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Bemidji LGBTQ+ activist talks Two-Spirit history during Pride Month

Arnold Dahl, 53, joins KAXE in a canoe on June 14, 2024.
Larissa Donovan
/
KAXE
Arnold Dahl, 53, joins KAXE in a canoe on June 14, 2024.

Arnold Dahl-Wooley, 53, advocates for Two-Spirit visibility and acceptance in Northern Minnesota. He is a Leech Lake Band member who owns and operates a resort in Bena.

LAKE BEMIDJI — June is recognized around the world as Pride Month. While large events in metropolitan areas can be expected, here in Northern Minnesota, events are planned year-round with the Two-Spirit and LGBTQ+ community in mind.

Arnold Dahl-Wooley joined KAXE on a canoe to discuss Two-Spirit people here in Northern Minnesota. The Two-Spirit term, Dahl-Wooley said, is only about 30 years old, but tribes all over what we now call North America had different terms for whom American Indians call Two-Spirit.

Dahl-Wooley, 53, is a Leech Lake Band member who owns and operates a resort in his hometown of Bena. As a married gay man, he also works to advocate and increase visibility for Two-Spirit and LGBTQ+ people.

"The term ‘Two-Spirit’ is new but like, niizh manidoowag, that's Ojibwe for Two-Spirit... Winkté, that's Lakota. lhamana, I think that's Navajo — and then the list goes on,” he said. “There's always been names for Two-Spirit individuals, but it's in their original language, and so we just use Two-Spirit today.”

Dahl-Wooley said it’s necessary to increase acceptance of the queer community to reduce violence.

"There's resistance to the LGBTQ+ population, like in schools, and [people] say, ‘We don't want to talk about that here.’ You have a large population of students in your school right now, and to not talk about it, that's where violence comes forward, that's where suicide comes forward. And this is where the bigotry comes forward,” he said.

“It's more than just one nationality we're talking about, cause we're talking about Native Americans in this beautiful area where we're at right now. The Two-Spirit population is sacred and you can't just wipe out that history and say we're not going to talk about Native Americans in that history. ... We need to talk about that, so our students know who they are.”

Dahl-Wooley explained that among many tribes, the Two-Spirit members were always treated like equals, and sometimes even revered prior to colonization.

"These were our teachers. These were our healers ... the persons would have the honor to name the children. ... It was something very spiritual and very honored and very respected,” he said.

Dahl-Wooley cited We’wha of the Zuni Tribe, who traveled from New Mexico to Washington, D.C., and met President Grover Cleveland. We’wha, according to historical record, was a transgender Zuni ambassador in the later 19th century.

Stories like these don’t always make it to history textbooks, nor does the Stonewall Uprising on June 28, 1969.

The Stonewall Inn was a known gay bar in New York City, and its patrons were subjected to police raids, beatings and humiliation. The Stonewall Uprising refers to a series of spontaneous and violent retaliations to these raids, now remembered every June for Pride month.

Bemidji Area Reporter Larissa Donovan and Arnold Dahl-Wooley hold their interview in a canoe on June 14, 2024.
Larissa Donovan
/
KAXE
Bemidji Area Reporter Larissa Donovan and Arnold Dahl-Wooley hold their interview in a canoe on June 14, 2024.

While Pride had a violent beginning, Dahl-Wooley sees it as an opportunity to celebrate in harmony, especially with Bemidji’s tribal neighbors of Red Lake, Leech Lake and White Earth.

“When we talk about community and how all of us work together, I think that's those discussions that need to be had,” he said. “Like, what is our history? Let's talk about the history of Lake Bemidji, which we're sitting on right now, which I think is absolutely fantastic. But find out, how did Lake Bemidji get its name and where did people come from when they came here?”

Bemidji comes from the Ojibwe Bemijigamaag, which roughly translates to lake with crossing water, describing how the Mississippi flows across Lake Bemidji on its way east. People have lived in this area since the glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago.

Recognizing history, even when it’s uncomfortable, is essential in moving forward, Dahl-Wooley said.

"Sometimes people want to cherry pick history. ... ‘We're not going to talk about slavery today because we don't want kids to feel bad.’ It's like, well, we need to talk about how we got here and why people may be upset, or how we can move forward and work together collectively as a community.”

Dahl-Wooley works to be part of the outreach he said was sorely lacking when he was a young man, and expressed disappointment in what he views as the politicalization of equal rights.

"There has been a line drawn in the sand where it's like, you have to be for the 2SLGBTQ+ population or you're against them,” he said. “You can say that you take a neutral stance ... [But] you can't take a neutral stance, because there's Native American students in here. There's African American students around here. There's Asian American students. ... We're all here.”

Larissa Donovan has been in the Bemidji area's local news scene since 2016, joining the KAXE newsroom in 2023 after several years as the News Director for the stations of Paul Bunyan Broadcasting.