On Thursday, Nov. 15, two-spirit, artist, activist and educator Geo Neptune gave a lecture in Little Hall. Their presentation was titled, “Werk in Beauty and Grace: Embracing Two-Spirit Traditions and Identities.” They were introduced by Susan Gardner, the director of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of Maine. To preface Neptune’s presentation, Gardner gave a basic definition of what it means to be an indigenous two-spirit person.
“Both male and female, yet neither female or male,” Gardner said.
This definition was elaborated and explored by Neptune when they took to the podium. Neptune explained that two spirits exist as both a male and a female spirit in one body, and that they were put on Earth by the creator to give balance to the world.
Neptune went on to explain that the term two-spirit was coined in 1990 in Canada at a conference for LGBT indigenous people to give an English language term to ancient traditions that existed in native cultures for many years. They discussed some aspects of the role of a two-spirit individual in native culture; they are seen as community advisors, couples counselors, foster parents and great warriors.
Neptune also discussed the implications of British colonizers imposing their religious and cultural values on native peoples and the violence that was inflicted on the community, including the murder of many two-spirit people by the British. They described growing up as a two-spirit person in the native community, and what it was like to struggle with a lack of representation within the community.
“Our elders were taken from us, so we became our own elders,” Neptune said.
As a drag queen, Neptune is not only able to explore their own gender, but also able to represent their culture onstage through clothing and jewelry made by native designers. They have been on the cover of Native Peoples Magazine and featured on the cover of Maine Magazine as well as being named one of the magazine’s annual “50 Mainers,” this year being honored for balancing heritage and progress.
Another significant part of Neptune’s life is basket weaving, a classic tradition in many indigenous cultures. They discussed becoming a weaver at about five years old, when their grandmother agreed to teach them. Their art has evolved over the years, from very plain colored baskets in their late teens and early twenties to their current pieces, of which they describe the design process as the desire to include as many colors as possible into one basket.
Much of Neptune’s art is tied into their identity and their activism. They showed audience members many of their pieces and explained the significance of each piece through its cultural roots to its meaning in a modern context. A major piece they discussed was a basket of a figure in a red dress and a two-peaked hat, currently on display in Los Angeles as a part of a series called “Matriarchs.” A red dress is the universal symbol to honor the missing native women and two-spirit people who are largely ignored by non-indigenous people, law enforcement and governments.
A basket called “Ceremony of the Singing Stars,” woven from vivid colors and adorned with a chickadee bearing her own tiny basket, was created to honor the victims of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting. The chickadee is seen as a guide through the darkness based on a traditional Wabanaki story about seven bear-hunting birds that constitute the Big Dipper.
Despite the hardships of being LGBT and an indigenous person in Maine, Neptune has allowed their experiences to guide them and the changes of their work. As time has gone on, Geo has been able to connect with themself and their culture. As they said, “Everybody calls it coming out. I call it being myself.”