Every February, thousands of dancers and attendees flock to the Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits (BAAITS) Powwow in San Francisco, California—the largest of its kind in North America. The event, which was first held in 2012, is a powerful display of cultural couture. Dancers of all styles who are Two-Spirit (an umbrella term for individuals who are both Indigenous and LGBTQ+, and fluidly move between the masculine and feminine) show up in their finest regalia. You will find them sporting handmade moccasins, striking ribbon shirts, or traditional beaded dresses that sometimes took several months to create. “I've never felt more at home than at a Two Spirit gathering or powwow,” says Faun Harjo, who is Muskogee Creek and Chickasaw. “Being Trans and queer in an Indigenous space, I haven’t always felt comfortable.”
The powwow is one of the many reasons why San Francisco is a major hub for Two-Spirits today. Historically, Two-Spirit people come from all sorts of tribes, and are described as those possessing both male and female spirits. “We were considered very sacred people,” says Eric Alvarado, a Two-Spirit powwow-goer who is Ndee and Michika. “We were teachers, medicine people, warriors, and artisans.” Different tribes had different words for being Two-Spirit—the Lakota used “Winkte,” the Zapotec “Muxe”—but today, Two-Spirit has become a term that all queer Native people can identify with. For some, it refers to a third gender; for others, it’s more of a catch-all title. “The Two-Spirit concept has allowed the creation of a community across nations, of LGBTQ+-identifying folks,” says Angel “Tlahuizpapalotl” Fabian, who is Ben Zaa/Zapotec.?
Two-Spirits gather in San Francisco every February for the powwow, but they also have a presence in the city year-round. Many Indigenous people first landed in San Francisco due to the 1956 Indian Relocation Act, which encouraged Indigenous people to leave their traditional lands and assimilate into urban areas. In 1975, the Gay American Indians organization was founded as a place for Two-Spirits to gather and socialize, and a queer Indigenous community has grown as a result.?
This Pride Month, Two-Spirits partook in events around the city, including the big parade. In the ballroom voguing scene, Tlahuizpapalotl has been known to bring Indigenous flair. “I’ve worn embroidered shirts or gowns,” says Tlahuizpapalotl. “We also use a lot of feathers in Aztec dancing, so I’ll complement my looks with them.” Last week, Indigenous Two-Spirit drag queen Landa Lakes, who is Chickasaw, performed at a Friendship House Pride event. “It was a memorial-slash-celebration for those who have passed away during COVID-19,” Lakes says.