Master basket maker, drag queen, model, activist, and educator Geo Soctomah Neptune is a Two-Spirit member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe from Indian Township, Maine, holding an Indigenous cultural, spiritual, and gender role that occupies a sacred space between masculine and feminine energies.
Since graduating from Dartmouth in 2010, they have often returned to campus, visiting Native American Studies classes, emceeing an Indigenous fashion show, and, at the Hood Museum opening of Madayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala, showing visitors how they make their world-renowned baskets, starting by stripping bark and peeling wafer-thin layers from the trunk of an ash tree cut from the Dartmouth Organic Farm. While hard at work in the lobby, the multi-faceted designer, whose Passamoquoddy name is niskapisuwin, spoke about growing up on a reservation, coming to Dartmouth, and forging, afterwards, a one-of-a-kind career bridging sacred tradition and striking innovation in many forms of art.
Growing up, I always knew I was different from other little boys and girls. One day, my grandmother told me the story that her elders had told her, that there was something different about me, that she needed to protect and watch over me, and that I was going to be important to our people someday. But that was something I had to learn more about. For a paper in high school, I chose to research Two Spirit, which is an umbrella term that describes the many different culturally specific traditions involving people who are considered in-between, or both male and female. I have to be able to perform men's well as women's jobs, which is why Two Spirits often do more work than others.
Dartmouth was and is really integral for me. I had gone to a boarding school in western Maine, where I was the only Indigenous student. I was invited specifically by Dartmouth's Native fly-in program. Applying wasn't even on my radar. But when I got here and, at our first dinner, heard everybody introducing themselves in their language, I chose Dartmouth so that I could go to school with other Native kids.
I was a drama major, and I had dreams of pursuing a New York acting career. It wasn't until I graduated that I started focusing on my basket-making, which I had learned when I was four years old from my grandmother, Molly Neptune Parker. It was my uncle who said, "I'm sure you'd be great on Broadway, but you are already a famous basket maker. Give that your time and give that your focus."
And I have. Now we have to prepare for the effect of climate change on the ash tree. I am wearing a necklace I made, using basket-weaving techniques with other materials. I think a lot of work that Wabanaki basket makers have done has slowed down damage from the emerald ash borer, which is largely transported by people buying firewood. By using it in baskets, instead, we avoid that. And this crisis will also raise awareness. The price of baskets is elevating, and the door is opening to have our artwork seen as something that goes beyond craft.
To Dartmouth students, I would say, find who you are. Embrace who you are. And don't let anyone or any institution take that away from you.