Faun Harjo felt clammy and hot beneath his regalia. The June air was thick with dust and smoke from the wildfires then raging across the west coast; As the sun filtered through the ash, the sky glowed neon pink with dark gray streaks. Inwardly, he panicked as he prepared to dance Southern Traditional — a style of powwow he’d never performed publicly — for a crowd at the 2021 Montana Two-Spirit gathering.
“Everything around us is on fire and everything looks very strange,” he laughs and remembers the day. “Didn’t make it particularly easier not to be scared.”
He had never danced a powwow, let alone dressed in male regalia, but today he would make his aunt proud. Of course, there’s added pressure when your aunt is Landa Lakes, co-founder of the Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits (BAAITS), one of the largest Two-Spirit organizations in the country. Heart pounding and blood in his ears, Harjo adjusted the porcupine on its head and stepped forward.
Prior to this weekend, Harjo had come closest to performing at a powwow when, as a baby, he shook shells and wore a Chickasaw dress, a role normally reserved for girls and women. Like everyone else at the 2021 gathering, however, Harjo, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) and Chickasaw nations, is Two-Spirit, an umbrella term popularized by Indigenous activists in the ’90s to describe gender identities that do not. They do not correspond to any western binary in the indigenous nations of Turtle Island and beyond.
Rather than simply describing Indigenous peoples who are queer, Two-Spirit specifically refers to gender-biased people who hold fearful positions in their communities. And while Two-Spirit can mean different things to different people, Harjo says, it’s about mentoring, kinship, and the role you play in your community. “You can be native and gay or lesbian and not Two-Spirit,” says Harjo. “Being two ghosts is in a different category. It’s a gender role; it is the transmission of knowledge; It means learning from the elders, passing that knowledge on.”
For some Two Spirits, storytelling and dancing are their communal roles; for others it is medicine and healing; for Harjo and his aunt it is mentorship. “She took me under her wing and said, ‘You’re okay, you’re safe, you’re normal,'” he says she. “In fact, you’re not just normal. You are worshiped.’”
Before the European invasion, many indigenous nations worshiped Two Spirit people as they often played a sacred role in healing, spiritual, and ceremonial traditions in their communities. Unfortunately, many communities have lost this knowledge as a result of colonization, forced assimilation, and government eradication of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer people. Indian boarding schools, which sought to strip local children of their cultural traditions and traumatized generations of youth, played a particularly sinister role in burying those customs by forcing Christian views of gender and sexuality on students. As tribal leaders in various nations were forced to embrace Christianity and related practices through both federal policy and societal pressure, Two Spirits were erased from many of their cultures.