By Louva Hartwell
SAN DIEGO – Karen Vigneault (Ipai/Kumeyaay), from the Santa Ysabel reservation, is a woman on a mission. She wants to re-establish San Diego’s first Native American LGBT group, “Nations of the Four Directions.” This group was active in the early to mid 90’s and participated in powwows, San Diego Pride, and HIV/AIDS education. Their mission was to provide social support to the Two Spirited Native American community of San Diego. The group disbanded when the core members of the group moved away or had to devote attention to their personal lives.
Over the past year, Karen has received encouragement from friends, fellow tribal members, and acquaintances, to revive the Two-Spirit support system that once existed in San Diego. After much thought and spiritual reflection, she’s ready to start rebuilding. The following Q & A article will tell you about Karen and the past and current “Nations of the Four Directions” group. But first, here are some facts about the San Diego American Indian population.
Now that you have some background, let’s transition into our interview with Karen.
Where was your group located?
We were located in the city of San Diego. We used to meet at the Indian Human Resource Center.
When did you form the group?
I believe it was 1992.
Who were the council members?
We decided to have 2 leaders to represent the male and female sides of who we are. I was voted the female leader, and Tom Lidot (Alaskan Tlingit) was the male leader.
What tribes were represented in the group?
I cannot remember them all but we had myself Ipai/Kumeyaay, Tlingit, Navajo, Chitimacha, Yaqui, Apache, Luiseno and I apologize for not being able to remember the rest.
How many members did you have?
There were about 10-15 members.
How often did you have meetings/gatherings?
We met weekly.
What was your group’s mission?
Our official mission statement was, “Serving the social/support needs of the Two Spirited (Gay, Lesbian, Bi-Sexual and Transgender) Native American Community of San Diego.” We wanted to remind the community of our role in our culture, to become visible to the mainstream gay community and remind them we were the first gays and lesbians in what is now called America. A place for urban and rez gay and lesbian Indians to find support.
What activities did your group participate in?
We participated in Powwows by having a food booth. We participated in the San Diego pride parade.
Were you accepted in your LGBT and Native communities around San Diego?
Yes very much, there was even a mainstream newspaper article written about us. I constantly made sure the gay community was reminded that we were the first gays and lesbians. I also spoke at native events reminding our own tribal and Indian health community of our cultural role in our tribal societies.
Why did your group disband?
The group disbanded because members moved away and due to issues in our personal lives.
Why do you want to re-establish the Nations of the Four Directions?
I would like to re-establish Nations of the Four Directions because there isn’t any urban or rez support for our Two-Spirit Indian people in San Diego or our surrounding counties. I also would like to work with the other People of Color groups to create a visible force within the gay community.
What area of California will your group represent?
We are in San Diego. We represent tribes from all four directions.
Who can be a member? Do you charge membership fees?
Any native can be a member. We do not charge fees.
How many members do you have so far?
I haven’t announced I would be starting the group back up again. This is the first time I have sent notice out.
When is your first meeting?
I am hoping to have the first meeting in spring. I want to start the group with the spring equinox.
Who can people contact to get more information?
They can contact me (Karen) directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What is your tribal affiliation?
I am Ipai/Kumeyaay / Hatapah (coyote) clan, from the Santa Ysabel reservation.
What is your profession?
I am a Librarian to pay the bills and I am a Filmmaker by college degree and passion.
What Native or LGBT organizations have you been involved with?
I have worked with San Diego’s Gay multi-cultural groups.
Have you done any public speaking on Native LGBT issues? If so, where and on what topics?
Over the decades I have spoken in San Diego at Indian health gatherings, AIDS gatherings, and college classes.
You are a traditional Kumeyaay dancer. Could you tell us more about your traditional outfit (in the picture) and the story behind the dance?
I am a bird dancer. Our songs were given to us by the birds. My skirt is the oldest form of traditional clothing for our tribe and it is made of willow bark. The bark on my skirt was used by our elders during the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition in Balboa Park. At the Expo, my Great Grandmother and Great-Great grandmother displayed how they did our traditional basketry. After the Expo, the bark was used to pack the pottery for the Museum of Man. 70 years later I was able to use some of that bark and created my traditional skirt. The shells I use are traditional shells that I gathered at the edge of the ocean, caught up in tidepools. Most people have no idea what California Indians wore traditionally, so by wearing my skirt I am educating my people as well others about our traditional clothing. I wear my hat everyday and have refused to take it off for my passport or any Federal or State ID. I will soon get my traditional clan tattoo for my dancing on my 50th birthday.