In conversation with Adriel Rodriguez, TSC Operations Associate, Mattee Jim opened up and shared what she’s learned over her years of working with the TGNC community including her advocacy experience, future concerns, and much more.
Interview Part 1
Mattee: Hi. Good morning. I'm Mattee Jim. I'm of the Zuni people clan, born for the Towering House people clan. I'm originally from a place called Tse,na’osh’jiin (black streak in the canyon) where I grew up.
Is there a moment or a memory that stands out about your work being at the intersections of your communities?
Mattee: I looked at, look back at the work that I have done throughout the years with the community, and I've been doing transgender advocacy for over 20 years. And in that same amount of time, I've been doing HIV prevention work, which kind of went hand in hand in stuff that I did. And I got started over 25 years ago getting sober and doing the work. I first got involved with the Coalition for Equality in New Mexico, which was an advocacy organization in the late nineties. And they're the ones who started the push for the passing of the hate crimes bill and nondiscrimination act. So, throughout the years, getting community together, having a voice at the table, I think is the biggest thing that brings back memories of how the community was involved in the community input. I have been doing this throughout the years and have seen different things happening throughout not just our state, but also our nation and our tribal communities.
What are your top concerns for TGNC and two spirit communities living on rural reservations?
Mattee: The first thing that pops into my head is safety. The safety of our population, the safety of our people, especially in reservations. Because for me, I come from the Navajo Nation and there's no laws to protect Native LGBTQ two spirit populations, somebody who is being attacked or violence has put upon them because of who they are. As a trans individual, I think there's that safety concern that pops in my head, having to deal with violence. Another one is access to resources. The access to resources for our TGNC native populations is very little, depending on where you're coming from. So, we have a lot of tribal communities throughout the country, and all the tribal communities have different ways of running the tribal governance and stuff. So, for me, I can't go into another tribal nation and say, you have to do this, you have to do that, because I'm not from that community. But as far as for me, being from my own community, I think having access to resources and I know there is hardly anything on the reservation. I think the closest thing to resources or even having the community come together is the events that have been put on together. And I think that goes back. It just popped in my head of the work that was done years ago. Even though I was doing HIV prevention work. We were gathering and doing HIV prevention house parties or doing events where you would have a drag show or a dance and incorporate education around HIV, and also incorporate education around the advocacy work that was being done too. So, I think that goes back to question number two. But as far as reservations and rural communities, I think there's a lot of factors that are part of that too, because our reservation is the size of West Virginia, and that's huge. So, if we have a trans individual who's living deep in the reservation, there's several things that come into play, like they have transportation, do they have access to getting what they need? As far as resources, do they have the capability of getting to town, which could be like over 100 miles, and how do we get there and stuff, versus the urban setting, where you might have a subway system, you have a bus system, and it could be a lot easier. But you also have obstacles and challenges within the urban setting too, because you may be coming from a reservation to get away from violence, to get away from non-acceptance or discrimination or prejudice.
Interview Part 2
What do you see as the greatest obstacles, specifically, again, health and well-being of two spirit and TGNC people both on reservations and in more urban areas.
Mattee: There was a huge obstacle, especially for trans populations years ago, about a decade ago, I believe, where trans affirming health care wasn't even in existence. But I have to say that Indian Health Services has stepped up to really provide some form of support for our communities because they have trans affirming healthcare. Really looking at it from an outside lens, it's kind of limited, like hormone therapy or certain very minor surgeries that could be done and stuff. But having a doctor who actually has a trans clinic in the small town where I grew up and really thinking about what impact that has, I'm like, oh, my gosh, I wish I had that when I was younger, not when I moved away and I'm a little older and got my trans health care somewhere else. But having that near the reservation and then in a small border town in a rural community I think is phenomenal. And I see the pluses of that. But there's also the challenges of it too, like I said, like transportation to the hospital, how do I get to the hospital, how do I get my medications, how do I get my hormones and what type of hormone therapy treatment am I doing? Or what type of access do I have to get that health care that I need to look at my wellness? And that wellness could be part of food too. Access to food or how do I eat. Housing is another issue too. Like, do I have my own house, do I live with relatives, or do I live unsheltered because of non-acceptance. So I think there's a plethora of challenges that could be on top of those challenges that can make it more challenging.
What do you think the future focus of organizing or funding in any social and legal support realm for trans and two spirit indigenous people should be?
