December 1 is World AIDS Day

December 1 is World AIDS Day. This excerpt of Indian Blood: HIV and Colonial Trauma in San Francisco’s Two-Spirit Community, by Andrew J. Jolivette, looks closely at the ways in which the Two-Spirit community has been impacted by HIV/AIDS and offers a path toward a better understanding of and by the Indigenous world.

Burning sage fills the room at the Native American AIDS Project in San Francisco with pungent smoke. It’s a cold winter day when I begin my first focus group with gay, Two-Spirit, and transgender American Indians who also identify as mixed-race. As each participant enters the room, I introduce myself and explain that the goal of this project is to understand how we can reduce rates of HIV/AIDS infection in American Indian and Indigenous communities. I also suggest that this is a story about healing, not about sickness. This is, I tell them, a story that will produce meaningful interventions for other American Indian people in San Francisco and across the United States.

As prayers are offered for the office space to become ceremonial and safe, I can see the members of the group begin to stand closer together. One participant, an older man in his fifties, speaks first. His tone, as he tells of his transition from the reservation in Nevada to urban life in San Francisco, is one of authority. He describes unbelievable trauma and yet there is hope in his message. He recalls a time when San Francisco was a beacon for gay, Two-Spirit, and transgender Natives, but explains that there has since been a decline in leadership within the community. Other participants are nodding in agreement. A transgender participant in her early forties suggests that the only way a community can heal is if it remains a community. I hear the relevance of this insight to HIV prevention efforts: focusing on behavioral change at the individual level causes a greater degree of stigmatization and isolation, which in turn increase harmful behaviors and lead to higher HIV transmission risk.

At the end of the session, I thank each participant and shake their hand, then sit silently in the room, still smelling the remnants of the sage, and ponder the importance of the exchange between the participants. They were asking for a shift from a cultural deprivation model to a healing intervention model, one that examines relationships between people rather than between a disease and an individual. My research has taught me that articulating subjectivities requires humanizing people. Putting the emphasis on humanization in turn underscores the salience of kinship in producing mutual responsibility and community care, both central principles of decolonization in Indigenous communities. Interventions founded on kinship act as vehicles for transformation, dismantling systems of oppression while reinforcing self-determination. As I listened to the painful stories shared by group participants—stories of sexual violence, rape, racism, sexism, and transphobia, as well as of in-school bullying, family violence, drug abuse, and high-risk sexual behavior—I began to ask more questions about what strategies participants had used in order to cope with these traumas and stressors. It became clear to me over time that love, both self-love and community love, had often been missing from their experiences. It was when they became vulnerable and when they shared stories with one another that they began to see each other as kin, as family—and in seeing one another as kin or family, they became able to find loving connections, based on shared resiliency in the face of colonial trauma.

Over the next year, I would conduct five focus groups and hold dozens of discussions and interviews at the first annual Two-Spirit Powwow at the San Francisco LGBT Center, where hundreds of Native people from across the United States and Canada were in attendance. After more than a year of ethnographic research, I came to the conclusion that to bring meaningful change, an intervention had to come from the participants themselves. Indigenous peoples must be at the center of any decolonial research project—including my own. Making the voices of those most affected central to the discussion is a form of self-determination recognized by scholars and activists across the field of Native studies.

This book speaks not only to power and politics in Indigenous studies, but also to the role of the oral tradition in restoring, or at least rejuvenating, a ceremonial practice that I term radical love. The interventions that made this possible may seem small. During each focus group, we offered prayer with sage. We shared meals together before delving into deep dialogue. Participants discussed everything from boarding schools to sexual violence; sharing stories became, for them, a way to build power. Together, these gestures created space for radical love, a methodology for engaging with our own vulnerabilities and mental health struggles. It insists that only when we become vulnerable and open up our hearts to our pain can we truly begin to heal, to sow growth where trauma once stood.

When we think of HIV/AIDS today, we must understand that every single person living with the virus has a story. It is my hope that the narratives in Indian Blood will speak not just to those in public health and sexuality, but also to those seeking intersectional frameworks for methodological research that repositions language, behavior, and action.

Andrew J. Jolivette is professor and chair of American Indian studies at San Francisco State University. He is the author of Louisiana Creoles: Cultural Recovery and Mixed-Race Native American Identity.