HIV Endgame: How can we navigate colonial trauma?

Speaking at the HIV Endgame conference, in November, 2016, Andrew Jolivette, of San Francisco State University, discusses the legacy of colonial trauma in San Francisco’s two-spirit community and the concept of radical love.

Descriptive Transcript

The HIV Endgame conference logo appears on screen. Titles read: Andrew Jolivette, How can we navigate colonial trauma?

Andrew Jolivette: Ruptures. Ripped from Earth’s red skin. Pinched, pulled, stretched out against time. Ruptures create soul wounds, wounds of a thousand Nations, of dissolved centers. Wet softening, like wet cotton. All the scars slowly stain. Slowly soak in. Ghosts haunt, as we sleep, as we wake. No place for memory to hide, no place for memory to resolve, to resist, we are haunted. We are broken bone and ash. We are ancient mounds desecrated. We are contaminated water underneath ceremonial rock. We are two-spirit. We are between. Two-spirit dissolved. Two-spirit names. Wíŋkte. Nádleeh. La’mana. Changing ones.

Here, in the cracks of Earth, we emerge out of the wombs of dead mothers. Haunting spirits, we become. Colonial haunting attaches and affixes itself to our children. Gone in the sun of a thousand dancers, our spirit traumas remain. Invasion syndrome re-triggers every trauma, every moment of settler violence. And yet, here, in this new morning light, beneath Spanish moss and eucalyptus, among smells of venison, salmon, and [?], we begin a new fire so our people can eat, so our people can dance — dance a dance only grandmother’s feet recognize. We begin again. We sing again. We gather again. In ceremony, we wipe every frozen tear. In ceremony, we re-stitch every ruptured body. Every ancestor memory. In ceremony, we return to our knowledge systems, we unmask our truths and multicolored blankets and shawls, exchanging skin, blood, and what’s most radical about love, our vulnerability to become reborn.

Here, in our return, we reach out and whisper to the sacred. We hear you, we remember, we remain, we are ruptured no more. We are dissolved no longer. We are rescinding every haunting, every rape, every unsober moment for a return to the sacred. Look there to the moon and see that the sacred is in the undiluted pupils of your sisters, your brothers. Look to the elders and return to the youth. Be your own healing. Be your own truth. Be your best medicine. There, in the return, may all sacrifices be remembered. May all hauntings be dismembered. May all ruptures dissipate into springs and creeks along the land. Where Indian blood, yes, Indian blood, means finally we are free. Free to exist. Free to love. Free to remember. Finally, we are free.

The video jumps forward to a later point in the presentation. Andrew Jolivette stands alone on the Endgame stage. On-screen graphics identify him as a Professor at San Francisco State University.

As I recall my introduction into the field of HIV/AIDS and epidemiology I remember the important words and research of my mentor Rafael Diaz who wrote quote, “So many people, when they disclose or talk about their HIV status, say, ‘I’m HIV positive.’” Diaz points out that people don’t say — that have cancer don’t say, “I am cancer,” right? They say, “I have cancer.” Reframing how we think about HIV and AIDS can shift our well-being as marginalized communities within the capitalist bureaucracy of the public healthcare systems, both in the United States and in Canada.

In a keynote address for World AIDS Day delivered at San Francisco State University in 2005, a mixed-race gay American Indian man stated quote, “HIV and AIDS is something that I have learned to live with. It is also something that a part of me feels happened for a reason. I wasn’t sure if I should disclose my status in this way here today, I spoke with a colleague about and he said, ‘How will disclosing impact you? Will it benefit you? Are you giving anything up?’ I thought to myself, as a native gay man of color, I have a responsibility to disclose. This is a very personal decision, but in Indigenous communities and in communities of color, we lack faces to make this pandemic real. If you’ve never known someone living with AIDS, now you do. You know my story and, in sharing it, I hope that others will know that they can live with this. They can have a career, a family, they too can find love again. Over the past three years, I have learned AIDS is not me. I am me. AIDS is only one other part of my life.” End quote.

This man’s story is not uncommon. For many American Indian people today, HIV/AIDS, gender, sexuality, mixed-race identity — they all intersect in complex and traumatic ways in the absence of community support, cultural buffers, and stress coping mechanisms needed to combat colonial oppression. Needed to deal with colonial haunting. This is my story, too. I was the person who delivered that keynote talk, and as I reflect back on the 11 years since I first gave that talk, and the last 14 years since I was diagnosed with AIDS, I think about how disclosing, right, my positive status to my colleagues and students — how a lot has changed or happened. I went from having pneumonia and 35 t-cells and a viral load of over 500,000 to an undetectable viral load and over 1,100 t-cells. At the time, I was 27 years old. I was in a PhD program, finishing my dissertation. I was lecturing at a college, and I was — had a full-time job as a middle school Dean. I stressed my body out. This is what we do to ourselves when we don’t listen to our ancestors. We feel their pain.

What I mean by colonial haunting is that we carry that. In the last presentation, there was a presentation about anti-oppressive — right? — psychotherapy. That is something we need more of, right, to address post-traumatic invasion syndrome or PTIS. A few months after my release from the hospital, and 25 pounds lighter and quite fragile, I went to a pipe ceremony and a prayer meeting organized by friends with another friend of ours who’s a medicine man, Daniel Freeland from the Navajo Nation.

