DENVER, Colo. — Writing his own poetry is how Crisosto Apache stays connected to his roots.
“I was born and raised on the Apache reservation in New Mexico. My family still lives there,” he said.
The professor and writer left the only home he knew to go to school.
“Growing up on the reservation was, it was a struggle,” said Apache. “Of all of my family, I’m the only one that has a high school diploma. I have an advanced degree.”
Learning about writing and poetry helped him see what was written in his own heart.
“I found myself just sort of embracing the western culture or the western culture way of thinking, and I said, you know, there's really still something missing because I've embraced the idea that I was gay, or that I was queer. But still, I mean, having some tie to, to my cultural or tribal identity was still missing.”
He felt even more lost after a night out in college took a violent turn.
“Some of my friends were dressed flamboyant because that's who we were. They started attacking one of them and, you know, started with the racial slurs and the derogatory terms. All I could hear is the beating in the darkness.”
He said when he tried to help, one of the men ran to him and pulled out a gun.
“Here you are standing behind a convenience store and one of your friends is being attacked and you can't do anything because you have a gun pointed at you. It did leave a scar.”
That emotional scar helped him realize the lessons he needed to learn about himself were back home.
“I found out that many tribal communities embrace the idea of the 'Two Spirit' identity,” said Apache.
Many Native American cultures have long recognized members of the LGBTQ community as 'Two Spirit' individuals.
Men and women who possessed both male and female characteristics were often tribal leaders, respected for their perspective and knowledge.
“It's so this idea of trying to break away these boxes that define us. They had a vital role in the community. And it just wasn't because they were expressing gender, or that they were different, because they weren't, they were participating in a community,” said Apache. “They were not seen as outsiders.”
The Denver Indian Center is hoping to be a place every member of the community can participate in the present day.
“It's a place that we want our community to feel safe and to feel comfortable coming to,” said Rick Waters, the co-executive director of the Denver Indian Center.
Waters runs the center that is a resource hub and gathering place for tribal communities. He said western cultural influences have made it tough for 'Two Spirit' individuals to find acceptance in modern society, even with their own tribe.
“Another part of Indian culture is respect, and so, you respect people for who they are, being less judgmental of people,” said Waters. “But, we live in a society where we have a lot of influences coming at us and we're immersed in things, and by habit, often, we're not as objective as we want to be.”
Yet, with every event welcoming people to the center, and with every word Apache writes, these men are working to change perception and educate the community.
“How Native Americans allowed people to participate in their community and to exist as they were meant to be, is something that is non-threatening,” said Apache. “It really doesn't hurt a community to have everybody participate with purpose.”
Apache’s scars are now his purpose.
“I call myself a survivor. It's pretty much left up to people like me to know and gather that information and give it to others.”
He’s protecting history through his published poems and through the classes he teaches: growing a sense of importance, belonging, and respect for his 'Two Spirit' identity in everyone he encounters.
One person at a time, he hopes, will one day create change in the minds of many.