A photography exhibit featuring portraits of Alaska Native LGBTQ and Two-Spirit peoples opens next week at the Alaska Humanities Forum. Photographer Jenny Miller was moved to create Continuous by the struggles that she had growing up and coming out, the lack of accessible queer indigenous role models, and the need for healing of indigenous communities through decolonization.
Miller is a gay, Two-Spirit photographer. She grew up in Nome and Fairbanks, and currently lives with her girlfriend in Anchorage. Miller understands herself as an amalgamation of her parents’ feminine and masculine qualities. “I think I have a perfect mesh of my mother and my father. And I express them equally, in a way.”
Continuous began to take shape in 2012, while Miller was studying Photomedia and American Indian studies at the University of Washington. Miller was inspired by a class that featured indigenous people who identified as LGBTQ and Two-Spirit, and discussed indigenous gender roles, which are generally understood to have been less rigid than those instituted by colonizers.
Miller realized that the indigenous queer community needed to be more visible, to provide strength to, and role models for, indigenous people who did not yet know who they were.
Because Miller knows how difficult it can be to understand who you are — and to be who you are — in spite of adversity.
Miller’s brother is four years her senior and, unlike Miller, has never been in the closet. She laughs as she describes him. “He has always been very extravagant and wonderful.”
Whereas Miller rode ATVs and dreamed of having a bowl cut, her brother wore their grandmother’s shoes around the house and put a towel on his head to mimic having long hair. Miller remembers overhearing people talk harshly about her brother and being confused and hurt by their hatred of him. “I can’t come out,” Miller thought, “that’s going to happen to me.”
At the time Continuous was conceived, Miller was out to everyone she had met in Seattle, but only certain people back in Alaska. But she began to understand that hiding herself because she was afraid of the consequences of living openly was not protecting her from harm.
“Constantly selectively hiding yourself in front of someone is really difficult and damaging,” Miller explains. She also knew she could not work on Continuous until she was completely out. “It wouldn’t [have been] fair to myself or to the community.”
So Miller began to live more openly and spent time coming out to the people she cared about. Then, in mid 2016, she came out in an Alaska Dispatch News column.
“I’ve ruined my life,” Miller initially thought after the article was published. But she was warmed by the accepting and supportive responses she received. Miller says people sent her emails and texts, and she even got an affirming letter from her third grade teacher. Overwhelmingly, the message was this: it does not matter that you are gay, you are still someone we love.
Steps Toward Decolonization, Healing
Continuous has been a project of release and spiritual healing for Miller; a chance to purge the negative thoughts and behaviors that society has pushed on her and her subjects.
The project was first titled Shapeshifters, which Miller hoped would evoke spiritual changes, people shifting between binary gender roles, moving to fulfill their individual desires, and adapting as they figure out who they are and how they want to move through the world.
As the project matured, Miller realized that the title did not work. Some people who learned of the project thought her portraits were only of transgender people who had plans to transition or already had. And the popularity of a certain vampire-themed romance series concerned Miller. “I didn’t want people to think that [the participants] were shapeshifting into animals, because they deserve so much more respect.”
Miller needed a title for her project that could better communicate the complexities that contribute to the entirety of a person, the intersections of individuals with their families and community members, of pasts and futures. “I believe [indigenous LGBTQ2 people] always existed in the past, and now, and continue to be in the future,” Miller explains, and she wanted to draw attention to the community roles they have filled and continue to fill.
For Continuous is not just about personal healing. “[Colonization] brought a lot of trauma that [indigenous communities] are still trying to heal from.”
Language loss is one symptom of this trauma. A past project of Miller’s deals with language loss in Alaska Native communities as a result of colonization. “A Conversation with Me in Inupiaq” is a short movie clip of Miller standing in a church. She does not move and she does not speak. There is only silence.
But Miller is encouraged by efforts the indigenous LGBTQ2 community has made to reclaim — and rename — themselves.
Two-Spirit is a term which was coined in the 1990s by indigenous leaders from a variety of tribes. They wanted a common word to describe indigenous gender identities that incorporate both masculine and feminine qualities. Two-Spirit supplants offensive terms that outsiders used to label gender nonconforming indigenous people, as well as the strict gender roles which informed those perspectives. Miller sees this development as a form of decolonization.
“What I find so beautiful about the term is it doesn’t set you into one identity. You’re fluid as a human. You’re going to change, you’re going to grow. You’re not trapped in one thing.”
Two-Spirit is a complex term with multitudinous variations of meaning. The way that one Two-Spirit person uses the term to define themselves might be entirely different from the way another Two-Spirit person understands themselves. To Miller, that complexity is key. Not only does it allude to the intricate way that many traditional indigenous languages build words and communicate meaning, she said, but it allows individuals to pay respect to their cultural and spiritual backgrounds.
Identity loss is another symptom of the trauma of colonization. Fissures developed in Alaska Native communities when missionaries introduced non-traditional values and beliefs, and traders and their governments interrupted traditional ways of living. Miller explained that identity loss is an ongoing issue that Alaska Native communities face. She gave me an example of the pain that loss can bring.
“Native men are still suffering, because we weren’t traditionally business people. Men were put into new roles, not providing by hunting and other elements, but forced into new roles of ‘you’re going to make money, you’re going to do this,’ but still held against the standard of not being a white man.”
They lost their identities as providers, as productive community members, Miller explains, and fell into harmful behaviors that masked their pain.
