When I arrived at the second annual Two Spirit Powwow in Phoenix, Arizona, I was struck by its inclusivity, its apparent ability to provide a safe space that both centers the Indigenous Two Spirit and LGBTQ community and generously welcomes the wider community.
The first two people I interviewed did not identify as Two Spirit or LGBTQ. They didn’t expect this powwow to differ from others they’d attended. But of course, it was different. None of the dance categories were gendered. Restrooms were gender-neutral. Powwow committee members and head dancers were overwhelmingly Two Spirit or Native LGBTQ individuals, and the Nacho Grande food vendors all wore Pride flag pins. The emcee began the event by declaring the event a safe space for Two Spirit individuals and by listing ways guests could be a better allies (listening with respect, supporting without judgment, educating themselves). It was absolutely and unforgettably a Two Spirit Powwow, but nothing about it felt divisive or exclusive.
Tè, a member of the powwow’s organizing board and holder of two royalty titles (Miss Supreme Pride and Miss Apache Diva), explained that the welcoming spirit that I felt was intentional—“We wanted the regular powwow scene to be here without any gendered categories or exclusivity. We want to remind everyone that trans individuals are and always will be here. That we’re your family.”
Tè told me that in the previous year, the board had worried that the non-2SLGBTQ community might not come out and support the event. This year, they did not have that worry. They knew they could count on the community to show up.
The community definitely did.
Among the non-profits lining the rear square were Latinas Unidas Contra El Sida, an organization serving Latinx individuals living with HIV/AIDS, and Free Mom Hugs, an LGBTQ-serving organization who’d never attended a Native-specific event. Between intertribals, Trans Queer Pueblo performed a traditional dance, created from the “cultural synthesis of enslaved Africans, Spanish conquerors, and indigenous peoples of Latin America.”
The gathering felt uniquely conscious of the Two Spirit and Native LGBTQ community as one that includes individuals with multiple intersecting identities—indigenous individuals with Latinx heritage, migrants of color, Afro-indigenous individuals, and more.
The gathering demonstrated the importance of family and allyship. When Sheila Lopez, the powwow’s founder, gave a speech outlining her reasons for founding this powwow, she began with her own educational journey as a mother of LGBTQ children and as an ally. This emphasis on family continued throughout the afternoon—the parents of Two Spirit head dancer, Sky Duncan, spoke about their pride for their child and gave a donation to the powwow fund in Sky’s honor. Chosen families showed up as well. Mr. Supreme Pride came out to support Tè, their pageant counterpart.
Marlon Fixico, a Two Spirit elder of the Cheyenne Tribe and founder of the Facebook group Two Spirit News, said historical gatherings which welcomed Two Spirit people also emphasized family and community. He recalled memories from his childhood, before Christianity had deeply influenced his tribe, when Two Spirit and LGBTQ identities were accepted and unremarkable. When he thinks back to powwows from that time, he remembers social gatherings where relatives and friends who hadn’t seen each other for years could catch up. “It wasn’t about the prizes or the money. The action,” he said, “really happened on the sidelines. It was about seeing old friends and talking to them for hours.”
The Arizona Two Spirit Powwow reminds Marlon of those historic gatherings. “There are so many families here,” he said. “There’s acceptance by the community. I don’t know how many people here are other genders or other sexualities. It doesn’t matter. It reminds me of back when I was growing up—we didn’t know who was who, and it didn’t matter. To have this again, in a setting where we’re accepted as Two Spirit people—when I stop and think about it, it makes me cry.”
This spirit of inclusivity was captured by the flags standing at the center of the powwow arena. There was a row of Nation flags and unobtrusively among them, absolutely belonging, stood the rainbow and Trans pride flags. When I noticed a person walking slowly past the flags, documenting them on a cell phone, I asked “What do you feel as you walk past the flags?” “Walking past those flags is like walking past a future that I can actually see now,” responded Tatè, a bisexual Two Spirit member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. Tatè added: “When you talk about growing up queer in the Native community, hyper-marginalized, you don’t see the future. You literally can’t. There were many times when I did not want to continue. So when I see those flags representing not just Native nations, but all our identities, it’s like getting a glimpse of the future and how great it could be.”
The powwow culminated in a Two Spirit dance special, a competition specifically for Two Spirit dancers. Four people from four different Nations stepped forward to dance. When the dance concluded, the committee announced that although they’d initially planned to give only three prizes, they’d decided to shift that plan. Using money raised from t-shirt sales, they’d pulled together a fourth prize. Each person who had the courage to enter the circle and dance that day received a prize.
At that moment it became clear that the Arizona Two Spirit Powwow offers a promising vision of both past and future. I thought of Marlon’s memories of the powwows of his youth, where you didn’t know who was Two Spirit or LGBTQ, and it didn’t seem to matter, where the dances were rarely competitive, and where each family who showed up received meat, flour, and coffee.
Support. Community. Nourishment. These were the gifts of the second annual Arizona Two Spirit Powwow, offered to all who attended. It’s no accident that so many of the people I spoke with describe their feelings using some of the same phrases—“I’m filled with joy,” “I’m filled with tears,” “I’m filled with pride,” “I’m filled with hope.” They were full.