“These are my instructions from Spirit,” says Leanna. We are sitting in a coffee shop in Klamath Falls, a small town in rural Southern Oregon. Leanna, a Certified Nurse Assistant and enrolled Klamath tribal member, is describing meditation instructions she recently received through a spiritual vision.
“I was getting what some call downloads but I now call instructions—sacred instructions on what to do,” Leanna says. As she speaks, I can’t help but notice her facial tattoos, three distinct lines running down her chin. Leanna’s voices and visions are intimately connected to her ancestry—in her recent vision, she was being guided by her deceased father and grandmother.
If you ask a medical doctor what causes voices and visions, they will tell you about frightening symptoms and diagnoses. Leanna doesn’t frame her experiences in that way. “For them to just dumb it down and be like, ‘What you need is medication; you need this; you’re that,’” Leanna says, contradicts what she knows to be true. “We are our own medicine—to ourselves, to our families, and to the community.”
Leanna was born in Medford and lived the first several years of her life in Klamath Falls, a small Oregon town between high deserts to the east and the Cascade Mountains to the west, and surrounded by wintering birds, including bald eagles.
At age seven, Leanna moved to Southern California. As an adult, she has lived in Arizona and Klamath Falls. She has experienced voices and visions throughout her life, including a rather chaotic and frightening period at age forty. Now in her late forties, Leanna wonders how her voices and visions can help her contribute to the community. She believes that her sacred instructions, which are deeply connected to her culture and family, can offer guidance on these questions.
Crater Lake, known as Giiwas in Klamath, is one of the places Leanna goes to connect with Spirit and her ancestors. Photo by Gwennette Black.
Leanna is Klamath, but her ancestors include Wasco, Pit River, and Shasta peoples. She is also a descendent of what she calls the tribes of Europe, including Scandinavia, Scotland, and Ireland. By listening to the medicine of her voices and visions, Leanna is connecting to her own ancestral traditions as a Klamath Two-Spirit person. “The voices and visions are tied in together with who I am as an individual,” she says. “But also [with] who we were, as Two-Spirit community in our tribe.”
The term “Two-Spirit” is a pan-Indian umbrella term, created in the 1990s to demarcate the wide variety of expressions of gender, sexuality, and identity found across different Indigenous tribes in so-called North America. Being two-spirited is not synonymous with being queer or trans; cultural expressions of what it means to be Two-Spirit vary widely between different tribes.
As a federally recognized tribe, the Klamath Tribes encompass three distinct Indigenous cultures: Klamath, Modoc, and Yahooskin-Paiute. In Klamath culture, where traditions can vary between individual families, there are multiple understandings of what it means to be two-spirited. In Klamath language, there are no distinct gender pronouns—the word “ké” means both he and she. Traditionally, Klamath people who had integrated their masculine and feminine might be described as “a balanced relative.”
When Leanna was five years old, she told her mother her name was George and Sarah, but she doesn’t personally identify with more contemporary terms like trans or non-binary. Rooted in a tradition that dates back millennia, Leanna’s understanding of what it means to be two-spirited is explicitly Indigenous.
One of Leanna’s cousins, Shuína Skó, is an Indigenous rights activist and Two-Spirit poet and storyteller. In Klamath, Skó translates the term Two-Spirit as “laap steínash shû‘kla,” meaning “two souls mixing together.” A section of Skó’s website is dedicated to what it means to be Two-Spirit in Klamath culture.
“Two-Spirit people are highly valued in the tribe as they are seen as having special ability to view things from different perspectives and because of this are well balanced,” writes Skó. “This gift allows Two-Spirit people to be healers, leaders, and teachers.”
“You have two spirits inside of your body, that’s power,” says Leanna. “That's a lot of power to have. So if I have that today, I [have] to be a good person.” The process of balancing the masculine and feminine has been an important part of Leanna’s own journey. “If we don't integrate both sides... our good and our bad, our duality,” she says, “We can do really bad or we can do really good.”
Wood River is the site of the Klamath tribes' culture camp, where elders take youth to understand spirituality and the feeling of the land. Photo by Gwennette Black.