Mattee: I think as far as funding going towards tribal communities and getting to TGNC folks to organize, providing some capacity building if wanted with the money to organize as they decide is best, and not put stipulations on it. Because I've been a grant reviewer, I've been part of knowing about funding and stuff. And I think just sometimes the restrictions and the priorities means we're giving you money and you have to do this with this and that with that. And what we know helps, that will help our community, is not a part of those stipulations. So, I think with funding, how do we give funding to tribal communities that want to start a TGNC like support group or a small group among themselves and not having the restrictions of how to spend it or what to do with it, but giving guidance possibly of how things can happen? And I know that there are funders out there who do help their fundees with organizing and stuff too.
The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) is at stake right now in the United States Supreme Court. And so, because of a ruling coming in June and the decision will determine the constitutionality of this act, what do you believe will be the long-standing effects of any decision that's made?
Mattee: It's going to be history lived all over again. Like, they have the right to take our children and place them somewhere else where we don't know where they are, rather than giving them to the relatives or being still in the family or having that first choice of keeping them within the tribal communities, that it's going to be the relocation effect again. It's going to be, what do you, kind of like historical trauma, generational historical trauma happening again. It's also going to affect a child growing up in a non-Native home, are they going to support their culture, their identity? Are they going to teach the language? Are they going to still have them have a connection to their tribal communities, where they came from, or are they not? And I think also, I think it's going to set precedents on what type of rights we have in the future, not just with ICWA, but everything else. Because if they attack ICWA and take that away, what other stuff are they going to say? Oh, okay, let's take this away again. And so, it's like history still living today of us not having those rights as Indigenous people and not looked at as equal, having equality among everybody else. I tell people, if you go to your meetings, ask yourself, do you have Native representation at your table? And oftentimes the answer is no. Or they're like, okay, how do we get to the table? Or can you help get somebody to the table? That's not my job. If you want to be inclusive, you do your homework and get somebody to the table, not have it fall to me.
Interview Part 3
What are ways that voter suppression laws continue to affect TGNC and two spirit, people living on rural reservations?
Mattee: I'm living in Albuquerque, which is 2 hours away from my tribal chapter house, so I have to drive 2 hours to get there. And sometimes people who work in Albuquerque are from Arizona chapters, so they have to drive even further to go vote if they want to. Then also with employment, I know they give you 2 hours to go vote. But as a tribal member, if you have to drive over 2 hours or even three or 4 hours to get home to vote, and you also have to vote where you're living, sometimes you have to take the whole day off to go do that. And then sometimes employers may not allow that, or employers may say no, you can only take the 2 hours. So how do we look at that? But with voting laws, I live in the state of New Mexico, and I don't think I have a worry about voter suppression here. I think Arizona, of course, I think they've dealt with voter suppression. I'm fortunate to live in New Mexico, especially as a trans person, we have laws that protect us. We have easy documents, change name changes stuff. We have things in place that help us within our communities, looking at other communities and other states that voter suppression may be real, but I don't think I've encountered it. I think there was, I think there was an issue in either South Dakota or North Dakota around voting, especially with native populations, and I think it was because of the P.O. Box numbers, because a lot of tribal communities use the post office box. So that just popped into my head, like voter suppression, too, saying that, oh, you need a physical location where you live so you can vote. And if you have a P.O. Box and they don't take that, then that's voter suppression, and some tribal communities may have to deal with that. That would be a good thing to research.
Is there anything else you would like to share today?
Mattee: I think that this is just the tip of the iceberg that we're discussing, because there's a lot more stuff, I think we can talk about. And then I think there's also deeper stuff too. I know that within our community of trans, native trans brothers and sisters, that it's like a family. It's like that chosen family that we know. Or if you don't know that person directly, you have a trans sister. Like, for me, trans sister that knows that trans sister, who knows of that trans sister. There's that connection. And if somebody was either gone for a day or two, people would ask questions and show concern. So, I feel an awareness for one another, that we notice if someone would go missing. But I think murder is the biggest one, violence being killed, or violence being put upon us. Even me, I'm still susceptible. I'm a Native trans woman that speaks loudly and proud and says, I'm a Native trans woman. It goes back to how do we make those laws to protect us and what do we do to make it better for us. And I think going back to advocacy too, when I first got started, it wasn't easy for me. I stopped drinking, so I had time on my hands. So that's how I got involved. I started doing volunteer work for HIV prevention. I want to add one more thing to the memorable part, when I go home somebody comes up to me and says, “Hey, Mattee, what are you doing? Or, “Hey, when's the next drag show? Or “When's the next event or when's the next event going to happen back home?” Because we've done a lot of gigs. We've done a lot of events that we did in different areas on the reservation and in border towns that people remember. And I think for me, that's memorable. If they remember me with the work that I did, for me, that's great.