Ryelynn Melton is like a lot of girls her age.
She loves makeup and spends hours creating art on her face. She loves jewelry, clothes and her dog, Riley.
She teases her parents and sometimes responds. She likes to cook but not clean up afterwards, according to her mother.
Unlike most teens, Ryelynn gained media attention when she was crowned prom princess for the Nixya’awii Community School on the Umatilla Indian Reservation on June 3.
The 15-year-old is the first transgender girl to become a charter school prom princess. Because of this moment, doors opened for Ryelynn’s voice to catch the audience’s ear.
And she has a lot to say.
Ryelynn has a strong interest in developing an advocacy platform for causes she believes in, such as LGBTQ issues and MMIW – Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.
âI always wanted to be a public figure and have my voice heard,â the teenager said.
âI want to be a social influencer. Or play politics.
Transgender Native Americans are called âTwo-Spiritâ people and were historically held in high regard, said Katrina Melton, the teenager’s mother.
The definition and history of the term, including the shortcut “2S”, may vary from group to group. The term âTwo-Spiritâ was coined in the 1990s to encompass Aboriginal people in their communities. While the term can be included as part of LGBTQ, it doesn’t simply mean someone who is Native American or Alaska Native and gay, according to the Federal Indian Health Service.
Traditionally, Native American Two-Spirit people have been men, women and sometimes intersex individuals who combined the activities of men and women with characteristics unique to their status as Two-Spirit people, the agency says on its webpage.
In a Native American community, people’s roles are often fluid, said Randall Melton, Ryelynn’s father and curator for the TamÃ¡stslikt Cultural Institute near Pendleton, and so are members of a different gender.
When Ryelynn realized she was transgender, she didn’t care about the outside world, but she did care what her tribal community thought, Katrina Melton recalls.
“Almost everyone accepted and liked … and you have all these older Two Spirit people.”
Causes that matter
Ryelynn, the youngest of six children raised in the household (including foster children), counts her family – ranging from siblings to community elders – as her primary support group.
Growing up, Ryelynn started building advocacy muscles in fifth grade, when everyone joined in to drive 3pm to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The tribe’s position was that the location of the proposed massive pipeline posed a serious threat to their lands and survival and would destroy valuable cultural resources.
It was one of the first militant moments for the Melton family, but it was not the last.
Upon her return home, Ryelynn was soon making signs and marching with her family in other protests, including supporting Black Lives Matter.
Now the teenager is using those experiences to research issues before adding her voice to a cause, she said.
âI want to make sure I agree and support the cause. “
Like clean energy and the preservation of natural resources, said Katrina Melton.
âJust yesterday she ordered cat litter which is better for the environment.
In the past school year, Ryelynn persuaded his social studies classmates to help support an LGBTQ organization through a school-based youth philanthropy program called CommuniCare.
As the students campaigned for different causes to support with these philanthropic funds, Ryelynn convinced his classmates that the LGBTQ-focused nonprofit Basic Rights Oregon includes people of color, homeless people. and others who may be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation, she said.
But it took time and work for Ryelynn to reach that level of strength, her mother said.
Just as her youngest child had started seventh grade, Katrina Melton noticed that Ryelynn was unusually resistant to the idea of ââgoing to school.
Talking about it led to a revelation that things were about to change for the college kid.
Ryelynn began to understand that she was different from what she presented at birth but, as is often the case with transgender people, she initially thought she must be bisexual.
âI went from bi to gay to trans, but I don’t consider myself straight,â Ryelynn explained.
None of this matters to the Meltons.
âMy kids all know people who identify differently, and they were very happy with how Rye was feeling,â Katrina Melton said.
âIt really wasn’t a conversation, Rye being trans. It was just you in makeup, âshe told her daughter.
Makeup was everything, the two agreed with a laugh.
âI didn’t start doing makeup until seventh grade that summer. I wasn’t very interested in makeup, and then I started to get into it. I went completely crazy with it, like wearing 400 pound lashes, âRyelynn said.
Her older sisters, she pointed out, wear neutral colors in cosmetics and leave drama in Ryelynn’s face.
There are a few older people around them who have a hard time understanding those who identify with a gender other than their birth sex, Katrina Melton said.
For these people, it seems easier to associate Ryelynn’s new gender identity with what she went through when she was 8 years old.
It was 2015. Randall Melton was out of town and Katrina Melton was spending a long overdue evening with friends at the Pendleton Round-Up. When she got home, Ryelynn stuck to her like glue, refusing to sleep alone.
The story that quickly emerged was horrific. A young man who had been very close to the Melton family for years had sexually assaulted the child in various ways.
The man was sentenced to three years in federal prison, but it is Ryelynn who should be given a life sentence, his mother said.
Even when her youngest child came into consultation as soon as the abuse came to light and continued for “years and years,” the trauma remains with Ryelynn, she added.
This spilled over in 2019 into a suicide attempt, apparently sparked by a disagreement between Ryelynn and a good friend.
âLooking back, I feel like these were such small issues,â the teenager recalls.
Thereafter, Ryelynn began to have panic attacks, missing more days of school than not; online home education has become the healthier option, said Katrina Melton.
Ryelynn returned to Nixya’awii for eighth grade and is doing well again, although she suffers from trust issues and fears that she will be hurt again – so publicly acknowledging being transgender is pretty much a superpower, feel his parents.
Add to it by wearing the most ruffled sequin-embellished dress to the ball and being crowned a princess?
âAt that age, I would never have had the courage to do that. She’s amazing, âsaid Katrina Melton.
“I am,” Ryelynn agreed.
That prom victory did something nothing else did.
âI think it gave you power,â Katrina Melton told her daughter.
âI see big growth. She always trusted herself, but I feel like there was more carelessness before … now there is maturity.
At a recent family wedding, comments were made about Ryelynn wearing a dress and makeup. This would normally have caused her daughter to come out, Katrina Melton said.
“But now she can stay respectful, and she’s made her point.”
Still, his upcoming second year will test that, Ryelynn predicted.
âI want to go back to school to play basketball and see my teacher, Michelle. I know there will be negativity, but I don’t mind. I’m just going to go to the ATM, have my lunch, and go to philanthropy.
Ryelynn’s next frontier is to match her body to her mind.
âI want to start taking hormones, and I want to find a good surgeon and have some surgeries, as soon as possible,â she said.
âI think it’s urgent for my mental health.
This is where her parents want to slow down their daughter’s journey a bit.
âRye has never had regular surgery for anything,â Katrina Melton said. “She might not realize it, but these are major surgeries.”
The Meltons do their best to prepare Ryelynn for a world that might not be well prepared for her.
Prior to their daughter’s participation in Pendleton’s âProud Together Pride Paradeâ in mid-June, for example, there had to be some serious conversation, Katrina Melton said.
âWe told him, ‘It can bring a lot of hate and people who don’t support the cause. And they will come out of the shadows.
Ryelynn is ready now, it seems.
Just as Native American Two-Spirit people have played a special role in the past for their community, Ryelynn has a similar task to hers – that of education. By advocating for a variety of causes, she has worked to raise awareness not only of the challenges LGBTQ people face, but also those faced by Native Americans.
It’s a great moment in the history of Indigenous peoples, said Katrina Melton, and she couldn’t be prouder to have her daughter a part of it.