It takes a particular kind of strength to live in a world where one's culture has been violently oppressed and the remnants of that oppression are visible on a daily basis. It takes more strength still to embrace aspects of oneself that are even more counter to the dominant culture. As a two‑spirit Passamaquoddy who has recently made the decision to be openly transsexual in honor of a nearly‑lost tribal tradition, Geo Soctomah Neptune is a person who embodies profound personal strength.
"This is my first time wearing a skirt in public," shares Neptune during an interview. "It was nerve‑wracking, to say the least." Neptune made the decision to come to the meeting dressed as a traditional Wabanaki woman following an interaction with a medicine man at Healing the Wounds of Turtle Island, an event held over the weekend of July 14. During a children's blessing at the event, the medicine man stopped specifically at Neptune to give a special blessing. Afterwards, he explained to Neptune that it was because of the fear the spirits sensed in Neptune's mind. "They wanted it to be taken away because my ancestors love me and my people love me. He also said that the spirits told him that the Creator wants me to dress like a traditional Wabanaki woman all the time. I'm still processing that message."
Embracing the identity and traditional role of a two‑spirit is not an easy task, in part because of the imposed European cultural stigma against gender nonconformists and, additionally, as a result of the loss of tribal traditions. The term "two‑spirit" is indigenous but not specific to any one particular Native culture, Neptune explains. All Native lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer individuals may identify as two‑spirit.
As a Passamaquoddy, the 28‑year-old Neptune has experienced several challenges related to being a two‑spirit. "It's actually been tough for me growing up, because when I went to so many elders they would say, 'We had two‑spirits a long time ago,' basically saying that there's no such thing anymore." Over time, Neptune found their way to two‑spirit elders. "But even in those cases, one of my elders would talk about how we were expected to be invisible." Neptune clarifies that two‑spirits were not treated poorly, but rather the community pretended they weren't there. "When two‑spirits died, that part of their identity would be forgotten about and never talked about again -- not because the two‑spirit was ashamed of who they were, but because everybody else was."
The shame attributed to two‑spirits is a byproduct of colonialism, Neptune explains. "If you're going to come to a place where women are strong and reverse it, not only do you have to suppress the women, you have to suppress everybody else in between. You have to suppress anybody that challenges the patriarchal role where men are in charge of everything."
Over time, Neptune has had success in uncovering how Passamaquoddy have traditionally viewed two‑spirits. Within the tribe, two‑spirits -- who are regarded as having the spirit of a man and the spirit of a woman in the same body -- have served as couples' counselors and foster parents. Two‑spirit women have been warriors and taken wives, and two‑spirit men were the caretakers of their families. "We were often spiritual leaders within the tribe, because having two spirits brought you that much closer to the spirit world," Neptune explains.
For Neptune, wholly embracing their identity as a two‑spirit has been a fairly recent transition. The conservative and divisive national social and political climate prompted Neptune's emergence as an open transsexual. "I realized there was so much I was holding on to. I was afraid all the time. It didn't matter what I was wearing, because ultimately I wasn't safe," Neptune says. When 49 people were killed and 58 others were wounded in the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla., any illusion of safety was shattered. "I was hiding so many parts of myself and making myself so unhappy, and for what? For a false sense of security?"
Neptune readily points out that their courage has been bolstered by the actions of many others. "I often think about all of the work that all of the queers of the past have done for me to even be able to walk out my door in a skirt or in makeup or in full‑on drag makeup," Neptune says. "So many literal lives were lost so that I could be here and be who I am right now. I often think about what I'm doing to carry that on -- what I'm doing for future generations of queer kids."
Being a gender nonconformist is part of Neptune's challenge, but in some ways, it is one that has been easier to meet by virtue of their social surroundings. "I would never be able to go through this alone. Not without my community of Indian Township and my community at Sipayik and my community of Washington County in general, because as much racial tension and culture differences there are, we're still a community."
Neptune draws strength from many friends and mentors, including their grandmother Molly Neptune, their mother Elizabeth Neptune, Jamie Lewey, their recently deceased cousin David Moses Bridges and many Native fashion designers. "I spend a lot of time with my family and my partner. I go to ceremony. Ceremony is going to be a big part of what helps me work through my emotions."
Like others in their family, Neptune has taken up the art of basketmaking, using the craft to express their sexuality in novel and noteworthy ways. Neptune was recently named the signature artist at the Eiteljorg Indian Market and Festival in Indiana, with a basket resembling a rainbow corn titled "Gaize" picked as the signature piece and a basket titled "Ceremony of the Singing Stars" purchased for the Eiteljorg collection. Neptune made the decision to become a full‑time basketmaker in October 2016 and will be attending shows in Sante Fe, N.M., and Oklahoma in the coming months.
Walking as a two‑spirit -- traditionally understood by Natives to be capable of restoring balance to imbalanced situations -- in an era of social strife, Neptune takes their role seriously. In the past few years, Neptune has served as a youth delegate for the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates, attended the Global Youth Peace Indaba in South Africa and attended PeaceJam in Winchester, England. One of their goals for the future is to hold a PeaceJam in Washington County to enable Native and non‑Native youths to interact and be exposed to the different cultures of the world.
Asked what might come next, Neptune responded, "Who knows where the river will take me, to make a cheesy Indian reference. Actually, we didn't have cheese. Corny. A corny Indian reference." Neptune laughs with characteristic humor. "I know I'm on my first steps."