Updated: May 6, 2018
Enjoy this preview of Ahyoka's story! We met Ahyoka in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and her full story, along with correlating systematic research and insights, will be in our next book.
"I’m a Keetoowah Cherokee, and I’m President of my school’s Catholic Student Organization. I’m one of the youngest first language Cherokee speakers, and I’m 27 years old. In my home, we only spoke Cherokee. As a kid, I didn’t know people spoke anything else!
I’m also a transgender person, a Two Spirit person living in rural—really rural—Oklahoma. As a child, I just naturally came up as a girl. My family didn’t put any kind of gender norms on me, because our language doesn’t allow for it. We don’t even have a word for gender in our language! If I say he is doing something or she is doing something, the same word, “doing,” either excludes all gender or it encompasses all gender. All of our words are that way in our language. So, gender was never imposed on me as a child. In our traditional way of life, we believe that I don’t tell you who you are, you tell me who you are, and that is who you are.
My grandma told me, “When you get to school, you’re going to be the only Cherokee there.” I didn’t know what she meant back then, because when I went to school, there were so many Cherokees. When I got home and told her, she said, “No you’re the only one. To be Cherokee, to be who we are, is encompassed in an entire worldview that cannot be accessed without our language.” The way I might describe something in Cherokee, if I were to describe it that way in English, it wouldn’t make any sense. So, she was warning me that I’m going to be seen as different because I don’t think like anyone else there. And that’s exactly the experience I had.
My first day of school, they separated the children into two lines by boys and girls, and I didn’t speak English, so I just looked around and followed what I saw. The girls went over there, so I went over there. This little boy comes up to me, tugging on me and telling me to go over to the other line. I didn’t understand what was going on, so I got in trouble and was sent home. When I explained everything to my Grandma, she had to sit me down and explain why the world would never understand me.
The elders, like my Grandma, understood me better. People who are about middle aged now among the Cherokees are completely unaccepting and unsupportive. They tell me that I’m going to hell, because they’re the generation that went through the boarding schools. My birth mother, who passed away a couple of months ago, went to boarding school and it totally messed her up.
I try talking to some of them—the middle aged people, some people who hate me in my church, some students who whisper behind my back— but me sitting down and talking about my gender identity is hard; I mean, it’s personal. It makes me feel like I’m basically saying to a stranger, 'This is what kind of genitalia I have in my pants!'"