The Oregon Woman 2019

One Indigenous Activist Is Making a Place for Two Spirit People in Portland

Candi Brings Plenty has a history of making change happen.

By Fiona McCann April 23, 2019 Published in the May 2019 issue of Portland Monthly

Candi Brings Plenty has a history of making change happen: by thoughtfully, determinedly, asking for what she needs. Take the 2015 Portland Pride Parade. Brings Plenty, who identifies as Two Spirit—a modern umbrella term for Indigenous people who embody male and female genders—watched as marchers streamed past without a single Indigenous group visible. So, Brings Plenty, who was studying for her master’s in public administration at Portland State, approached the organizing committee with three asks: a prayer at the next parade to “honor the indigenous lands” on which they were walking; to waive the parade entry fee for Portland’s five-year-old Two-Spirit Society; and to include a tipi in the festival area. 

The committee granted her requests; then they asked her to be the 2016 Pride Parade’s Grand Marshal.    

“That was the first time the Two Spirit folks in Portland were really seen and invited to the table,” says the soft-spoken, straight-talking Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe member, who has lived in Portland since 2011. And it was just the beginning of her fight, which today has rocketed her to a place in the national conversation about indigenous rights and gender.

Just months after the 2016 Pride parade, Brings Plenty traveled to North Dakota to join protesters at Standing Rock, demonstrating against the construction of an oil pipeline on Native land. Again, she brought three asks to Standing Rock’s elder council: support a Two Spirit camp at Standing Rock; allow her camp to fly a rainbow flag; and grant Two Spirit people a traditional grand entry “so we could be invited into the sacred circle.” Some of the council’s male leaders pushed back: Who was she to ask for something they saw as sacred? “[An elder said] What nation do you represent? You’re going to be from so many different tribes.” Brings Plenty replied: the Two Spirit Nation. “There was a grandma who said, ‘Aha.’ When she said ‘aha,’ everyone agreed,” she remembers. “I didn’t go to [Standing Rock] trying to create a Two Spirit Nation, it just fell into place with those asks. It was beautiful.”

Thus the Two Spirit Nation came into being, becoming an advocacy group that has since traveled the country promoting LGBTQ2S+ visibility. “We were a movement within the movement,” says Brings Plenty, who spent five months at Standing Rock. 

That’s also where she met actor Jane Fonda, who turned up with Thanksgiving dinner for protesters. As Two Spirit camp leader, Brings Plenty declined the invitation to celebrate the fraught holiday, and straight-up told the Oscar winner (who seemed to have missed the context) that “as a white ally, she still had a lot to learn.” Fonda asked her what the camp needed instead. Brings Plenty suggested a truck to transport injured protesters.

Months later, Brings Plenty drove that truck to DC for a massive rally protesting Trump’s executive order to move ahead with the Dakota pipeline. “I was asked to speak on behalf of the entire camp,” says Brings Plenty. “Because I was Two Spirit, I was a balance between the men and the women.” 

Brings Plenty, who also organized Portland’s 2018 Indigenous Womxn’s March, was called away late last year to work for the newly elected president of the Oglala Sioux tribe in her home state of South Dakota. Once his term is up she plans to return to the city where she first found her voice. “That grassroots skill set [I learned here] brought me through this journey,” she says. “Portland is absolutely home.”

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