My endeavor to write this book to share these stories and to seek out a useful intervention for social and cultural reform, stems from the words that Dan spoke to me on that night so many years ago. He said quote, “You can’t think of yourself as sick. There are a lot of people out there in our communities who are going through the same thing that you are, and you can tell your story and you can help others. You can help them to tell theirs and, in that way, you can be a part of the process of mending the hoop that ties us all together. We don’t all get to tell our story. Many have passed on.” He continued quote, “You have to begin to think about what healing means, what wellness means, and how there is all kinds of medicine out there, but the greatest medicine is your brother and your sister. You are your own healing.”

Dan’s words sum up my own articulation of the concept of radical love, which I talk about a lot in the book. I think it’s something we need to do and think about — not just the science, or the numbers behind HIV and AIDS, but also how we care for each other. Because, ultimately, how we can end HIV is how we care for one another.

And, so, a primary theme in Indian Blood is radical love. And radical love seeks to bring all of these fragmented pieces back together, where we don’t judge ourselves for being multiracial or two-spirit or transgender. As a critical intervention, it asserts that without a process of mutual love, respect, and responsibility, we can never truly heal or achieve self-determination. An Indigenous framing of radical love as I define it stems from a spiritual, cultural, and communal concern for the well-being of all other living things. Radical love in an Indigenous framework embraces all living things as relatives deserving of respect, nurturing, and care, which require, in turn, an emphasis on physical, spiritual, and emotional health.

The dissolution of two-spirit cultural practices is a direct result of the actions of religious missionaries and government officials who work to erode, destroy, and reshape gender and sexual practices within Native communities throughout the Americas. Today many Indigenous communities have internalized and adopted some of these Western views of gender and sexuality, but there is a long history of two-spirit third and fourth gender military and religious leaders and tribes throughout the United States.

One of the first quotes, from one of the participants, deals with two-spirit culture dissolution and how we have to come to address it. They say quote, “You know I’ve been to places where I’ve met people like myself on the reservation, who also attended boarding schools, but obviously they didn’t like themselves enough, because they just — they didn’t want to do nothing for themselves. But I’m — I got beat up, I got the shit beat out of me so bad you wouldn’t even recognize me was, it was so bad. I got kicked in the face about 25 times by this guy with boots on, just totally beat up on the reservation. Nobody came to help me, nobody. After leaving, I got into a relationship, but then I started using again. So, it was like, you know what? You’re gonna go back down to the reservation and end up back where you started.” Sobriety. They said they’re gonna lose that sobriety if they go back. “So that’s why I came here.” They mean the Native American AIDS Project. “I needed to get that sobriety. And that was the main thing, because what was up there for me was no longer working.”

And so, what this participant is really getting at, is this issue of dealing with the ongoing effects of post-traumatic invasion syndrome, with two-spirit cultural dissolution, with gender violence, and how all of these factors compound themselves to create more risk. Another participant, in reference to intergenerational trauma, one of the main factors that also produces more risk, said quote, “I grew up by myself and, um, a lot of ducking and dodging you know. A lot of it. It was just a constant. A constant life, you know? So, um, my family didn’t know how to deal with it because my mother was working all of the time. She didn’t know what was going on. And, I don’t know, I was I was drunk a lot, too. You know, I started smoking cigarettes, I learned how to inhale when I was about five or six years old, and I liked it. I was smoking and my sister would let me smoke. By the time I turned 13, my mother allowed me to smoke cigarettes, she allowed me to smoke weed, she allowed me to do speed, she let me do whatever I wanted as long as I did what I was supposed to do.”

But that’s when we start to trump — we start to pathologize, right? We say there’s something wrong with us, or the family — that that came from somewhere. And it’s what Bonnie and Eduardo Duran talked about as soul loss, or soul wounds. And, what we really need to do, and what comes out of this study, is the need to deal with our fears. That radical love is ultimately about accepting vulnerabilities with others who’ve gone through similar experiences. Because it is only then, in accepting and understanding our vulnerabilities because of colonial trauma, because of mixed race stressors, because of gender violence, that we can actually truly begin to heal.

The video jumps forward to a later point in Jolivette’s presentation.

It is in this process of telling our stories, and achieving communal healing, that we open up a process for articulating intergenerational love. We must silence the sounds of the haunting so that our — that we may hear our ancestors speaking to us, as they call out, “We love you. Our lifeblood sustains you. Take every step you can knowing that we walk with you, toward healing, toward balance.”

So, in the end, each of us must remember that every step towards wellness, every step towards inclusivity, and every step towards holistic health, in the face of colonial haunting, in the face of post-traumatic invasion syndrome, right, brings us all the more closer to holistic health, right? And to the decolonization, right, of gender, sexuality, and mixed race identity in this Western construct. All of this leads to a truly sovereign self-determined American Indian community.

We remain. No time shall pass. No secret shall remain. No night shall fall. No day shall begin. Begin without the sun pointed at your heart. Begin without the meeting of the soft white pebbles, motionless and solid, yet transformative, still. My rock, my stone, my ancient temple of remembering, open untold and shadowed stories of remembrance. You were born at the intersection of revolution and defiance. The lines in the arches of your back and in the curves of your feet speak lifetimes of triumph, speak songs of joy. As you enter, I begin. As I begin, you continue. And, in this lake of urban forgiving, we renew once more that sacred hoop of sustenance, where hearts cross, where pasts intertwine, and where our journeys continue.

Thank you. Yakoke.

Sounds of applause are followed by piano chords as the OHTN media logo appears on screen.

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