San Francisco’s Cow Palace has hosted livestock expositions, Rolling Stones concerts, and a U.S. heavyweight championship.
But this Saturday, it was home to something really special: the nation’s only Native American powwow for “two-spirited” tribe members that's open to the public.
Two-spirited people don’t all define themselves in the same way. Many say they embody both male and female characteristics, and that such a role was recognized and honored by their tribes before colonization. Others might identify as gay when they’re around outsiders.
At the Cow Palace, they came together seeking community, and to raise awareness of some of the issues that LGBT people face on reservations, like hate crimes and high rates of suicide.
The term “two-spirit” is a relatively modern term but the concept is not. Recently the concept of a more complicated gender system has become fairly common in the mainstream: Half of all Millennials believe that gender exists on a spectrum and that it is not limited to the categories of male and female, according to a Fusion poll released last week.
Open to the public, the Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirit Powwow, is the only event of its kind in the nation. Organizers estimated two thousand people attended the powwow on Saturday.
Fusion asked attendees at the powwow what it means to be Native American and two-spirit.
San Francisco, Calif.
Landa Lakes grew up in a Christian home in a Chickasaw tribal community in Oklahoma.
Lakes has always identified as someone who fell in the gay spectrum.
“But once I learned that two-spirit was a term coined by our own native people then I knew it was something that I could embrace,” said Lakes, who helped organize the powwow on Saturday.
Lakes defines two-spirit as the mixture of masculine and feminine.
“The term two-spirit also helps solidify who we are and puts us in a category that’s a little bit different from the modern-day culture because we’re trying to keep to our traditions that left when we left our rural settings for more urban settings.”
(Landa Lakes is Miko Thomas' self chosen name. "It's a tongue-in-cheek reference for the famous butter mascot because I like to point out that even in today's world we're still using native people as mascots.")
New York City
Sheldon Raymore grew up in South Dakota on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation.
“Two-spirit means being born with a male and a female spirit,” said Raymore, who was the lead two-spirit dancer at Saturday’s event. Raymore had several regalia changes, performing as both male and female.
“Two-spirit is the appropriate word to use in today’s society,” said Raymore, who said his Lakota people have a native term for people that identify with both spirits.
“We went from living in tee-pees to living in houses, so in every sense of the way things have changed. But we’ve managed to survive and carry on our traditions and our language to stay true to who we are as a people.”
Talon Stammers, 17
“Two-spirit means you have two parts to your spirit, the feminine and masculine side, as well as those gender identities that aren’t necessarily woman and man,” said Talon Stammers.
Stammers said going to the powwow was important because it helped two-spirited people heal together.
“When the conquistadors and the different travelers changed everything by colonizing it they made it so that it wasn’t socially acceptable to be two-spirit,” Stammers said. “Now we’re coming back together to heal one another who have been hurt by this.”
(Males and female Native Americans with ‘two-spirits’ have been documented in over 130 North American tribes. French Jesuit missionary Joseph-François Lafitau noted "men who dress as women" in the book "Customs of the American Savages" in 1724.)
Talon is in high school and is openly two-spirit.
“I go to school with a lot of people that have widely varying identities so it’s not a big deal amongst them that I’m two-spirit.”
There were scenes at the two-spirit pow that were unusual even to people who regularly attend pow-wows. There was a special contest only for transgender-identified dancers, which the head dancer performed in as both as a male and female dance. Someone named Charlie Tippie Toe Ballard came in full regalia, including a wig that made him at least two feet taller.
Charlie Tippie Toe Ballard
“Two-spirit is a whole person that embodies feminine and masculine traits. They are caring and all around good people, friend to everyone,” said Charlie Tippie Toe Ballard, whose mother is Anishinaabe from Michigan and father is from the Sac and Fox Nation in Oklahoma.
“If people want to call me two-spirit, that’s fine, but I’m Charlie.”
Spirit Wildcat, 31
Fort Hall, Idaho
Spirit Wildcat said she traveled to the powwow from Fort Hall, Idaho, to show solidarity.
“I came here to represent the Montana two-spirit society as one of the first royalties that they’ve had,” said Wildcat, a member of the Shoshone-Bannock tribe.
“As long as both female and male spirits are within you, then you can identify as two-spirit.”
Bay Area, Calif.
Derek Smith says having two spirits means that you walk in two worlds.
“Really all of us should have that have that feminine and masculine side. Wether we’re nurturing or providing, or hunting and gathering, we always have those roles to play,” said Smith, who is Anishinaabe.
Smith said he most commonly identifies as a gay man unless he’s around other Native Americans.
“Explaining what two-spirit means can be complicated, if I was in a non-native community most of the time I don’t think I would identify as two spirit because it’s inviting this long conversation that people may not understand,” said Smith, who helped organize the powwow.
“Queer and gay are also fine, I don’t think it’s different.”
Bay Area, Calif.
“The term two-spirit is a modern term so when people hear that term they automatically assume it’s male and female, which is how many people define it," said Ruth Villasenor.
"But to me it’s more of a historical reminder that before colonization all of our tribes had multiple genders. There were terms for various genders in all of our nations and we were known by the roles we played in our communities, not our genders.”
Villasenor is one of the founders of the two-spirit powwow.
Aiden Warrior, 27
Aiden Warrior defines two-spirit as a third gender but points out there’s another important element required: a connection to the tribe.
“Someone who is two-spirit is actively participating in our culture,” said Warrior, who is an enrolled member of the Echota Cherokee Tribe of Alabama. “We are at ceremonies, we’re at powwow functions and our culture is a part of us.”
“Historically my tribe included two-spirit people, but currently they don’t celebrate it because of the influence from white settlers,” Warrior said.
Jacob Edwards Dunlap
Jacob Edwards Dunlap said he traveled two hours from Sacramento for a sense of community.
“I’m looking for connections and a place of belonging,” said Dunlap, who said he is Anishinaabe.
Dunlap defines two-spirit as a gender term.
“Two spirit is not necessarily related to my sexuality but it exist in relation to my gender. Two Spirit in relationship to my tribe means that I inherently have spiritual gifts—or what some people call medicine—to offer to the community.”