Leanna’s voices and visions, these sacred instructions, are helping her learn about the good she can offer to the world. But learning to trust her experiences hasn’t always been easy.
“I’ve had experiences where it was really frightening, really scary,” she says. Around the time Leanna turned forty, she went through a particularly turbulent period. She left Klamath Falls, telling her family members to give away all of her possessions while she moved back to Arizona. “I was saying goodbye to everybody, like I was becoming something else or I was going to die,” she says.
In Arizona, Leanna’s life was chaotic. She wasn’t sleeping. Her relationships were tumultuous, and her visions were disturbing. “Me and my ex got into some pretty bad stuff,” she says. At one point, Leanna had a vision of being attacked by evil entities that were attached to her girlfriend and pulling the skin off both of their faces.
One day Leanna was visiting North Mountain, a mountain trail system that sits 1,000 feet above the nearby city of Phoenix, Arizona. Looking at one of the nature trails, which ran in two opposite directions at a crossroads, Leanna heard a voice. “If you go that way, that's your demise, that’s your death,” the voice said. If Leanna went the other direction, the voice told her, she would find the path of life. “That’s the path [where] your sacred journey is,” she says the voice told her. “Whatever path you choose is going to be death or life.”
Leanna chose the path of life. Since then, her recovery has taken many forms. Emerging from a period of near homelessness, she sought treatment in a residential recovery program. In treatment, Leanna confided in one of the head staff about her experiences. “I would tell her [about] the voices,” says Leanna, “but I was more or less just afraid of who I was. I didn't want it to come out on what I was hearing because it was evil… I would literally sit there and feel like I was a curse.” The staff member encouraged Leanna to focus on Jesus, and Leanna sought solace in a local evangelical church.
“I believe in that whole ‘He carries you until you're ready to carry yourself’ [idea] because he carried me,” Leanna says about her powerful, visionary experiences with Jesus. These experiences, however, can feel at odds with her Klamath roots. “I identify [more] with the land here, and Spirit speaks to me more than anything,” she says. “Going to the church, and coming back home, I felt my ancestors—it was hard for me, coming back home, because I could feel the generational trauma.”
In 2017, Leanna left Arizona and moved back to Klamath Falls. Her maternal grandfather was dying, and Leanna returned to the Klamath Basin with her mother to care for him. Leanna also reconnected with her paternal grandmother, who passed away in 2021. “I was able to communicate with my grandma before she passed,” Leanna says. “Her prayers—and our ancestors’ prayers, and my dad's prayers—brought us home, brought me back home,” says Leanna.
"I identify with the land here," says Leanna. Photo by Gwennette Black.
Returning home provided Leanna a different context in which to understand her voices and visions, through deepening the connections with her family and culture. As she learned to trust her experiences more, the content of her voices and visions shifted. No longer haunted by terrifying experiences, Leanna has come to trust and rely on her voices and visions for guidance.
Leanna’s life is more stable now. She lives with her mother in Klamath Falls and works in health care. Her voices and visions, she explains, are “no longer fear-based—they’re more friendly.” She says, “To me, they come from source, they come from Spirit… they come from my ancestors.”
Rather than viewing her experiences as a form of “delusion” or “psychosis,” as a psychiatrist might suggest, Leanna looks to her ancestral knowledge and traditions to guide her. This includes understanding her role in the community as a Klamath Two-Spirit person. “I gotta balance out my masculine and feminine to become a whole true being,” says Leanna. “That’s helping me balance out the voices and visions.”
In the future, Leanna hopes to support other people who experience voices and visions, by “help[ing] people to not be afraid,” she says. “Once you come into your whole being, to be who you’re supposed to be... that’s when you become aware and you become a balanced person.”
TagsGender, Spirituality, Sexuality, mental health, Native American
3 comments have been posted.
The kindness and honesty with which this is written touches my heart.
Susan Bizeau | September 2023 | Talent; Oregon
I love the sensitivity of this article and the beauty of the writing and photography. I appreciated learning about how many indigenous tribes view gender, visions and voices. Thank you Oregon Humanities for widening our world views again and again!
Cathy | September 2023 | Portland, OR
Robert Owen | September 2023 | Portland, Oregon