As a child, Jack Malstrom was obsessed with Speedy Gonzales and showered with gifts like Taco Bell plushies and T-shirts with the Mexican flag.
Today, Malstrom understands that those offerings were rooted in tired tropes and stereotypes, but nonetheless appreciates the effort their parents made.
“They did the best they could,” Malstrom said. “They didn’t know there was any organization that really helped. Especially back then, there wasn’t any help, you know, for white parents to raise multiracial kids.”
A not-so-subtle narrative of Mexican American identity took shape. It wasn’t until years later that Malstrom, who uses they/them pronouns, discovered something that made the entire narrative fall apart. They were actually Indigenous.
A Family Secret Revealed
Malstrom was born in Compton, California in the spring of 1989. Their birth mother had found out she was pregnant at 15 and made the decision to choose adoption for Malstrom without notifying or consulting the birth father, who was in prison at the time for a gang-related shooting.
Malstrom’s adoptive parents became active in their life before they were even born, forming a strong bond with the birth mother and showing up at Malstrom’s birth.
“My birth mom met my adoptive parents, and they got along like a house on fire. They were best friends,” Malstrom said. “My parents always say, ‘If we could have adopted you both, we would have.”’
Malstrom’s adoptive family lived in Hayward, California until Malstrom was 2, then relocated to Portland before finally settling in Hillsboro, a predominantly white city outside of Portland where Malstrom was raised.
“Both my parents are white,” Malstrom said. “We adopted a little boy, my brother Jake, who was also white. So I stood out a lot — in family pictures, in the neighborhood, on my soccer team, and in my classroom.”
Malstrom always knew they were adopted, and their parents made sure they had a relationship with their birth mother, sending update letters and scheduling phone calls. At 13, Malstrom met her for the first time.
At the time of adoption, Malstrom’s birth mother only listed her Hispanic ethnicity on the paperwork, with no mention of their birth father’s information.
Malstrom said their adoptive parents, believing their child to be Mexican American, did their best to raise them connected to their Hispanic heritage.
Malstrom endured microaggressions and racial slurs. White friends and classmates would call them “one of the good ones,” referring to other Hispanics, but on the other hand Malstrom didn’t quite fit in with Hispanic people either.
“When people try to speak Spanish to me, and I say, ‘I don’t speak Spanish,’ they get this really confused look, because I look a certain way,” Malstrom said. “I’ve always looked a certain way and never actually fulfilled that assumption for people.”
This identity crisis took yet another turn when, at 18, Malstrom’s birth father hired a private investigator to find them. Once contacted, Malstrom was unsure what to do.
Malstrom said they were never curious about creating a relationship with their birth father because they already had a dad, but their birth mother wanted to hear what he had to say.
This was the first time since before Malstrom was born that their birth mother had spoken to the father. She found out he sincerely wanted to be involved in Malstrom’s life, but left it up to them to decide if they wanted to pursue it.
“So, I talked to him on the phone and got to know him,” Malstrom said. “And then that’s when he was like, ‘Yeah, you’re Indian.’ And I was like, ‘Huh?’”
Many people had assumed Malstrom was Native American, but Malstrom always said they were Mexican American because that’s what they were told.
“I mean, that’s the thing with adoptees, is identity is such a fragile topic and a fragile thing because it can shift at any point,” Malstrom said.
After Malstrom found out their birth father is enrolled Akimel O’odham from the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona, they talked with their birth mother and discovered she was Yaqui, an Indigenous people from Mexico.
She told Malstrom that their grandfather, after moving to Los Angeles, adopted a Mexican American identity to fit in better, and that’s how the family came to identify as Hispanic.
Malstrom felt confused and heartbroken after learning of this secret.
“I had impostor syndrome like crazy, like, I felt absolutely ridiculous, not knowing anything,” Malstrom said. “I had already gone through life with people speaking Spanish to me, and then actually getting upset with me because I don’t speak Spanish, and being like, ‘How do you look the way you look and you don’t speak Spanish? What’s wrong with you?’”
The decision by Malstrom’s birth mother to not put the father’s name on paperwork had other repercussions, such as Malstrom’s exclusion from the purview of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), which was passed in 1978 in response to the alarmingly high number of American Indian and Alaskan Native children being removed from their homes by both public and private agencies.
“I kind of fell through the cracks with ICWA,” Malstrom said.
Advocacy and Radio
Today, 33-year-old Malstrom is the director of the Portland Two Spirit Society, a drag performer by the name of Gila Suspectum, a Two-Spirit and adoptee advocate, a prominent local DJ, and a radio host at KBOO, an independent member-supported, non-commercial, volunteer-powered community radio station in Portland.
While searching online for a next career move, Malstrom stumbled across KBOO and was drawn to the station’s free training for people interested in radio. Malstrom jumped at the opportunity. For eight years since, they have been on air co-hosting the Rose City Native Radio show, airing every Thursday from 6-7 p.m.
“I thought, ‘Oh, I’m gonna come there, I’m gonna learn how to do the board, I’ll be there for three months tops, and then I’ll get hired at Z100,’” they said. “Well, three months obviously turned into eight years.”
John Talley had previously hosted an Indigenous program on KBOO for more than 30 years. After Talley passed away, the station was looking to fill the slot with another Indigenous host. Malstrom worried about not meeting expectations but, after careful deliberation, accepted the position.
Delphine Criscenzo, KBOO’s interim station manager, has been with Malstrom from the beginning, starting out as a volunteer herself. She taught Malstrom about board operations and how to develop a format for creating a nuanced version of the show.
