Benoit makes strides in Native community

  • by Kris Larson
  • Tuesday June 24, 2008
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As an out lesbian and a member of multiple Native American tribes, grand marshal Joan Benoit is no stranger to stereotypes. She's had to overcome prejudice more than once in her work as executive director of the Native American AIDS Project.

"There's quite a bit of homophobia in Native settings," Benoit said in a phone interview. "Not on all reservations. But the ones who have been impacted more by missionaries and boarding schools are more closed and homophobic. It's difficult to come out there."

Benoit herself came out to her family when she was 19 years old, a brave move in her Michigan hometown. "Michigan is a difficult place to be gay," she admitted, laughing.

She was born into the Turtle Clan of the Potowatomi Nation and the Eagle Clan of the Anishanaabe Nation and is an enrolled member of the Chippewa of the Thames, First Nation.

Now 43, Benoit has worked with NAAP since 1999. The organization's mission is to provide HIV/AIDS education and services to the Native American community in a way that is culturally respectful.

"It took a long time to get the community to accept us," Benoit said. "There's a lot of stigma around HIV in the Native community. When we first started going to the powwows, the elders ... would ask us to remove our condoms from the [information] table."

When asked how NAAP overcame these barriers, Benoit explained, "Our staff went and talked to a lot of elders ... and informed them of the impact of HIV in our community. We've approached them in a traditional way, where we offer them medicine such as tobacco and sweet grass. You're coming to them in a respectful way, and when you do that, they generally have more inclination to listen to what you have to say."

Benoit has been working in the HIV field since the early 1980s. She was a 2002 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Price Fellow for HIV Prevention Leadership, the only Native American to receive this honor. She was also a member of the Native American Dialogue Group, which acted as a liaison between the CDC and the Indian Health Service, and advised on issues regarding HIV, hepatitis, tuberculosis, and other infectious diseases.

"I went to the CDC in Atlanta and worked to develop a Native-specific HIV assessment," Benoit said of her fellowship. "It takes into account [things like] tribal ceremonies and piercing ceremonies to make sure they're using precautions. And it looks at circular migration between urban setting and reservation settings. A lot of people come to urban settings for HIV testing or to access Western medicine, and sometimes to drink and party. Often, you can't be openly gay on a reservation, where you can in cities. We were taking a look at what behaviors they engaged in on the reservation versus urban settings."

Her studies and outreach programs are beginning to bear fruit, Benoit said.

"Through the years, [Native communities] have come to recognize the impact of HIV. The moms and grandmas [at powwows] bring kids as young as 12 to the [information] table to be educated on HIV, which is huge."

Benoit estimated that NAAP serves roughly 5,000 Native Americans in the Bay Area each year. NAAP partners with the Native American Health Center, which provides primary care to its clients while NAAP provides mental health services and other support. NAAP also has a strong outreach program.

"We go to all the local powwows in the five-county area, and do a lot of outreach there," Benoit said. "We have an HIV powwow drum that just started this year to drum at the powwows. I think it's the only HIV drum in the country. The way we [drum], it's a prevention intervention. The men who sit on the drum commit to a responsibility to the community to take care of themselves and each other."

There are more than 70,000 Native Americans living in the Bay Area, Benoit said, due in part to government relocation programs that began moving Natives off reservations and into urban centers in the 1950s. The other legacy of government interference, said Benoit, is the loss of Native culture, including the Native attitude toward homosexuality. Some Native cultures referred to homosexuals as "two spirits," indicating that they contained both male and female spirits.

"There used to be roles for queer Native people, traditionally, before the oppressors and conquerors took over," Benoit said. "A lot of our ways as two spirit Native Americans have been lost. [The role] varies from tribe to tribe. In my tribe we were teachers, and cared for the sick and dying. I find it very interesting, in the position I'm in now," she added, laughing.

"We have a really strong community of Native queer folk, and there are a lot of us," Benoit said. "I'm really happy to be able to serve my community. I'm thrilled to be selected for grand marshal."