When Monique “Muffie” Mousseau was in the fourth grade she got expelled from Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic school on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota.
Her classmates didn’t like the beaded moccasins her grandmother made for her and the two braids she sported, which were held together by hand-beaded hair ties.
“I fought back,” she says. Little did she know that would be the start of a long journey of fighting for justice for the Two Spirit Indigenous community, a term used to identify the LGBTQ community throughout Indian Country.
Mousseau, 52, and her wife, Felipa De Leon, 51, also from the Pine Ridge Indian reservation, have dedicated their lives to fighting for equal rights for Two Spirit Indigenous peoples locally and nationally.
Magdalena Wosinska spent about two weeks in Pine Ridge Indian reservation, sleeping in the basement of a community center, photographing people like Mosseau and De Leon, looking to show the beauty of the Two-Spirit community in Pine Ridge – which is often subject to harsh or pitying headlines.
“I wanted to show the pride, the freedom to be who you are, [the] confidence [and] empowerment,” she says.
The images show a variety of people from the Two-Spirit community – who Wosinksa grew very close to, experiencing the joys of life.
“I wanted [them to] be seen for the beautiful, amazing individuals they are,” Wosinska says.
Candi Brings Plenty is another vocal advocate of the Two-Spirit community. She spent February pushing for South Dakota’s hate crime protection bill to include Native American Two Spirit people, with the Native American nation recognizing them as a culturally and spiritually distinct gender. The bill was passed with those protections made.
Although Two Spirit people once existed harmoniously on the Pine Ridge reservation, colonizers divided them, she says. “Our sacred circles were broke, and the infrastructure in our families,” says Brings Plenty.
“There is unspoken erasure that happens even in the LGBTQ+ community,” she says. “The Two-Spirit people have always held their roles. Two Spirit people, just like our Indigenous land, belong to our ancestors,” she says.
Most of what the community knows about Two Spirit people is from oral stories. Mosseau feels fortunate to have grown up in a traditional home that valued ceremony, including ceremonies honoring transsexual people who often prepared the food for ceremonies and dressed in women’s attire.
In July 2019 she and De Leon were successful in getting the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council to legalize gay marriage and in September of that same year they pushed an ordinance for hate crime protection for the Indigenous LGBTQ community. They were also successful in getting nine other tribes in South Dakota to legalize same-sex marriage and to adopt the hate crime protection ordinance for the Two Spirit community.
“Our younger generation needs to be acknowledged for who they are. It’s important for them to know that they are who they are and that it’s OK,” Mousseau says. “It’s time to acknowledge we have always been here, and we will always be here.”