Barbara May Cameron was a Native American photographer, poet, writer, and human rights activist who dedicated her life to various causes, including lesbian/gay rights, women’s rights, and Native American rights. She was a co-founder of the Gay American Indians, the first gay American Indian liberation organization, and a contributor to several anthologies of writings by radical women of color. She also served as a delegate for Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition and a commissioner for the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. She died on February 12, 2002, due to natural causes, according to her family. She was 47 years old.
Early Life and Education
Barbara May Cameron was born on May 22, 1954, on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota. She was a Hunkpapa Lakota from the Fort Yates band of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. She grew up with her grandparents, who taught her the traditional values and culture of her people. She completed her early education and high schooling on the reservation.
She developed an interest in photography and film at a young age and decided to pursue her passion at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She graduated from there in 1973 and moved to San Francisco to attend the San Francisco Art Institute. She also studied at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, Los Angeles.
Career and Activism
As a photographer and filmmaker, Cameron won media and theater arts awards for her work. She documented the lives and struggles of Native American and LGBTQIA+ communities through her lens. She also wrote poems, essays, and screenplays that expressed her identity and vision. Her screenplay “Long Time, No See” remained unfinished at her death.
Cameron was also a prominent activist who fought for social justice and human rights. In 1975, she co-founded the Gay American Indians (GAI) with Randy Burns, a Northern Paiute. GAI was the first organization that addressed the needs and issues of Native American gay people, who faced discrimination and oppression from both inside and outside their communities. GAI also celebrated the diversity and history of Native American cultures and their acceptance of gender variance and sexual diversity.
Cameron also contributed to several anthologies that showcased the voices and perspectives of women of color, especially lesbians. In 1978, she wrote a chapter for Our Right to Love: A Lesbian Resource Book. In 1981, she wrote an essay titled “Gee, You Don’t Seem Like an Indian from the Reservation” for This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. In 1983, she wrote a poem called “I Become” for A Gathering of Spirit: A Collection of Writing and Art by North American Indian Women.
Cameron also participated in organizing the Lesbian Gay Freedom Day Parade and Celebration from 1980 to 1985. She co-led a lawsuit against the Immigration and Naturalization Service for its policy of denying entry to gay people. She won the case in 1984. She also became involved in politics and advocacy at the local and national levels. She was vice president of the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club and co-chair for Lesbian Agenda for Action in the late 1980s. She also traveled to Nicaragua with a group of women called Somos Hermanas (We are sisters) to support and learn from the women there.
In 1988, she served as a delegate for Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition to the Democratic National Convention. She also was appointed by Dianne Feinstein, then San Francisco Mayor, to the Citizens Committee on Community Development and the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. She continued to work for various organizations and causes until her death.
Legacy and Recognition
Barbara May Cameron left behind a legacy of courage, creativity, and compassion. She inspired many people with her work and activism. She was honored by several awards and recognitions during her lifetime and after her death.
In 1996, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Bay Area Career Women. In 1997, she received the Two-Spirit Award from OutRight International (formerly International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission). In 2002, she was posthumously inducted into the Chicago Gay & Lesbian Hall of Fame. In 2003, she was posthumously awarded the Creating Change Award by the National LGBTQ Task Force.
In 2021, she was featured in a Google Doodle on what would have been her 67th birthday. The doodle was created by queer Mexican and Chitimachan artist Sienna Gonzales, who collaborated with Cameron’s partner Linda Boyd-Durkee on the project. The doodle depicted Cameron holding a camera and a pride flag, surrounded by women from different backgrounds and cultures. The background showed the cityscape of San Francisco and the mountains of North Dakota.
Barbara May Cameron cause of death was a loss for many people who loved and admired her. She was a trailblazer and a leader who made a difference in the world. She will always be remembered for her contributions and achievements.