Ryelynn Melton is like many girls her age.
She loves makeup, spending 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 the cleanup afterwards, according to her mother.
Unlike most teenagers, however, Ryelynn caught the eye of the media when she was crowned prom princess at 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 that moment, doors opened for Ryelynn’s voice to capture the audience’s ear.
And she has a lot to say.
Ryelynn is strongly interested in developing an advocacy platform for causes she believes in, such as LGBTQ issues and MMIW – Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.
“I always wanted to be a public figure and have my voice heard,” the teenager said.
“I want to be a social influencer. Or do politics.
Transgender Native Americans are referred to as “two-spirited” people and were historically held in high regard, said Katrina Melton, the teenager’s mother.
The definition and history of the term, including the abbreviated “2S”, may vary from group to group. “Two-Spirit” was invented in the 1990s to include Indigenous people in their communities. Although the term can be included as part of LGBTQ, it does not simply mean someone who is Native American or Alaska Native and gay, according to the Federal Indian Health Service.
Traditionally, Two-Spirit Native Americans were men, women, and sometimes intersex individuals who combined the activities of men and women with traits unique to their Two-Spirit status, the agency says on its webpage.
In a Native American community, people’s roles are often fluid, said Randall Melton, Ryelynn’s father and exhibit curator for the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute near Pendleton, and the same can apply to gender-variant members. .
When Ryelynn realized she was transgender, she wasn’t worried about the perspective of the outside world, but she cared about what her tribal community thought, Katrina Melton recalled.
“Most everyone agrees and likes…and you have all these older two-spirit people.”
The causes that matter
Ryelynn, the youngest of six children being raised in the home (including foster children), counts her family – ranging from her siblings to community elders – as her main support group.
Growing up, Ryelynn began to flex some advocacy muscles in the fifth grade, when everyone joined in the 15-hour drive to the Dakota Access Pipeline Standing Rock Sioux Tribe protest.
The tribe’s position was that the proposed massive pipeline location posed a serious threat to their land 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.
Back home, Ryelynn quickly waved and marched with her family at other protests, including supporting Black Lives Matter.
Now the teenager uses those experiences to research issues before adding her voice to a cause, she said.
“I want to make sure I agree and support the cause.”
Like clean energy and the preservation of natural resources, said Katrina Melton.
“Just yesterday, she ordered some better-for-the-environment cat litter.
Over the past school year, Ryelynn persuaded her 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 be supported with these philanthropic funds, Ryelynn convinced her classmates that the LGBTQ-focused nonprofit Basic Rights Oregon embraces people of color, homeless people and d others who may be discriminated against because of sexual orientation, she said.
But it took time and work for Ryelynn to reach this level of strength, her mother said.
Just as her youngest child was entering seventh grade, Katrina Melton noticed that Ryelynn was uncharacteristically reluctant to attend school.
Talking about it led to a revelation that things were changing for the college kid.
Ryelynn began to realize that she was different from how she presented at birth but, as is often the case with transgender people, she initially thought she must be bisexual.
“I went from bi to gay to trans, but I don’t consider myself straight,” Ryelynn explained.
None of this matters to the Meltons.
“My kids all know people who identify differently, and they were very accepting of how Rye was feeling,” Katrina Melton said.
“It really wasn’t a conversation, Rye being trans. It was just you, wearing makeup,” she told her daughter.
Makeup was everything, the two agreed with a laugh.
“I didn’t start doing makeup until seventh grade that summer. I wasn’t deeply into makeup, and then I started getting into it. I went absolutely crazy with it, like wearing 400-pound lashes,” Ryelynn 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 as a gender different from their birth sex, Katrina Melton said.
For these people, it seems easier to associate Ryelynn’s new gender identity with what she experienced when she was 8 years old.
It was 2015. Randall Melton was out of town and Katrina Melton was having a long-awaited night out 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 abused the child in various ways.
The man was sentenced to three years in federal prison, but it is Ryelynn who should receive a life sentence, her mother said.
Even though her youngest child went to counseling the minute the abuse came to light and continued for “years and years,” the trauma remains with Ryelynn, she added.
It boiled over in 2019 during a suicide attempt, apparently triggered by a disagreement between Ryelynn and a good friend.
“Looking back, I feel like they were such small issues,” the teenager recalled.
Afterwards, Ryelynn began having panic attacks, missing more days of school than otherwise; homeschooling online has become the healthier option, Katrina Melton said.
Ryelynn has returned to Nixya’awii for eighth grade and is doing well again, although she suffers from trust issues and worries about being hurt again – which makes publicly acknowledging being transgender pretty much a superpower, according to his parents.
To add wearing the flowiest dress adorned with sparkles to prom and being crowned princess?
“At that age, I would never have had the courage to do that. She’s amazing,” Katrina Melton said.
“I am,” Ryelynn agreed.
That prom win did something nothing else has done.
“I think it empowered you,” Katrina Melton told her daughter.
“I see great growth. She was always confident, but I feel like there was more recklessness before… now there is a maturity.
At a recent family wedding, comments were made about Ryelynn wearing a dress and makeup. This would normally have made her daughter storm out, Katrina Melton said.
“But now she can stay respectful and she’s made her point.”
Still, her upcoming sophomore year will test that, Ryelynn predicted.
“I 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 vending machine, have lunch and go to philanthropy.
Ryelynn’s next frontier is to make her body match her mind.
“I want to start taking hormones, and I want to find a good surgeon and do some surgeries, as soon as possible,” she said.
“I think it’s urgent for my mental health.”
This is where her parents want to slow down their daughter’s career a little.
“Rye has never had regular surgery for anything,” Katrina Melton pointed out. “She may not realize it, but these are major surgeries.”
The Meltons are doing 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 “Proud Together Pride Parade” in mid-June, for example, there needed to be some serious conversation, Katrina Melton said.
“We 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 Two-Spirit Native Americans have played particular roles in the past for their community, Ryelynn has a task similar to hers – that of education. Through her advocacy for various causes, she has worked to raise awareness not only of the struggles that LGBTQ people face, but also those that Native Americans face.
It’s a great moment in the history of Indigenous peoples, said Katrina Melton, and she couldn’t be more proud that her daughter is a part of it.