There’s a great new documentary out called Being Thunder that profiles and centers on what the indigenous people call a Two Spirit, a gender queer teenager, named Sherenté Harris. French filmmaker Stephanie Lamorre spent time living with Sherenté and their family at a crucial point in their teen years, between 14-17 years of age. Sherenté is a dancer who dances the Fancy Shawl dance at intertribal powwows, and the film is a witness to the discrimination and erasure they experienced in the course of their performances at these powwows.
Being Thunder is an inspirational film, not least because of Sherenté, an exceptional speaker and a passionate advocate for themselves and for other Two Spirited members of their tribe. In an interview with Leslie Combemale, member of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, they speak about the interconnectedness of all people with each other and with nature, and about the power of gratitude.
At the tail end of the interview, filmmaker Stephanie Lamorre pops in to add a few thoughts from her location in an editing bay in France.
This is a transcription of AWFJ’s Zoom interview which can be viewed in its entirety on AWFJ’s YouTube Channel
Leslie Combemale: Hi, I’m Leslie Combemale. I’m lead contributor for the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. And with me today is Sherente Harris. They are the subject of a wonderful new documentary called Being Thunder, which is from documentarian Stephanie Lemorre, who is supposed to be here with us, but something’s keeping her, so we’re going to just press on. It’ll be just as fascinating, I’m sure. And I’m excited to ask Sherente a few questions about the film and about their life. Thank you so much for talking to me today.
Sherenté: Good morning.
Leslie: Good morning. First, I’d like to know how you and your family made peace with having a documentarian in your midst?
Sherenté: Yeah, my family is from the woods of South County, Rhode Island, right off our reservation lands, and so having a complete stranger come into our home was definitely a huge shift for us. There was actually a period where Stephanie started filming when I was 14. I don’t know how much of that footage is in the final film, that evades me at the moment, but this was a conversation across different countries, across that great ocean, and I think for us, the biggest concern was trying to make sure that our people, who are so invisible in our own state, could be seen in a proper way. That’s always a big difficulty for indigenous people, is working with non native people to tell our story, and I think that’s the reason why we need more indigenous people telling our own stories. I think this was a beautiful opportunity where a story that never would have been captured, that never would have been uplifted, Stephanie saw something in me and in my family that she thought was worth sharing. At the end of the day, whatever she saw, and whatever spoke to her, I’m just so grateful that she saw something.
Leslie: Gratitude and thankfulness are a major part of indigenous culture, and specifically, the Narragansett. Can you share a little bit about how that spoke to you, in terms of really coming out and becoming an activist around being a to spirit?
Sherenté: Gratitude is at the heart of everything that we do. Our people have traditionally, you hear about the first Thanksgiving that is coming up in this month, but historically, our people celebrated Thanksgiving celebrations throughout the year. We would have 13 Thanksgivings that correlated with the lunar calendar. When we talk about giving thanks, it is a way of keeping balance. You know, we can see in our world today, we take and take and take so much. We always must remember to give something back to maintain that balance. And sometimes when you don’t have anything else to give, what you always can give is gratitude. Through that gratitude, you’re doing something greater than just that act of saying thank you. It’s also, internally, psychologically, making a difference because you engage with that relation, that relative that you are giving thinks to, whether it is the earth, or the trees, or the waterways, or the animals. When you give thanks, you are acknowledging that thing as a being, and so you are not going to mistreat it, or overwork it. When we dance, those are prayers. That is our way of giving thanks. And the greatest dancers are out there giving thanks. I’ve always been taught that when we dance, we don’t dance to try and win, or outdo someone else. We dance with our ancestors in mind, with all of our relations in mind, giving thanks that we still can dance, and we dance for those that cannot dance.
Leslie: You said in the documentary in order to be thankful authentically, you have to also be authentic as yourself, right? That was really the germ of your journey. You had been dancing your father’s dance, and then you wanted to switch to doing the Fancy Shawl dance, which is the dance of your mother. Because of your Two Spiritedness, you want to be able to do either or both. Right? So can you share a little bit about first your decision to do that, and also the history of the Fancy Shawl? For the Alliance of Woman Film Journalists and people who consider themselves feminists, it’s really important to understand that history.
