According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 19 percent of Native Americans living with HIV are unaware of their status, higher than the 13 percent who are unaware in the general population. That may be due to lower testing rates, in part because Indian Country is a little like an extended family living in small town America, where everyone knows you (and your business) and stigma-based ostracization has even broader potential to disrupt your life.
“In our Native — aka Indian — community, we strive on telling our people to get tested,” Kills Crow says. “We still have that stigma that people [are] afraid of getting tested. So we explain how important is.”
Kills Crow knows first-hand how stigma breeds fear.
“When I was first diagnosed being HIV-positive back in 2009, I thought my life was pretty much over with,” he admits. “I thought about [a poz] relative back home on the reservation [of] Standing Rock Sioux Tribe [in North and South Dakota]. What shit he had to deal from friends and relatives, hearing about the terrible things people would say or do to him. I did not want myself to be in that place or situation.”
Kills Crow, who had been attending school in Utah when he was first diagnosed, moved to be near family in Minnesota, but, as he wrote in a special World AIDS Day essay for Native News Online, “Being [there] was a big challenge for me. I was hearing and seeing acts of violence to Native [people] and Two Spirits living with HIV/AIDS. I had to make an effort to surround myself with a good support system and stay focused on the positive things that were important to me. I began by helping to reconstitute the Minnesota Two Spirit Society.”
“Two-spirits” are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans or gender-variant individuals. And in Native communities, they are often the most at risk of becoming HIV-positive. From 2005 to 2014, the number of new HIV diagnoses increased a whopping 63 percent among gay and bisexual American Indians and Alaska Natives — CDC's terminology to refer to the Native American population — versus 19 percent among Native Americans overall.
Four years ago, Kills Crow moved again, relocating to Michigan, where some of his siblings live and where he began to come out about living with HIV.
“It got lonely keeping it to myself,” he explains. “I wanted to people hear my hurt and pain, what I went through to get where I am at today.”
That’s what led him to write for Native News, but it was a decision he questioned almost immediately, when “the article went national. After the article went viral online I pretty much shook myself and said, ‘What hell did you just do?’”
In retrospect though, Kills Crow says, “I am happy that I wrote the article.” He said people responded positively, asking him questions and offering their concerns.
“I was glad to hear someone cared,” he admits, “especially when it come from family and relatives. That made it special.”
And despite his initial trepidations, Kills Crow continues to speak publicly, even being interviewed on TV for a future World AIDS Day celebration.
“It took courage for me speak out,” he acknowledges. “[But] speaking out and having others listen to my story was the best thing for me. By me speaking I was healing myself, and maybe I was healing others out there as well.”
His willingness to be open about his status, despite the difficulties of living with HIV in Native American communities and to bring HIV and AIDS to the forefront of conversation was impressive, but even more so was his role in establishing the Grand Rapids, Michigan-based celebration of National Native HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.
Kills Crow says he first heard about NNHAAD through other two-spirit individuals, who emphasized how important it was to celebrate every year to increase awareness and promote HIV prevention efforts in the Native community.
“After serving as a volunteer for [the Grand Rapids] World AIDS Day planning committee was over and done,” Kills Crow recalls, “I thought maybe the Red Project [a local HIV organization] could help me organize a local NNHAAD event. I also brought up my idea to the attention of the Grand Rapids Pride Center, formerly known as The LGBT Network of West Michigan. Before that I reached out to the Native American community for help. When it was all coming together [we] saw something special that was happening. I started building a bond between non-Native and Native communities. They were willing to work together.”
Kills Crow was the 2015 keynote speaker for the local National Native HIV/AIDS Awareness Day and says he’s eagerly looking forward to March 20, 2017, next year's date. He hopes to organize another NNHAAD in Western Michigan, hoping to bring in a big name speaker like Randy Burns, who co-founder Gay American Indians, the first organization for LGBT Natives in the country, over 40 years ago.
Kills Crow is also working to establish a local Two-Spirit organization and he’s become a full-fledged HIV educator, talking with other poz Native Americans about the effectiveness of the newer one-a-day HIV medications.
He says when he was younger it seemed gay men were all “horrified,” wondering, “Am I next?” But today many "Native LGBT positives are living longer,” due in part to highly effective antiretroviral meds; and in part to “the LGBT Native Two Spirit leadership of past and present,” which has helped created harm reduction programs for Native American, and established themselves as stakeholders in the HIV/AIDS community.
“Most tribal communities and most families are embracing their Native positive children,” Kills Crow says. He doesn’t forget that “stigma and fear are lurking in the back like homophobia,” but, he’s proud that many Native Two-Spirits "are all surviving and we are still resilient like our forebears.”