“There’s a similar struggle in the queer community,” Miller continues. “If you’re not able to express who you are, [be] embraced for who you are, you can turn dark.”
While queer indigenous people would likely have been accepted in their communities pre-colonization, the influence of Christianity has contributed to intolerance. “Some people are so ingrained with Christianity, that they think, ‘oh, you’re bad, you’re terrible, you’re going to hell. When traditionally, elders would never tell anyone that. They were always welcoming, forgiving. They knew that the person just needed love.”
When Miller was beginning to understand and accept herself, she drew strength from her Inupiaq history. Her great-grandparents survived the flu epidemic. They moved from Wales to Nome so that their children could learn English. “I have parts of them in me,” Miller realized.
It is difficult to find strength in one’s history or community when that community is suffering. It is even more difficult when that community does not accept you. Miller hopes Continuous will contribute to a conversation of healing and unity.
“We’re beginning to remind ourselves, the greater indigenous community, that we’re still here, we’ve always been here, and we’re an important part of the community. We need to bring back our queer community and show that they’re important, integral to our survival.”
Hunters, Weavers, and High Heels
Continuous will open with 17 portraits of Aleut, Tsimshian, Tlingit, Athabascan, and Inupiat peoples, aged 18 through mid-50s, including portraits of Miller and her brother. The exhibit will be on display at the Alaska Humanities Forum and is funded in part by the Forum’s 2016 Annual Humanities Grant.
Miller knew a majority of her subjects before she began the project, but others heard of Continuous and contacted Miller, wanting to be involved. “Everyone was so wonderful,” she exclaimed. Even people who did not want to be photographed for the project were supportive.
Part of what Miller hopes Continuous will convey is the diversity of Alaska Natives — that there is no one way of being, acting, or looking indigenous. “One of the individuals [photographed for Continuous] is a hunter and a weaver, but also dresses in drag…. [Another] is a fisherman in Bristol Bay each summer, but does hair and makeup, and also does drag and looks amazing. He looks so much better in heels than I could ever.”
Participants had a collaborative role in the project, in that Miller tried to shoot their pictures at locations that they liked or that had some meaning for them. For most, this meant shooting took place in Anchorage. But Miller also traveled to Wasilla, Nome, and Juneau. Additionally, Miller did not require participants to look or pose in any particular way. “Outfits could be traditional regalia — whatever [participants felt] best in,” Miller said, and she gave minimal instructions to subjects when they were in front of her lens. “Oh, yeah, right there,” Miller would say. Or “move your arm three inches, take a step that way.”
Each shoot was unique. Some were quick, lasting no more than 15 minutes, while others ran closer to an hour in length. Sometimes the shoots were the first opportunity that Miller had to meet participants. And because Miller chose to shoot exclusively outdoors, so as to utilize natural lighting, on some days, that meant contending with overly harsh light.
Miller described one wrapping up a particularly special day of shooting. A non-native friend was assisting her that day and, after the subject had left, remarked to Miller that the subject seemed really shy. Miller smiles as she explains that she got to share a little of her culture with her friend. “She’s not shy,” Miller said of the participant, “that’s just Inupiaq culture. We — most of the time — we don’t really like to talk that much. We really like to listen.”
It is those moments of connection that really excited Miller during the shooting of Continuous. Miller describes a young person she photographed and the strength she drew from them. “They look so strong and comfortable with themselves, and I find that really, really inspiring.”
Each portrait in Continuous is accompanied by a short personal statement. Miller had each participant answer eleven questions, either in person or over email, which were designed to draw out and emphasize the humanity and perspective of each person. Though Miller is their photographer, each participant was allowed to be a storyteller.
Miller hopes that the pictures and statements in Continuous will be of interest to both indigenous and non-native peoples. “[Continuous is] not really for the photo community, the art community, necessarily….The main point of this project is to start a conversation.”
This conversation, Miller believes, needs to focus on education, and encouraging love for, and acceptance of, LGBTQ2 people in all communities — most especially indigenous communities.
Miller wants to build allies and stimulate individual and cultural healing. It took Miller’s mother many years to accept her, but she eventually realized that Miller was still her child, still the person she had always been — she was just special. And her acceptance meant everything to Miller.
“Why I finally decided to bring this project to light,” she explains, “is because I had that love and support from my mom. Because it was so hard with her and then I got that acceptance and respect, I felt like nothing else mattered.”
When Continuous opens, it will only be the beginning. As the work’s title implies, Miller wants to continue with the project and open it to all indigenous queer peoples, not just those from Alaska. Miller also hopes to publish the collection as a book, in order to share the entire body of work.
The community-building aspect of Continuous must also carry on. In conjunction with two of the project participants, Miller has started Aurora Pride, a group for indigenous LGBTQ2 people that meets bi-monthly at Identity, Inc. in Anchorage. Miller’s mom hopes to start a Facebook group for parents of indigenous queer children. She found strength in connecting with supportive parents and she wants that feeling to be more accessible for others.
More than once during our talk, Miller mentioned the importance in indigenous cultures of giving back to their community. “You usually remain tied to that community,” Miller explained, “which tries to lift everyone up.”
What Miller is giving back to her community is a collection of role models. “If I had seen something like [this] as a child, an older native person coming out…I wouldn’t have felt so wrong.”
Continuous opens Friday, January 13 with a reception at the Alaska Humanities Forum, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. An open dialogue will take place at 6:30 p.m. The exhibit will be on display through February 7.