Feeling at home in your body and identity isn’t always easy, especially when the world has tried to erase you. While many Native American tribes embrace Two-spirit souls, the indigenous term for people who embody both masculine and feminine qualities, the moving documentary “Being Thunder” shows that gender expansive people face as much discrimination in indigenous communities as they do in other parts of society. Through the everyday experiences of Sherenté Harris, a precocious Two-spirit teenager from Rhode Island’s Narragansett tribe, “Being Thunder” tracks the gradual blossoming of an emerging activist into a force of nature.
Directed by French filmmaker Stéphanie Lamorré, “Being Thunder” takes a respectfully intimate approach to documenting Sherenté’s journey, which they walk with a tight-knit and supportive family. Taking an observational approach, the film rarely explains the customs and culture it so intimately captures, only addressing an outsider perspective when Sherenté is seen leading educational tours. Instead, viewers are let in on sacred rituals and community gatherings, following Sherenté’s lived experience closely. Whether speaking to the community or the interviewer behind the camera, Sherenté is wise beyond their years, often doling out incisive reflections in poetic speeches.
“Being Thunder” opens on a family ritual, as members of Sherenté’s tribe burn herbs and pledge their support for Sherenté as a Two-spirit. Speaking with fierce conviction, their mother tells the story of Sherenté’s birth, when they arrived facing up, looking toward the heavens. A passionate advocate for her oldest child, she never misses an opportunity to remind her community that their ancestors revered and respected Two-spirit people, something too many people seem to have forgotten. The Narragansett tribe live in what is now Rhode Island, and she explains that through sheer geography, they were on the front lines of colonization. As the first to experience the destruction and violence of settler colonialism, Eastern indigenous tribes are that much more removed from their history and traditions.
This is what Sherenté is up against when they dance with the girls at the annual regional powwows, a colorful competition of traditional costume and dance. In an early scene, Sherenté places third out of four dancers. Clearly disappointed, Sherenté suspects it’s only a consolation prize to mask the judges’ prejudice. Though they never prohibit them from competing, murmurs that the tribal elders running the powwows don’t actually want Sherenté to compete. Never flagging in their resolve, they dance beautifully and with deep emotion, with traditional shawl regalia fanning out in a bright array of feathers and flowing fabric. If they didn’t compete, the category would be much diminished.
“The most controversial act I ever committed in my life has been being true to myself,” Sherenté announces at a meeting of supporters, during which a tribe elder voices her support as a Two-spirit ally. Lamorré shoots this scene from behind a metal fence and bleachers, the joyful shrieks of children playing in the background. At home too, Sherenté is always surrounded by younger siblings, the bustle of life teeming in a modest home. The youth are looking up to Sherenté, and the elders are witnessing.
Sherenté often makes their most incisive observations while doing their makeup, transported to deeper wisdom as they focus on blending dollops of foundation and carefully lining their eyes. If it weren’t for the rigid gender roles, they might not even wear make-up, they explain, but it’s expected if they want to compete with the girls. They feel the same way about the possibility of medical transition, like surgery or hormones, acknowledging the frustrating chasm between knowing oneself so clearly and still wishing to be seen by the world at large.
As Sherenté must constantly remind their tribe, Two-spirit people have existed for generations. Embodying the spirit of connection to ancestors, they display a remarkable awareness of time and life’s changing seasons. “Being a teenager definitely isn’t easy,” they say as they apply a generous base layer in the mirror. “And I know in the future I’m going to be begging and wishing that I was fifteen years old still.” As Sherenté straddles the lines between masculine and feminine, they also bridge the gap between past and future: Living in the beautiful in between of the blazing present.
A Film Movement release, “Being Thunder” premieres on VOD and various digital platforms on Friday, November 11.