The forthcoming documentary Being Thunder, directed by Stéphanie Lamorré, is a moving and deeply affecting portrait of an indigenous two-spirit teenager and member of the Narragansett tribe, Sherenté Mishitashin Harris, and their quest for greater gender inclusivity in the competitive and traditionally female fancy shawl dance.
As part of observing Native American Heritage Month and upcoming Transgender Awareness Week in November, GLAAD had the opportunity to interview Sherenté about the film and their experiences as an indigenous and two-spirit artist and activist, and their hope for the future of representation.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Dana Aliya Levinson: Let’s start here! What was the genesis of Being Thunder?
Sherenté Mishitashin Harris: I’m very blessed to have been born into a family of two Narragansett parents that instilled in me at a very young age that whatever I do, I do it for my people. As a teenager, I started to do activism work and somehow, Stéphanie Lamorré was able to find me. She fell in love with my story. And the documentary followed from there.
DAL: You speak a lot about storytelling and your relationship to it. Can you speak more about what it means to you to be a part of this long line of storytellers?
SMH: Growing up, our stories were ingrained in me. There’s the common misconception that indigenous people made up these stories to try and understand the world around them because they couldn’t understand the world. I’d argue our people have a very strong understanding of the world around us. Also, our stories are less about that and more so explaining why we are who we are and our relationship to the world. Our dances are one of the ways we tell our stories. So, through dancing, we make sure our history and today don’t seem so far apart.
DAL: So going off of that question, how did taking part in this storytelling tradition through dance help you gain greater understanding of your gender?
SMH: I think that fancy shawl dancing was my first opportunity to make a public statement about who I was. Dancing in this style of dance traditionally done by women was my opportunity to be seen in a way that I otherwise would not be.
DAL: For you, is there a line between being a groundbreaker and a leader and just wanting to dance for its own sake?
SMH: When I dance I have always felt an obligation to dance for my people. But now I feel an obligation to dance for two spirit people as well. But I really identify first and foremost as being Narragansett. So much of my work, my scholarship, my artwork, my writing, it’s always in the forefront of my mind. But if I’m not out there in the circle dancing fancy shawl, oftentimes taking on the abuse that comes from homophobic and transphobic people, then that means that I’m leaving it to another young person to have to carry the weight of that by themselves.
DAL: As with any form of inclusion, there’s been pushback, sometimes within your own community. What do you make of that and what does it say about the relationship between colonization and gender?
SMH: When two spirit was coined as an umbrella term for LGBTQ plus people that are indigenous, it was so that we’d have an identity that is informed by a cultural and cosmological worldview that comes from the traditions of my people. It’s inextricable from that. I think the role of two spirit people is to remind our community that the things we think are so different, masculinity and femininity, or male and female, they overlap in all of us. When the colonists came, a hierarchical system was put upon our people. Then the emphasis was not about being connected or equal. So two spirit people were stigmatized. Embracing two spirit people means moving past the trauma of genocide and colonialism and back to our traditions.
DAL: Absolutely. Trauma can have a lot of additive effects that harm minority communities.
SMH: Yes. It doesn’t only lead to transphobia and homophobia. It leads to alcoholism, domestic violence, suicide. Our people today are the most impoverished community in the state of Rhode Island. Our people are withheld from institutions of education, and are withheld from positions of power within our non native communities. What I see as the answer to it is our traditions. Everything has emerged from this earth. That becomes a lived and felt experience through ceremony. Dance is one of those ceremonies and it helps bring our history to life. That history tells us who we are in relation to the world and brings balance, not only within our environment so that our world is healthy, but it also brings balance within ourselves.
DAL: At Brown University, you were part of a working group that helped instate a university wide land acknowledgement after a row about historical accuracy. What happened and why was it important?
SMH: Brown did not have an official land acknowledgment, so inaccurate unofficial land acknowledgments were being shared across campus. Then these land acknowledgments were being used by other places in Rhode Island because Brown is a respected institution. When I expressed that this needs to be fixed, certain faculty members shut me down. So, I went to student groups on campus and rallied them behind me along with a Narragansett historian and wrote a letter with their backing. Afterwards, I was invited to be put on a working group, and then I became the major vehicle driving the process. The previous land acknowledgments were problematic for a number of reasons. The biggest was that they were recognizing Rhode Island as Wampanoag land. Today, the Narragansett tribe is the only federally and state recognized tribe in Rhode Island. We’re also the only inter-tribally recognized tribe in the state. Accuracy is important because land acknowledgments are not just about our past, but also about the present existence of indigenous people and how that’s tied to this legacy of colonization.
DAL: What kind of indigenous representation Do you want to see more of in the world?
SMH: I definitely want to see more Narragansett representation, especially stories of resistance. In the 1600s, Chief Sachem Canonchet burnt down the city of Providence in retaliation for our women and children being massacred by colonists. Shortly after, he was captured and told that he either could betray his people, or be killed. He said, “I like it well, that I should die before my heart has grown soft and I have said anything unworthy of myself.” That quote sounds like a lot of Narragansett people today and the resilience that we have. In many ways, the war has not ended and we are still fighting. It’s very important for my people to have the chance to create art that is uniquely ours because telling a good story, rather than just reading a history from a text book, speaks to people’s hearts and not just their minds.
DAL: Also, something that I was getting from what you were just saying, which I certainly relate to is not fixating so much on indigenous pain, and more on resilience.
SMH: I see our story as a success story in many ways, because we are still here and fighting. But the narrative is usually framed as, we lost. And I don’t see it that way at all. I see our continued presence as a success. And we just need people to be able to see the way we do.
DAL: So my last question is what do you hope audiences will get out of watching this documentary?
SMH: First, I hope that the name of the Narragansett will be remembered again. I mean, to go from being the most powerful people in the region to having under 3000 citizens at this point in our tribal community, it is of the utmost importance that we are seen. When people watch the film, I want them to see that we are still here. I want them to reconsider the ideas that they have around gender and two spirit people. And if they open their perspective to other cultures, they would see just how vast and diverse human experience is. So, I hope it’s a learning opportunity. The documentary also only shows the tiniest of glimpses of what Narragansett people are like. There is so much more to us beneath the surface. And I hope that glimpse makes them want to learn more about us.
Being Thunder premieres on VOD & Digital on November 11. Watch on Prime Video, Apple TV, Vudu, and more.