Sherenté: Yeah, the fancy shall dance is a the most contemporary intertribal powwow dance that exists today. Our people are not a static people. When a lot of people go to powwows, which the word powwow actually comes from a Narragansett word pawa, which means a medicine person. Our powwows are not events that are recreations of the past or reenactments, they are continuations of our celebrations, and they are very much contemporary in many senses. The Fancy Shawl dance really is an emblem of that continuation, of that evolution, of that growth, where, during the women’s rights movement, women went out dancing this new style of dance, adopting the fancy dance style. The original women that went out and danced, I have had the opportunity to speak with some of those elders. They were outcasts. They were, you know, really not welcomed. There are even some stories of people jeering or throwing things at people, or stopping things and getting them out of the dance circle. The Fancy Shawl dance, in that way, is a dance of liberation, because those women that were dancing, they didn’t stop, they persisted. And today, the Fancy Shawl dance is one of the largest intertribal dances that are danced. So I see the dance similarly as a dance of liberation for my Two Spirit people, and it was surely a dance of liberation for myself. I actually was able to see a little video clip of me at this powwow that I remembered as a child dancing, and with my father, and seeing the Fancy Shawl dancers, as all the dancers are coming in, in the grand entry that opens the event, and just being in awe at these beautiful women, and wanting to dance with them. So this was me, outwardly showing my community who I was, in a way that was palpable, but could be felt, and wasn’t just in words. I think so much of our ceremony, which is at the heart of who we are, and reminding ourselves of who we are, our ceremony is all based in experience and in feeling. It’s one thing knowing something in abstract terms and ideas, but when you really understand it in a felt way, you carry that with you throughout the rest of your life. And I think that that is why my activism has been able to change the minds of so many people and change the policies at powwow to accept people like me. Just this past summer, at a powwow where I had not been allowed to dance, I just placed first, and the first people to cheer for me, and to be so excited and happy for me, were all of the women, and the women that were dancing in my category alongside me. So, I am exceptionally grateful that I had parents that were dancers and storytellers and culture bearers at such a young age.
Leslie: The problems inside the powwow and the the culture of embracing the colonialist kind of perspective that there’s only two genders, is so contrary to the entire philosophy around the fancy shawl, obviously, given what you were just talking about. Before we started recording, we were talking about how you see that narrow perspective, and people keeping themselves small, as being a sickness, not having that level of gratitude that you’re talking about, really embracing on an everyday basis. That lack of gratitude is keeping so many people narrow and small. I’m interested in how gratitude, which is essential to everything that you do, how gratitude really is the key to opening up and solving some of the problems that persist not only in powwows and in indigenous culture, but in the larger world, because your message is is bigger even than indigenous culture, right? I think your message is about gratitude and openheartedness leading to acceptance to a wider group of people.
Sherenté: Absolutely. At the end of the day, all of our traditions and our teachings, they come back to this central concept that we are all relations, and when we say we are all relations, we are talking about all of creation, not just our family or human beings, and when we give thanks, we are actively acknowledging the beings that are all around as things that are worthy of thanks. When we have those kinds of interactions with the world around us, we start to project and see a bridge starts to appear between us, where we understand that that being that you are speaking to, or you are regarding, is a part of you, is inextricably connected to you. Our Two Spirit people are extremely symbolic of that, of these things that seem so separate from each other; men and women, what is masculine and feminine… these things start to coalesce within a single being, and that’s what creation is. You know, we might have senses of absolutes within us, but those are ideals, more than they are reality, and we can get so caught up in our minds and the terms that are instilled in our minds of what the rules are and what our roles are, who we are expected to be, that you can start to forget that the messiness of life is some of the most beautiful parts of it all. There are no strict stringent rules in life, and my people knew this very intimately, with our knowledge of the various different lifeways of the animal peoples, in the planet peoples all around us. They all have their own customs and traditions that are wildly different than our own. We as people, might have our own traditions and teachings, but within that, we need to remember that our traditions and our teachings cannot be too taut, or else they will become brittle, and will break us, and we will lose the things that make us who we are. We need to remember that there are no strict rules in life, and that so long as we lead with our hearts, with understanding and kindness… for example, when the first colonists arrived here, my people are a people of first contact in North America. Giovanni de Verrazano came to North America in the 1500s, and he was the first European to record his journey here. He stops in the Narragansett Bay, and he writes that our people are the most beautiful people that he has encountered on his voyage, and that we are much taller than they are, and extremely healthy, and that we live long lives and that our lives end with old age, and we rarely fall sick. But he also writes that we are exceedingly generous, and that we give away all that we have. Even to the strangers, we were ready and willing to give. And we call that ‘necomo’, our people, ‘to give away’. I was taught as a young person that we must give away all that we have until it hurts. And when you have a community of people doing that of giving away everything until it hurts, no one is truly hurting, because you never need to worry yourself about not having enough, because we are all family, and we’re all there to help each other.
