Embracing The Spirit of Inclusion: San Francisco’s Two Spirit Pow Wow

San Francisco hosts the largest Two Spirit pow wow in the nation, a really special event open to all nations, embodying and teaching the spirit of inclusion.

Two Spirit people have always played an important role in Native American communities, and although that role may have been confused or lost through the discourse of assimilation, we are now seeing a tremendous resurrection and celebration of two-spirit culture. The term ‘Two Spirit’ is a kind of pan-Native term used to describe gender fluidity, a variance from traditional masculine or feminine physicality and performance, or, more broadly, queerness. It’s also been described to me as “American Indians who define themselves as embodying both male and female spirits”, a deeper spiritual understanding of the four genders our ancestors recognized before colonization.

At the 6th Annual Bay Area American Indian Two Spirits (BAAITS) Pow Wow held at the Festival Pavilion at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco, CA, folks came together to support community, socialize, and celebrate our rich heritage in a safe environment. The pow wow was so unique- as traditional dances like Tiny TotsJingle Dress, Fancy Shawl and Northern Traditional were accompanied by women’s and teen drum groups, and specials included an intertribal purple shawl dance for missing and murdered indigenous women.

Open to the public, BAAITS is the only event of it’s kind, and an estimated 4,000 people attended on Saturday, February 4, 2017.

Project 562 asked attendees about what it means to be Two Spirit, and how the pow wow has influenced them:

“The reason I chose to come here and participate is because I, myself, am two-spirit. Every year I come and dance in women’s regalia to honor those who could not dance and could not be themselves, who are ashamed or being shamed. I dance in honor of those who committed suicide because they couldn’t handle the bullying. I dance for those who were murdered because they were two-spirited. I feel when I come and dance I put all my heart into it and I gather their spirit and release it into the arena, because they couldn’t.” – John Sneezy

Aurora Mamea, Blackfeet

“I’m an ally of the two spirit community here, I have some very close friends who are two spirit and I really support them to the fullest. If there’s one pow wow to go to all year, it’s this one.” - Aurora Mamea

(Also, side note: Aurora won of the PowWow’s Lulu contest :)

Miko Thomas, Chickisaw

“A lot of people and scholars look into the past histories of Native Americans and they say they were welcoming places, but that’s not the reality for many tribes now that Christianity has moved in. They say, “we never had Two Spirits” because people prefer the Disney-fied version of things. But there are old stories - like the story of ‘Long Nails’ – these legends are not told and are lost. Tribes have been so Christianized that they ignore that part of our history. You have to go back to the old stories to know that we’ve always been here.” 

What do you say to young Two Spirits that struggle with this truth?

“They always have those campaigns that say ‘it gets better’… and the reality is that it does. But the big acceptance they have to learn is self-acceptance. To learn to love yourself. For many two-spirit people, they have to remember that there is a wider world outside their own community. But if you really want to cause change, you have to do it within your own community start small and let it grow, like this pow wow.”

- Miko Thomas

L. Frank, Tongva and Ajachmem

“Our people are becoming whole again. That’s what this pow wow does, I’ve watched people change. It’s only been around for 6 years. One year, he’ll wear something a little feminine, next year maybe a top and those earrings, and then it’s a full-on skirt and everything. He’s alive and whole. They’re finding their wholeness and I’ve seen it there at one pow wow and I know its happening all over the place. To the two-spirit youth we need your skills, your love, your laughter. We need you. If you don’t think the world needs you. We do. We need you. Your people need you. They can’t be whole if they leave out a big part of the wholeness. You’re more than o.k. You’re necessary.” - L. Frank