“In the last analysis, the individual person is responsible for living his own life and for 'finding himself.' If he persists in shifting his responsibility to somebody else, he fails to find out the meaning of his own existence."
- Thomas Merton
Day 108 - Sunday October 8, 1995 - Man of eloquence, man of persuasiveness, many of many devices, Tom began telling the other walkers that Alycia was a transvestite. He claimed that Alycia was not a woman at all, and that she had fooled everyone about her sexual identity. He alleged that she was making a raw power play, trying to steal the leadership of the pilgrimage away from him.
|Alycia Longriver - Image from a scanned newspaper clipping.
Alycia later told me that Tom had known from the day she joined the walk in June that she was not a transvestite, but an intersexual human being. She said she had specifically confided in him about her sexual identity so that there would never be any confusion.
The term transvestite has often used it to describe a person who adopts the dress or manner or sexual role traditionally associated with the opposite sex. It is distinctly different from being a hermaphrodite, which is the historical term for describing a human being who is born with with both male and female sex organs. Masculine and feminine are expressed in one person naturally from birth. The modern term for describing such a person is intersexual.
Human beings who are intersexual are not that uncommon. According to some estimates, in our era nearly one percent of infants exhibit some degree of intersexuality.
Many of the world’s native cultures have historically recognized that it is natural that some babies are born as Two Spirits—people who bridge the gaps between male and female, and between the temporal and spirit worlds. Such Two Spirit people were often highly regarded tribe for their special spiritual capacities.
Little of this was being understood in the Sunbow 5 camp at Toad Suck Ferry, Arkansas. Feelings are running explosively high. Distinctions are not the order of the day.
Having first heard Tom allege that Alycia was a transvestite, many of the walkers took it to mean that Alycia was a man dressed as a woman. Some of the women in the group felt as though they had been tricked and betrayed.
In the confusion and heated atmosphere, with the Moon full in Aries, Alycia’s attempts to differentiate intersexual from transvestite fell on deaf ears. The groups' confusion and anger was diverted onto her. Tom's accusation shocked many of the walkers, and undermined her credibility.
Brianna, 17, also found she could not get a hearing to tell her story of what had happened in the forest between her and Tom—the incident that has triggered the camp's long-stewing passions.
"I called for a circle when the problem happened, but it was not allowed to happen," Brianna told me long after the walk. "It all became a big tussle about another woman and the idea that she was trying to take control of the walk. That was not the issue. No one paid attention to what had really happened to me, or what I had to say about it. The camp became polarized, and was really uncomfortable.
“I called for a circle twice, because I wanted to tell my side of the story to the whole circle, and resolve it and move beyond it right there among ourselves. But Tom and his allies just wanted to have a small circle, with just a few other people. I felt it was important for everyone there to hear what I had to say about it. Anything that anyone on the walk knows about my side of the story they know from what someone else has told them—not from me. I never had a chance to speak."
"I was scared and intimidated by this leader all along," Brianna said. "Since I joined the walk months ago he has again and again shown insensitivity and spoken very harsh words to me, and to just about everyone on the walk, and to the public."
"I could not believe the hypocrisy,” Brianna said. “No one wanted to talk with me about it. I felt I was being blamed for what happened, and that everything got diverted off on to some supposed power struggle between the man and the woman who spoke up for me. But I didn't see that as the issue at all.
"He has not apologized to me, or expressed any remorse whatsoever. I understand he is saying that he asked Creator for forgiveness, and that's good, but I am still hurt and I still cry and I don't understand it at all…
"…I wanted to be part of the Sunbow 5 Walk. I always did, that's why I joined in the beginning. I believe in the vision. But when you are dominated all the time, and there is hate and anger coming from one person so much, it is hard to be part.
"My hope is that the walk will go on, and that as it does the women will have an equal place of respect, and an equal voice. I think there also needs to be free spirituality, and no pressure around the pipe. The pipe is just a tool after all, like a cross. It's not more important than the human beings. There are many ways to be in relationship with Creator."
In the course of my discussions with the walkers about all of this, I also spoke with Grandfather Commanda and with Jose Lucero. Both elders encouraged the walkers to participate in a traditional sweat bath for purification and clarity, and to pray for three days before making decisions about what will happen and how to go forward.
Over the phone from his home at the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico, Sunbow 5 advisor Jose Lucero said: "The walkers need to sit down together and go back to the original vision, to review the vision and the Seven Fires prophecy before they get on to any other issues in their circle. That will help them to remember how they got to where they are.
“As I have heard William tell it, it's all there in there in the Seven Fires prophecy. It's not going to be easy, but the way to go forward,” Jose said, “is to take a look back to the beginning and to remember the original vision. Why are they trying? Why are they are walking? If they do that, if they look back, it will help."
Sunday night Joe and Ned heated rocks glowing red in a ceremonial fire, placed the rocks in a tarp-covered lodge, and entered the heat and the steam with the other walkers for the sake of healing and purification.
Tom first denied that anything all had happened between him and Brianna. Then he admitted that "something" had happened, but that it wasn’t important. He said he wouldn’t talk with me about it, that I had no right to question him or his leadership.
Brianna, 17, was accused by some in camp of having brought the incident upon herself. She made a mistake, they said, by going off alone with Tom. She was naive, they said, what I regard as a classic example of blaming the victim.
Tom eventually claimed that in "Indian Country," if a woman goes into the woods with a man it is understood that she is willing to have sex with him. But this is definitely untrue. Grandfather Commanda groaned ruefully upon hearing Tom’s excuse.
As best I could tell from my vantage in far away New Hampshire, the group in Arkansas did not want to deal with Brianna's situation. Thus, the issues were not forthrightly addressed. The group backed away from the issue, because—some thought—Brianna should have known better, and besides the whole situation was "too messy."
Copyright 2006 by Steven McFadden