How a Two-Spirit Indigenous Activist Uses Dance to Make Their Voice Heard

While coming out, dance was a means of two-spirit expression for Sherenté Mishitashin Harris.

Photo by Roberto A. Jackson
Photo by Roberto A. Jackson

For Sherenté Mishitashin Harris, being a member of the Indigenous Narragansett tribe in Rhode Island isn’t just their cultural heritage, it’s the cause for everything they do in life.

Thus, the rich traditions of the Narragansett tribe have seeped into every aspect of Sherenté’s being. Unlike the standard greeting of hi or hello, Sherenté explains that, in Indigenous culture, their typical greeting is a deeper acknowledgment that one person recognizes the light within another, comparing it to the way the customary Hindu word namaste is used.

When it comes to the light inside Sherenté, it quickly brightens when they are discussing the subjects near and dear to their heart: family, the history (and future) of their community, dance, and their two-spirit identity.

He who is effeminate

Sherenté identifies as two-spirit—a relatively modern Indigenous term for a concept that has been intertwined in their culture likely since its inception—the fluid possession of both a male and female spirit within one individual. A proclamation of Sherenté’s gender identity is integral to the greeting mentioned above: They declare themselves as noh waashpit, or “he who is effeminate.”

According to Sherenté, their largest act of rebellion is simply being who they are—by announcing themselves as two-spirit, and by dancing the traditionally female Fancy Shawl dance within pow wow circles where they have encountered closed minds.

“There are many different ways that two-spirit people could be described, and all of them are unique to the cultural backgrounds of tribal communities. They are inextricable from our ceremonies, our traditions, and our teachings,” Sherenté says. “The word two-spirit attempts to capture, at a very surface level, a wide variety of traditions, so that we're not using a colonial term or idea, like genderqueer or gender fluid, to talk about two-spirit people.”

I identify as two-spirit to make clear that my queerness is based in a cultural framework that’s foreign to how we think about gender and sexuality today—it’s not so ‘queer’ at all. It acknowledges a tradition spanning back centuries.

Sherenté Mishitashin Harris

Indeed, the Narragansett tribe and other Indigenous communities have a long history of acknowledging and honoring the contributions of nonbinary spirits. Sherenté points out that one of the many colonially-imposed woes on Indigenous peoples today is the disease of homophobia and transphobia, which Sherenté says is foreign to traditionally Indigenous thinking. This colonization of thought resulted in an unfortunate rejection, by some community members, of two-spirit people—an injustice Sherenté fought hard to shift as they stepped into their truth as a teenager: by embracing the beauty of dance.

Dance as a means of sharing love

Before Sherenté was even born, they experienced dance and the rhythmic pulse of tribal drums while in the womb. Sherenté says they were lucky to have grown up in a household with two loving Narragansett parents, both dance instructors who led classes not only for their tribe but across the region.

During the process of coming out, Sherenté used dance as a means of two-spirit expression. Born biologically male, Sherenté was taught to dance in the style of their father, practicing the Eastern War dance, as is typical for a boy. When Sherenté came out, they decided to begin performing in the traditionally female style of Fancy Shawl—the dance of their mother.

“My dad is a physical education teacher and I would dance the Fancy Shawl during his class, a women's style of pow wow dance. I danced every day for a year to learn it, and even my school project at the time was centered around dance and being two-spirit,” Sherenté says. “I was able to center my learning around my passions.”

Photo courtesy of Sherenté Mishitashin Harris

Gaining courage through their practice and learnings, Sherenté took the next step—boldly entering the circle as a two-spirit person, a space where people who identified as such had more recently been shunned. When Sherenté was just 16 years old, they faced hate and vitriol from male adults in the community when they tried to practice the Fancy Shawl dance at pow wows.

At one point, Sherenté seriously contemplated giving up dance for good, despite maintaining a deep passion for it their entire life.

“I was being called such hideous things to my face by strangers, and all I wanted to do was be able to speak to people, to tell my story, to understand why they hated me so much, and no one wanted to talk to me,” Sherenté says.

“The point at which they finally saw me was when judges walked off, saying that what was happening to me was wrong, when a huge protest happened while I was dancing, and when people were sending letters to the tribal council about the issue. Suddenly, people saw what was happening to me, and they no longer saw me as an idea or a confused person, or as a queer or as a transgender. They saw me as a human being and they found themselves within me.”

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Coming into their own

The night before Sherenté came out to their parents, they wrote a letter to them and stuck it under their pillow before dozing off, hoping that this tangible piece of penmanship would give them the push they needed to open up the next day. The following evening, Sherenté read the letter aloud to their parents, and tears were shed—most of them were tears of love.

Despite having their parents’ support, Sherenté was afraid to come out in their school district, and nobody else knew that they identified as two-spirit. Sherenté and their parents made the tough decision to move them to a different school, where both of their parents actually worked. It was there that Sherenté began their Fancy Shawl practice, and the rest, they say, is history.

“I had a guidance counselor who I had seen my entire life, and when I was thinking of switching schools, she told me, ‘Sherenté, you're at a place where you have two paths ahead of you, and no matter which path you take, you're destined for greatness.’ That really liberated me. If I stayed in my old school district and in the closet, I don't think I would have been accepted into a dual-degree program at Brown University. I don't think I would be a Presidential Scholar or an LGBT History Month icon. I likely would not have done any activism work for my two-spirit community.”

Being surrounded by people that support and accept you is paramount to fulfilling your truest potential and giving all the gifts that you have to this world.

Sherenté Mishitashin Harris

Sherenté themself is still young, having just celebrated their 22nd birthday, but hopes that struggling two-spirit youths can find solace in knowing that they are not alone. Sherenté shares that their deepest prayer for all queer and two-spirit young people is that they find communities, make communities, and make families—safe ones where they can be their authentic selves, “because that is where the most beautiful things in life come out.”

This Pride Month and beyond, Sherenté hopes that people learn more about two-spirits and modern Indigenous communities and that they take the time to realize that it’s a continually evolving culture and should be recognized as such. They also hope that people support the efforts of Youth Pride RI and Newport, Rhode Island’s annual Born This Way Prom.

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