“They were interested in youth culture, they were interested in music, they were interested in comics and are interested in other things,” Criscenzo said, “and I think also breaking some of the stereotypes.”
Malstrom established a show focused on amplifying the voices of Indigenous community members and providing education and mentorship opportunities for Indigenous youth to break into radio or identify other career paths.
“The word was just spread within the community that Thursday at six o’clock was the ‘Native show,’” Criscenzo said. “Sometimes we would just show up at the station, and there’d be people just wanting to be interviewed. So, that, for me, was just a beautiful symbol, like showing that we were doing our job and that Jack was really doing a stellar job in the community.”
The job also led to Malstrom covering the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA) conference, where they met Sandy White Hawk, another adoptee, who holds a healing circle for Native adoptees.
“That was where I first met Native adoptees, and I’ve been a part of that ceremony for many years since,” they said. “That was my healing ceremony.”
Malstrom told their story on air and at the conference and realized other adoptees shared their pent-up anger and trauma. Everyone could relate to what Malstrom had been feeling their whole life.
“To have a group of people who were like me, who accepted me and knew what I was going through because they were going through it, too, was so validating and empowering,” Malstrom said.
For centuries, Two-Spirit individuals have played vital roles in Indigenous communities, known for being Holy people, doctors, matchmakers, foster parents, and peacemakers for their tribes because it is believed their bodies simultaneously house a masculine spirit and a feminine spirit.
Coined in Winnipeg, Canada in 1990, Two-Spirit was a term created to serve as a placeholder for the individual names tribes had for their various pre-contact gender, sex and sexuality identities and expressions.
According to Souksavanh Keovorabouth, a Ph.D. student at Oregon State University in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies whose current research is on urbanization and Two-Spirit identity through colonization, those names were taken away, and until those names can be remembered and found again, Two-Spirit is used.
“Two-Spirit, such as queer, is an umbrella term that encapsulates diverse gender, sex and sexuality,” Keovorabouth said.
Keovorabouth, who uses they/them pronouns, is Diné from the Navajo Nation and identifies as Nadleeh, which means a balance of masculine and feminine energies to the Diné peoples.
Keovorabouth explained that the term “Two-Spirit” is not to be confused with the western understanding of LGBTQIA+, but rather an Indigenous-specific definition of gender, sex and sexuality that predates colonial contact.
Malstrom’s own understanding of Two-Spirit developed over time, and although the term wasn’t in their nomenclature growing up, Malstrom was blessed as a child to live in an accepting and loving environment.
“My parents used to say when I was younger, ‘We’ll love you whether you bring home a boy or girl,’” Malstrom said. “I was like, ‘Oh, cool! I can be friends with anyone.’ Like it just went right over my head, but it was never a thing. I never came out to my parents.”
Having this background allowed Malstrom to explore and express themself openly at a young age, but they wanted to learn more.
They found the Portland Two Spirit Society and joined. Thus began the self-education journey of discovering what it means to be Two-Spirit. The group went to Standing Rock, and Malstrom assisted with the Two-Spirit camp there.
Meeting and talking with other Two-Spirit people helped Malstrom gradually understand the complex meaning of the term.
“It took me about a year and a half of asking and learning before I finally was like, ‘OK, I think I have a comfortable enough grip of what is expected, and what this actually is, and this is me. Everything that it describes, that is me,’” Malstrom said.
Malstrom began identifying with Two-Spirit and working to increase awareness and provide positive representation of Two-Spirit people in the Portland LGBTQIA+ community. They helped the Portland Two Spirit Society lead the Pride Parade for a number of years and set up a tipi for people to visit and ask questions.
Since 2016, Malstrom has served as an independent contractor and consultant teaching state and tribal child welfare workers how to work with Two-Spirit and LGBTQIA+ Indigenous children, including how to help keep them connected to their communities and culture, and how to be culturally responsive.
Malstrom also developed a Two-Spirit 101 guide to help explain the history of the Two-Spirit identity and roles of Two-Spirit people. Malstrom has worked with nine different tribes across the U.S., including their own Pascua Yaqui Tribe.
Due to the pandemic, the Portland Two Spirit Society has slowed down, but Malstrom wants to gear up for a revival.
“As part of my dream of the Two Spirit Society, as we continue to grow back up again and build it back up, is to be able to be that lighthouse for people who are looking to find some way to connect with people in this really white city,” Malstrom said. “But also having a group of people who are able to understand what you’re going through to support you and walk you through whatever identity you are looking for.”
Since taking on the role of director at the Portland Two Spirit Society four years ago, Malstrom acknowledges that there is a lot of work yet to be done to address deeply ingrained homophobia, not only in Indigenous communities, but America at large.
“Still, all these hundreds of years later,” Malstrom said, “there’s a lot of healing that needs to be done, but, again, as the Two Spirit Society, that’s kind of our goal — to help heal our communities in that way.”
If you or someone you know is wanting to learn more about Indigenous adoptees or what it means to be Two-Spirit, please consider visiting these resources:
First Nations Repatriation Institute is a national nonprofit organization that offers advocacy and support to Native adoptees, fostered individuals and their families.
Native American Youth and Family Center offers safe, privacy-protected space for cultural, social, supportive and other programming to Two-Spirit youth and allies.
Jarrette Werk is an Indigenous affairs reporter and photographer for Underscore News and a Report for America corps member. His work is made possible by a partnership between Underscore News and RFA, a journalism service project founded by the nonprofit GroundTruth Project. Community support is crucial to funding the Underscore News/RFA partnership. To support this partnership and Jarrette’s important work, please make a donation here.