Two Spirit Pow Wow Celebrates Indigenous Tradition of Gender Diversity
Growing up among his primarily Christian Chickasaw tribal community in Oklahoma, Miko Thomas, suffered a fear of being rejected for his identity as a Two Spirit, a modern term referring to native people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual or gender variant.
Now living in the Bay Area, Thomas said that while some family relations are still strained, the struggle to accept himself became far easier when he learned about the history of Two Spirit people in traditional tribal cultures. Before colonization, many tribes recognized more than two genders (and many still do), and in many cultures Two Spirit people were often healers or had specific societal and ceremonial roles.
“It made me feel less odd to know it wasn’t something introduced by westernization. It meant my Indian identity and Two Spirit identity weren’t separate,” he said. “It’s important that we acknowledge that history that Two Spirit people did exist.”
As a member of the Two Spirits pow wow commitee and organizer of the second annual Bay Area American Indian Two Spirit Powwow, Thomas wanted to emphasize the importance of recognizing and celebrating that history during the event, which was held Feb. 2 at the First Congregational Church Hall in Oakland and drew more than 1,000 people.
Organizers of the event say it’s the only Two Spirit pow wow in the nation that is open to the general public, and it is also a pow wow where Two Spirit people can feel accepted and even dance in their preferred gender categories without being judged.
“There are times when we can feel excluded at pow wows,” said L. Frank Manriquez, Tongva-Acjachemen, a Two Spirit and co-MC. “If a young woman wants to dance in a male category, she’s often met with derision if she’s allowed at all. This pow wow is gently cracking open those gender roles to accept what used to always be accepted in Indian time.”
The pow wow began with prayers and songs by local Ohlone people as the event was being held in their land, and a group of indigenous Pacific Islanders sang and provided a blessing as well. In between the competitions, The Queer Danzantes, a coalition of Aztec Dancers that seeks to promote Two Spirit wisdom, performed warrior dances for the fight for love and culture. There was also a touch of comedy as a few game volunteers made their own cardboard and tin foil regalia and performed outlandish dances as they tried to illicit giggles from the participants of the "Stoic Indian" contest.
The pow wow was open to all dancers and participants, but the Head Woman Dancer, Head Man Dancer as well as Manriquez were all Two Spirit people, ensuring they were at the forefront of the proceedings.
“Pow wows are all about self-expression, so what better place to express who you are as someone from the Native and LGBT communities,” said Head Man Dancer Tony Aaron Fuller, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation. “The Two Spirit pow wow brings a lot of my worlds together, so it’s a special place to be.”
Photo, circa 1910, of a Tolowa shaman wearing a basket hat, which is traditionally worn by women. Although the history of the photo is not entirely clear, it is considered to be some evidence that gender roles were not always as rigid in the past.