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Two-Spirit Culture Takes Center Stage at Powwow

by Michael Nugent

Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirit members Jim Eagle, left, Ruth Villaseñor, and Aja Archuleta encourage people to come to the powwow next weekend.
Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirit members Jim Eagle, left, Ruth Villaseñor, and Aja Archuleta encourage people to come to the powwow next weekend.  (Source:Michael Nugent)

LGBTs and others can celebrate and learn about two-spirit Native Americans at the Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirit Powwow that takes place next weekend in San Francisco.

BAAITS' seventh annual event will be held Saturday, February 3, at Fort Mason. Dancers will make their grand entry at noon.

The event, which is free, is an educational and spiritual gathering open to all people. Two spirit is a native term that generally refers to LGBTQ people.

Long a dream of the BAAITS community, the Two-Spirit Powwow comes with a desire to heal the wounds of the past.

"I've been involved in BAAITS since the 1990s," said Ruth Villaseñor, 60, a Chiricahua, Apache, and Mexican two spirit. "We talked about having a powwow since the beginning. I've seen trans people thrown out of other powwows because their gender presentation didn't match the regalia they were wearing. This powwow allows two-spirit people to return to the circle in gender identity, and allow allies to dance side by side."

The rediscovery of indigenous heritage and the BAAITS community has profoundly affected two-spirit people.

"When I first heard about the powwow, it came when I had just discovered my indigenous heritage," said Aja Archuleta, 30, a Cherokee and Spanish two spirit. "It was an instant call, and I found a role in BAAITS right away. I had always felt an identity with native culture. When I found my indigenous heritage, I could finally own that story.

"Colonization and assimilation erased so many stories. Lots of people may feel something but don't know what it's called or haven't made the connection yet," Archuleta added.

"It felt the same to me," said Villaseñor. "I'd heard of We'Wha and Will Roscoe, but didn't know of a group. My own family didn't embrace native heritage, and wanted to be white - it was safer then. I've had my own process of recovering my historical lineage. Once I found BAAITS, I felt totally connected there. It's been incredibly healing to re-embrace native heritage."

We'Wha, a Zuni Native American two-spirit/mixed gender tribal leader, was included in the recent group of Rainbow Honor Walk plaques that was installed in the Castro. Roscoe is a gay scholar.

Villaseñor noted that people her age didn't always come out as LGBT.

"People in my generation didn't share that they're gay," she said. "When I finally connected with Arizona relatives, they all knew; I was embraced. I saw my first Apache crown dancers, and my cousin took me everywhere. I didn't know I could feel a calling to the land so deeply."

This powwow celebrates fluid gender roles, a transformative element, said organizers.

"The significance can't be understated," said Jim Eagle, 52, a Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate (Sioux nation) cis male two spirit. "Women and men tend to be separated in powwows, with different dances. Here, two-spirit people can be in whatever dance they like."

"The cis-male staff will dress in female regalia for the grand entry," said Villaseñor. "There's also a rainbow flag as part of the procession."

She also pointed to the importance of drumming.

"The powwow can feel like such an openhearted blessing. As a female and drummer, I haven't always been welcome to drum, but here I am," said Villaseñor. "The round drum is sort of a powwow in itself. Not a specific tribe's drum tradition, so it's open."

The first Two-Spirit Powwow was at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center.

"Courtney Cummings, the founder of the Richmond Powwow, and her family were great allies; they helped out a lot. I was so worried no one would come, and then we had 500 people. I was shocked," said Villaseñor. "Then, people didn't understand it wasn't only for gays; they didn't know what it meant to be an out ally. Now we have 3,000-plus people. Last year we got the Gilbert Baker Award from SF Pride, and the powwow got so much more visibility."


Diversity of Culture

As part of the Powwow, the great diversity of native cultures will be present.

"The Bay Area is extremely inter-tribal; we have a large native population here," said Villaseñor.

Eagle pointed out that not all tribes have powwows.

"Powwows are mostly a Midwestern tribal tradition, not for all tribes, but all have a dance and a gathering. The Ohlone call it big time," said Eagle.

All people are welcome and encouraged to attend the San Francisco event.

"I find non-natives unsure if they can come, and Bay Area white people being concerned about taking up space from people of color," said Archuleta. "They are welcome to attend and watch the powwow. And all native-identified people are invited to participate in the ceremony."

In a news release, Derek Smith, powwow coordinator, said that the event is a great opportunity for non-native people to get introduced to two-spirit culture.

"For some native community members it's a reminder of the role of two spirits in our community," Smith stated. "It's an amazing opportunity for healing."

Eagle added, "The powwow is a perfect opportunity to learn about native culture in a fun, relaxing environment and bridge communities. There's a big monitor giving info about what's happening, all the dances, their origins and significance."

Vendors, food stands, and nonprofit groups will also be present. The Horizons Foundation, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and the Ducal Court Foundation are among groups supporting the powwow. While there is no admission, organizers said donations will be collected at the door.

As part of BAAITS' 20th anniversary next year, even bigger plans are in the works.

"There will be an exhibit at the GLBT History Museum. We also hope to have every two-spirit group in the country at that powwow," said Villaseñor.

Finally, individual and collective intentions imbue the BAAITS Two-Spirit Powwow with its power and joy, organizers said.

"As this is my first powwow, I hope to get more deeply connected with BAAITS and two spirits, and forge intergenerational relationships," said Archuleta. "As I learn and dig deeper in prayer circle, I'll also hold the larger scale of two spirits' kaleidoscopic path to where we are today."

"Spiritually, I look for the diversity of people going," said Eagle. "There are representatives of so many nations of native peoples."

Added Villaseñor, "All allies to native two spirits: go back and share what you saw at the powwow. Please have our backs, know our experience, and remember what the traditional values really were."


BAAITS' Two-Spirit Powwow takes place February 3 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Fort Mason, 2 Marina Boulevard in San Francisco. It is a family-friendly, clean and sober event. Street attire is encouraged for non-natives. Organizers ask that costumes be left at home. For more information, visit http://www.baaits.org

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