traditional homeland, as it is for many other Native Hawaiians. Waikiki is a highly settled place on the island of Oahu, and part of Honolulu is filled with hotels, tourists, and kanaka maoli who work in the tourism industry. Osorio writes: “Like our bodies, our aina carry intergenerational aloha and trauma. So, if I want to be remembered by Waikiki, then I must remember Waikiki back, and if I do not want to be refused or forgotten, then I must not refuse her.” [8]

Her words are so powerful because the healing is about Osorio’s relationship to the land, and her actions and feelings are practices/methodology of decolonization. Decolonization requires a different perspective, which is offered in Indigenous practices and stories. Colonialism does not have to be the overriding central part of the relationship with place, even one as touristy as Waikiki. Colonialism and the violence over the land is not forgotten or ignored, but worked around by remembering Indigenous relationships to the land that requires reciprocity. It is a refusal to refuse the land and see the broken beauty that is part of this thing called life. To not turn our back on the harm done to our ancestors/land is the beginning of repair and justice.

In the spirit of Audra Simpson, a professor of anthropology, and Fred Moten, an American cultural theorist, poet, and scholar, I refuse to let settler shenanigans be the starting point of where I think, imagine, and dream. As a queer Indigenous woman feminist, it is logical to focus on the very serious problems in Indian Country, such as: murdered and missing Indigenous women and Two-Spirit peoples; 2SQI homeless Native youth alone on the streets; the continued environmental degradation; Indigenous women and children being raped and molested with little hope of justice; and the mass incarceration of Indigenous peoples.

Native activists and academics have produced important work on these social justice issues. In many ways, as Eve Tuck, a professor of critical race and Indigenous studies, has discussed in her theorization of damage-based research, discussing how my community and I are damaged is what the academic industrial complex expects of me.[9]  Native women are usually represented as victims that need saving from their savagery, sexual desires, and Native men.

But there is so much more to Indigenous lives than these damaging issues. Thanks to all the difficult, hard work of Native ancestors, academics, and activists who have gone before me, much of the damage already has been discussed and proven. I am not ignoring these painful and difficult effects of settler colonialism. But I want to act in hope and with Native feminist and queer Indigenous desires of something different, a new direction. Now, more than ever, we need to think and hope for good things ─ justice and a future for 2SQI, too.

I also want to make it clear that I think 2SQI people are beautiful, fierce, and awesome, and what we do, see, think, and feel is important. I want to show and give queer Two-Spirit communities love, respect, and honor ─ even though this is rare in Native communities. We rarely openly love one another without shame or critique, or with a sense of justice because we need justice to have hope for a better future.

This essay is an attempt to write and think about the question asked by Moten and Stefano Harney, another American activist and scholar. They want to push academics to consider, “What am I for?” and “Who am I with?” ─ instead of always thinking critically and writing about what they’re against.[10] My answer to their question is that I am for queer Indigenous Two-Spirit love and life, and support anyone else who wants to be part of our world.

My work and thinking are deeply influenced by women of color feminisms and Black fugitive thought. I am not here to tell sad stories about being a Native woman living in the conditions of occupation because that is the confession expected from a queer Indigenous woman. I want the revolution to be fun and interesting, and to add complexity and diversity to Native narratives. I want us to move forward or backward with a new vision of what we can do, what to work for, and who to be with.

As a queer Indigenous feminist intellectual, I speak the language of my academic training, but am committed to the lives of Indigenous peoples, queers, trans, incarcerated, sex workers, undocumented, working class, drug-addicted, homeless, and students. In other words, I hope I can clearly articulate my arguments, my hopes, and desires for a queer Indigenous Two-Spirit future.

The beginning of the U.S. settler nation state begins with the end of Indigenous peoples as we knew ourselves and the dispossession of much of our land base, which is a terrible injustice. These situations are related, and it is why I focus on the sovereignty and sacredness of 2SQI Native bodies and minds, and to become stewards of one another.

The violence and dangers of settler colonialism remain in our daily lives. They are not just statistics. Sexual violence and patriarchy are key components of settler colonialism. To make this clear, patriarchy and sexual violence are not add-ons of settler colonialism, but rather, how settler colonialism operates both within settler and Native societies.

Without dismantling heteropatriarchy within Native communities, we cannot decolonize. Indigenous land struggles are not my central concern because Native women and/or 2SQI peoples are struggling to live. Obviously, I am not trying to marginalize or call attention away from land and sovereignty struggles. But there are ways to combine these important efforts, as many Indigenous feminist scholars do.

This history cannot be ignored, but it is not central to my configuration of Native feminisms. Gendered colonial violence and heteropatriarchy will haunt my entire paper. However, I want to tell a different story. A story of queer longing, desire, and hope that will lead to justice. These are wicked words to utter in such times, but for Indigenous peoples, we have continued to survive for centuries under settler colonialism.

Yet, my essay is geared toward having a critical relationship with survival because I want more than just to survive. In the spirit of the work of Glen Coulthard, a Canadian scholar of Indigenous studies, I want us to practice a critical self-recognition of one another. Not just Indigenous people recognizing one another, but also, recognizing how we hurt one another. We need to talk about our failures and strategies that have worked. Not to participate in the call-out culture, but really to act like we want to live and be together.

Let’s make some different stories to share with one another.

Indigenous peoples are reading, writing, and creating amazing visual texts and protests in this moment. I am inspired by the poetry of Natalie Diaz’s “Postcolonial Love Poem” and Leanne Simpson’s “Island of Decolonial Love.” I love seeing Native people on the screen in “Reservation Dogs” and at the Indigenous Pop-X conference. In some ways, as a queer Indigenous feminist, I have never felt so invisible/hyper visible and vulnerable to engulfment. We, all oppressed peoples, need to read and recognize one another ─ especially in this moment.