Leslie: Beautiful. Well, I think that’s the lesson of the documentary, more than anything. Lastly, can you share a little bit about what you’re doing? You’re at Brown, studying indigenous history and culture, and at RISD you’re in the painting department. You’re able to express yourself artistically in a really wide variety of ways. Can you talk about how the experience of being in the documentary and of dancing in powwow has inspired some of the work that you’re creating now, and what you’re hoping to do as an artist?
Sherenté: As an artist, the heart of my work is speaking to the dreams of my people, the Narragansett people, my Two Spirit people, and through that lens, all people. To revitalize our old ways, and my people on the go, we would carry around sacred objects, sacred things that would remind us of our stories, our personal stories, and our communal stories and center us. I see my artwork as serving that end, of reminding us that we are all relations, and I also see my writing, which, this is the rough draft of my first novel, which is telling the story of my journey through dance and being Two Spirit, but it is told through the lens of my people, as a traditional story, a spiritual journey, and grappling with issues of intergenerational trauma, tribal corruption, how we can heal from those wounds, and those sicknesses of colonization through our ceremonies. I feel so blessed that I have been welcomed, from high school into the undergraduate programs of this Ivy League institution at Brown, and this top art school. I’m about to graduate this year, and it really is a historic moment, as the first Narragansett person to graduate from this dual degree program. from both of these institutions, and our people have not been properly represented. We have so many stories to share, and I think this is just the beginning, I have actually managed to work with Brown in their land acknowledgement process to agree to create an initiative to accept more Narragansett and indigenous students into this very gate-kept institution. Brown and RISD have changed my life absolutely for the better.
Leslie: Wonderful. Stephanie Lamorre is going to pop in for a second. I guess we’ll ask her one question before we’re out of here. Let’s see. Here she comes.
Stephanie Lamorre: Oh, hello. Oh, I’m so sorry. Can you hear me? I’m so sorry to be late, you know what, because she told me 4pm, and here in France it’s 3:35! Sorry. Hello, Sherente!
Sherenté: How are you, Stephanie?
Stephanie: I’m good. I’m sorry. I’m in the in the editing room. I’ve no camera. You are so beautiful, my dear.
Leslie: So we got to talking. It was wonderful. We had a great chat. I was just going to ask you to finish off our interview with one last question, which is, what are you hoping people will be inspired by in your film? Why do you think it’s important for people to see it?
Stephanie: For me, it was it was very important to tell the story of Sherente to talk about different things, the community of people from Rhode Island, the reality of Two Spirited people, and it was really about that. Actually when I did start the documentary, it was like five years ago now, so it was not so in fashion in a certain way to talk about gender fluidity, non binary people, etc, etc. So I’m very happy that now it is much more in the media and everywhere, but basically my purpose, my desire to do this documentary, first, it was because I fell in love with Sherente. I saw her in a video with her sister and I was fascinated by them. It was a mix between telling the story of this family of Sherente, and more globally tell about this community and the reality of these lives.
Leslie: And why do you think it’s important for people to see this film?
Stephanie: To open their minds. I mean, open their eyes, open their minds, open their souls, open their hearts, like, come on, guys, we are in 2022. When you hear stories or see stories about discrimination or homophobia, et cetera, et cetera. It’s like, come on. We have to reconnect by heart and by soul with people. I think Sherente’s story and character is the perfect representation of that, because Sherente and their whole family are so connected to Earth, so for me, it’s a global purpose, finally, you know, so I hope people will really, yes, be touched, and will maybe, think with more love.
Yu can view this conversation on AWFJ’s YouTube Channel