Among the victims of the multiple shooting in Sisseton Saturday was Vernon Renville, Jr., also known as Vernon Redday. Lake Traverse Reservation newspaper Sota Iya Ye Yapi reports that Renville advocated for LGBT rights in Indian Country:
Vernon was a gentle giant of a young man, physically large and with an equally big heart. He was known for a sense of humor. And he’d volunteer for any walk or campaign to bring awareness to some of the most important problems on the Lake Traverse Reservation. Whether it was awareness of domestic violence, child abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, prejudice/racism, you-name-it. And he was a strong voice for the LGBT community. His brothers and sisters of the Two Spirit movement are mourning along with Vernon’s family and lots of other friends. We remember him during last winter’s Idle No More walk through snow-covered streets of Sisseton [CD Floro, "Tragedy in Sisseton: Young Oyate Lives Lost in Shooting," Sota Iya Ye Yapi Online, accessed 2014.11.24].
Two-Spirit is a Native American term that is usually used to indicate a person whose body simultaneously houses a masculine spirit and a feminine spirit. Two-Spirit is a Native concept: Will Roscoe writes that Two-Spirit people have been "documented in over 130 tribes, in every region of North America, among every type of native culture.” Different words are used for Two-Spirit people in different tribes, and the word Two-Spirit may have different meanings in different Native languages. Some tribes may not have a commonly known and used word for Two-Spirit people at this point in time.
Historically and culturally, Two-Spirit people were respected and honored by their tribes. Their gender roles in the community included protecting children; being parental/partners; helping in ceremonies; gathering food and medicine; caretaking; and serving as peacekeepers, name givers, and spiritual leaders. Due to oppression (including homophobia/transphobia) and historical and intergenerational trauma there are issues that may disproportionately impact Two-Spirit/Native LGBTQ people today [Tom Lidot and Lenny Hayes, "Sharing Our Lived Experiences," National Resource Center for Tribes and Tribal STAR, 2014].
Renville had to learn that history to understand his Two Spirit identity:
Renville struggled to find his place as a Two Spirit in his tribal community, but through prayer and asking his elders about the place they held in Dakota culture, he has found some wisdom. “I discovered that we weren't actually outcasts. We weren't shunned or anything, that we were actually highly-revered people and we were assassinated – I guess you could say – by the Europeans” [Alfred Walking Bull, "First S.D. Two Spirit Society Honors and Educates on the Reservation," The Circle, 2014.10.11].
Renville co-founded the new Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Two Spirit Society, the first such LGBT advocacy group in South Dakota's nine reservations:
Members of the newly-formed Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Two Spirit Society gathered on Sept. 26 to educate members of the tribe on LGBTQ Native issues while honoring one of their own who was killed earlier in the month.
The group – the first Two Spirit society in any of the nine reservations in South Dakota – began its mission in June of this year. A testament to the growing power of social media on the reservation, the event “Gay is OK” was the impetus for forming the society. “We all went out to the corner, stood outside and held signs. And while we were standing there, we talked about forming a society, so we set a meeting date and from then on, it's been going ever since,” Vernon Renville, society co-founder said [Walking Bull, 2014.10.11].
In Renville, the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate has lost an organizer and a fighter for equality.