Talking Circle brings 'two-spirited' Native Americans together 

Shirley Hoskins, the founder of the Native American Health Coalition, had never met a gay or lesbian Indian before she found out her son was gay. "My son was not infected with HIV, but I then wanted to find out more about it. I didn't know a lot about it, but I wrongly assumed that it was a gay, white disease."

That was 19 years ago, but Hoskins, a Sac-Fox and Kickapoo Indian, said that she attributes that event to the start of her mission to provide education and services to the Native American community. She began to wonder how many other gay Native Americans there were and whether the community as a whole was receiving education about HIV.

"I started looking for statistics on Native Americans and there just weren't any," she said. That was when she was introduced to Jay Johnson of the National Native American Aids Prevention Center. "He had just started his job that very week for this new endeavor, and it really was a chance meeting. His job was going to be to try to start collecting data on Native Americans."

"I got involved in community issues and got on a task force," she explained. "We began looking for statistics and found that the government seemed to be tracking only gay white men." Hoskins added that she later found out from a pastor that there had been many Native Americans affected by the AIDS virus but that the community still had no overall awareness of the disease.

Hoskins left a lucrative job to work in AIDS prevention at the Good Samaritan Project. She was the only woman in the program and the first minority hired. Because statistics were being tracked only in the white population, no services were geared for minorities affected by the virus.

"I only worked for them for two years, but I learned a lot from it. When I heard that they were starting to need services for minorities, I later understood that they meant different economic services. Up until that time, most of the men affected in the white community were educated and had insurance to cover their illnesses. The services that they started needing when it affected people of color were basically services for the poor."

She stayed in contact with Johnson, who told her of a grant intended for a grassroots study on AIDS among the Native American population, and she applied for and won the money. The study, which involved four Kansas and Missouri tribes, as well as urban Indians, lasted for a year.

Hoskins then formed the coalition, which became a separate entity in 1992. Since that time, the coalition has expanded to Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kan., with its education programs, emergency assistance, and clinics. "Our core focus has always been drug and alcohol education and intervention, because that is the issue that is at the core of our problems in the community," she said.

Although the Native American population is estimated at around 3 million, it is hard to track, because most don't live in one centralized area, such as the reservations. Hoskins' own family had left the reservation for better economic opportunities but had maintained a connection to their culture through religion. "About 75 percent of Native Americans are what we call urban Indians," Hoskins said. "And most of that population is younger."

HIV is growing at a larger rate among minority youths ages 13 to 24 than any other segment of the population. The coalition has targeted its HIV prevention programs mainly among its youth but has always had a primary goal of educating the general Native American population about HIV awareness and prevention.

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