Holding Space for Us: Attending the World’s Only Public Two-Spirit Powwow

By Melanie Davis

The Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits held their Sixth Annual Two-Spirit Powwow at the Festival Pavilion at Fort Mason Center, San Francisco, CA. It was a free community event, open to the public. According to Derek Smith of the Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa Nation, Powwow Committee Co-Chair, “Diversity and inclusion are at the heart of the BAAITS Powwow mission. It is currently the world’s only Two-Spirit organized powwow and draws some of the area’s top dancers together for a day of fun and appreciation of the Native American Two-Spirit tradition.”

“The BAAITS Powwow embraces traditional Native American culture while also providing a uniquely San Francisco experience,” added Ruth Villasenor, Powwow Committee Member from the Chiricahua Apache Nation.

Two-Spirit traditions, community members and allies were honored, and ceremonial giveaways were held. Head Staff dancers included; Justin Goggles, Jr., who is a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe in Ethete, Wyoming and a member of the Blackfeet Tribe in Browning, Montana; Travis “Buffalo Barbie” Goldtooth, who is Dine (Navajo) from Teec Nos Pos, Arizona.; and Kaylene Diamond Baltys of the Lakota Rosebud, Otoe-Missouri and an enrolled member of the Comanche nations, the daughter of Saulius and Hope Baltys, sister of Harlynd Erik Growing Thunder, and granddaughter of Kaylene and Erik Kimple. Competition dancing as well as intertribal dances offered the public an opportunity to learn about Native American culture, and all powwow dancers and drums were welcomed.

Dancing and singing were not the only highlights of the powwow; Native American food vendors including Wahpepahs’ Kitchen, Wailakis Fry Bread and others were on hand to feed the massive crowd of over 6,000. Foods ranged from Indian tacos and tamales to buffalo burgers. There were also vendors on site selling Native art, jewelry, supplies, and other wares. The Native American Health Center was in attendance providing free health screenings.

Host drums for the BAAITS powwow included Southern Pride, host Southern Drum, a drum group that traveled from Jay, OK, and whose members are Two-Spirit singers and drummers and their families. There was also Northern Host drum, All Nations, a local group from Oakland, CA, that has been together for 30 years — they sing at Alcatraz for Unthanksgiving day, host drum for numerous powwows, and they have been teaching kids native music and dance at the Intertribal Friendship House for 19 years.

De-Gendering Dance Categories

Ever since I can remember, I remember going to powwows in my home state of New Mexico, and one major difference that I noticed at the BAAITS Powwow was the removal of gender markers from the names of the dances for our event (i.e. “fancy shawl” instead of “women’s fancy shawl”). Sheldon Raymore, 2015’s Head Two-Spirit Dancer, explains why we are doing this, and why it’s important: “Using these terms is necessary in providing a safe space for the diversity of our community. BAAITS is modeling the appropriate terminology so that the BAAITS Powwow makes dancers feel safe to honor their spirit of who they are inside, versus only the outside body appearances. By erasing the genders of each dance category, BAAITS is allowing one’s spirit to manifest and express itself.”

Among the winners of the dance completion, it was exciting to see the following Oregon Two-Spirit Dancers place at this National Competition:

  • Asa Wright, Klamath/Modoc, placed third in fancy/grass dance combined
  • Yukpa Sophie Wright, Oglala Lakota, Klamath/Modoc, placed first in jingle dance
  • Monty Herron, Umpqua/Takelma/Chinook, placed third in Northern traditional/Southern straight dance

A Message from Standing Rock

Additionally, there was a special presentation from the Two-Spirit Camp at Standing Rock. Joining Founder Courage, Mextizo/Lakota, was Camp Elder Sade Ali, First Nations Mi’kmaq (Canada), and Camp Medicine Person Candi Brings Plenty, Oglala Lakota Sioux, who reiterated that all are welcome at Two-Spirit Camp at Standing Rock. Courage shared with us that when they went to Standing Rock, they kept asking where the Two-Spirit Camp was. While not being able to find the rumored camp, he gathered materials and created the flag that still represents the Two-Spirit Camp at Standing Rock. Courage explains the importance of Two-Spirited people in our world in this video: Courage Two-Spirit Camp at Standing Rock.

This powwow was one of the most exciting and refreshing events I have been to in quite a while. It was divine to enjoy the presence of our elders, youth, drummers, singers, and dancers. The personal takeaway for me was experiencing people’s joy while authentically expressing one’s self with the people one most loves! It means everything when people show up for your tribe, and as of late we need more people to show up and hold space for all to be joyful. Thank you BAAITS and all who held space. May the blessings be returned tenfold.

The Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits (BAAITS) is a community-based volunteer organization offering culturally relevant activities for Native Americans identifying as Two-Spirit and their allies. Two-Spirit people are defined as LGBTI and gender variant members of the Native American community. The term Two-Spirit was coined in 1990 by queer Native Americans gathered in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Many contemporary LGBTI Native Americans use the term Two-Spirit to maintain cultural continuity with their traditions. For more information, please visit www.baaits.org.