To generate ideas from brokenheartedness takes spirituality, which comes from my relationship to the vastness and beauty of my land base, my ancestors, my friends, and the spirit of the universe. The building of spirituality and connection comes from reading and hearing one another’s stories. Simpson and other queer Indigenous writers remind me of this ─ especially when I feel broken and alone, far away from my nation. This is where my strength and guidance come from, but I come from a long line of so-called defeated people and survivors of conquest.

I don’t want to be all alone. I don’t want to be the most oppressed scholar in the academy. It is lonely at the bottom of the heap because, of course, in this mindset, we all think we are at the bottom of the heap. I want to be with other people. I want to talk with other people. I want a more expansive and “generative” approach to theorizing our lives and future.

Dian Million, an associate professor of American Indian studies, argues in his book “Therapeutic Nations” that to decolonize, Native people need to generate expansive ideas of community and alliances through love and struggling together.[11] For Million, one solution is that Natives and other oppressed communities should start working and assisting one another instead of looking to the state to heal Indigenous pain and suffering as a means of gaining justice in our communities. Million, one of my queer elders, has earned this position through her political, community, personal, and intellectual commitments to queer Indigenous feminisms.

Elders are not just people who are older than you, but who earn your trust and respect through teaching and engagement. To produce work that generates life requires a dedication to the imagination, dreams, transformation, and love, which Million certainly has and shares with us.

This move toward life asks for relation, which is much deeper and decolonial than simple inclusion. I am asking for recognition, and political and social engagement with queer aboriginal life, which includes the intellectual work, lands, and nations of Indigenous peoples. This is what justice means to me: A world where 2SQI peoples have a sacred place in Native communities and nations.

I also have been thinking about how Indigenous peoples, specifically myself, are invested in settler colonialism (damage, recognition by settler institutions, focus on the loss). Confessing the experiences of our trauma is not enough anymore. 2SQI scholars and activists are expected to confess how much we have been hurt by settler colonialism and dispossessions of every kind. Queer Indigenous studies, at its best, theorizes loss, homophobia, rape, violence, and land theft, instead of simply confessing this as part of our identity and experience under the regime of settler colonialism.

It is this place of desire and Native futurity where I want my future scholarship, teaching, and consciousness to go to work for justice. We will not be able to successfully decolonize without a critical analysis of heteropatriarchy, sex positivity, and how sexualities are deployed in Native communities and Native studies.

We can start decolonizing our nations and communities at this moment by dismantling heteropatriarchy and homophobia in our own communities. We do not need an act of Congress to give Native families or nations permission to begin this now. Love and sexuality are important parts of life. While we work on protecting water, getting our land back, and protecting Indigenous sovereignty, Indigenous people should work on our heterosexism as part of decolonization.


[1] I will be using the terms Two-Spirit and Queer Indigenous as two separate identity formations and, arguably, interchangeable depending on who you ask. Depending on the cultural context, Two-Spirit can refer exclusively to an Indigenous person expressing gender beyond the cis gender binary, gender norms, and/or gender fluidity, transgender, intersexed, pan-gendered, and many more gender identities. Two-Spirit can also refer to the queer sexuality of a Native person identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, plus. Queer Indigenous refers to an Indigenous person who identifies as queer and likes the inclusiveness, politics, and/or ambiguity of the identity formation of queer. A great discussion of this is in Qwo-Li Driskill’s book chapter “Cherokee Two-Spirit People Reimagining Nation,” in “Asegi Stories: Cherokee Queer and Two-Spirit Memory,” University of Arizona Press, 2016.

[2] Jennifer Denetdale’s “Chairmen, Presidents, and Princesses: The Navajo Nation, Gender, and the Politics of Tradition,” in Wicazo Sa Review. Vol. 21, Number 1, (Spring 2006).

[3] This idea comes from Leanne Simpson’s book “As We Have Always Done” that Indigenous peoples need to consider the importance of including queer, Two-Spirit, and questioning Indigenous people into ceremonies and Indigenous governance. For example, in her chapter, “Land as Pedagogy,” Simpson uses a gender-queer child to represent children instead of a cis-gendered child.

[4] I am referencing Glen Coulthard’s “Red Skins, White Masks,” where he discusses the importance of critiquing Indigenous peoples’ desire to have the settler nation recognize Indigenous nations as sovereign nations. In the U.S., Native nations are not considered sovereign unless they are recognized by the U.S. nation-state. Many nations have spent a great deal of time and effort to be recognized by the U.S. Coulthard argues Indigenous peoples should spend our energy on recognizing other Indigenous peoples, histories, and cultural practices.

[5] Lydia Nibley’s “Two Spirits: Sexuality, Gender, and the Murder of Fred Martinez” (2009) is a powerful film about the life of Navajo Fred Martinez. Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson’s “Kumu Hina” (2015) is a film about a mahu teacher living their life and mentoring a youth in the middle.

[6] I’m referring to my chapter: “Decolonizing the Queer Native Body (and Recovering the Native Bull-Dyke): Bringing ‘Sexy Back’ and Out of Native Studies’ Closet,” in Queer Indigenous Studies: Interventions in Theory, Politics, and Literature. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2011: 31-42.

[7] Jack Halberstam’s “The Wild Beyond: With and for the Undercommons,” in Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s “The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study,” 2013: 8.

[8] Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio. “(Re)Membering Our Intimacies: Mo’olelo, Aloha Aina, and Ea,” Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2021: 140-41.

[9] Eve Tuck’s “Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities” in Harvard Educational Review (2009).

[10] Another brilliant inspiration from Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s “The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study,” 2013.

[11] Dian Million’s “Therapeutic Nations: Healing in an Age of Indigenous Human Rights,” Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2013: 27.