A photo from last year's BAAITS Two-Spirit Powwow.
The Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirit - BAAITS - Powwow will take place in Oakland this Saturday, Feb. 2 and although this is the second year for the event, it is the first powwow sponsored by a Two-Spirit group in this city's history.
Founded in 1999 and completely volunteer-run, BAAITS works to "restore and recover the role of Two-Spirit people within the American Indian/First Nations community by creating a forum for the spiritual, cultural and artistic expression of Two-Spirit people."
The term Two-Spirit was first popularized a little more than 20 years ago by queer Native Americans at an intertribal gay and lesbian gathering in Winnipeg and refers distinctly to gender variance historically present in traditional Native American/First Nations cultures. The phrase is used by LGBTQ and gender variant Native people today "to maintain cultural continuity with their traditions."
"Traditionally, there were so many terms for Two-Spirit people and all nations had different terms," Ruth Villasenor, BAAITS chairperson and Oakland residents aid. "Because of colonization, we lost a lot of that."
Villasenor said that although she has attended many Two-Spirit gatherings that include powwows over the years, the BAAITS-sponsored powwow is different because it's completely open to the public. Last year's event brought nearly 500 people together, inspiring the group to find a bigger space as this year's turnout is expected to be even higher. More space also was needed to make room for 20 vendors - who will be selling frybread, Indian tacos and a variety of artwork, jewelry and crafts - as well as a "Wellness Room" where participants can receive free HIV testing, massage therapy and find other health-related resources.
A hefty chunk of fundraising for the Two-Spirit Powwow came thanks to The Brush Arbor Girls, a Native drag troupe that was first envisioned by long-time BAAITS member and former co-chair Miko Thomas. Thomas said that calling the Powwow "Two-Spirit" explicitly has sparked questions like: Why do Two-Spirits need their own powwow?
"It's not just about having our own powwow, it's about coming back to the community and giving back to the community," he explained. "Here in Northern California, we go to powwows and they're pretty inviting of the whole gender spectrum. But that's not always true throughout Indian Country. We wanted to make a space that was welcoming no matter gay straight, somewhere in between - we wanted to make sure that it was open to everybody and that people felt that welcoming spirit."
Thomas said he is looking forward to the different dance specials planned for Saturday - particularly "The Duct Tape Special," a part dance/part on-the-fly costuming contest where dancers/costumers have to make their entire regalia out of duct tape, cardboard, tin foil, tablecloth and cans. Thomas (or when in Brush Arbor Girl Drag, "Landa Lakes") and his drag-troupe mates won't be performing Saturday, but they will be judging The Duct Tape Special.
Villasenor said that one of her main goals with the Two-Spirit Powwow is to create a safe place for LGBTQ Native youth.
"I'm hoping that as it continues to grow that more youth will feel proud of who they are and then want to join our group," she said. "And then, make sure that they continue this powwow."
To learn more about BAAITS, visit their Facebook page.
To learn more about Two-Spirit movement, download the National Confederacy of Two-Spirit Organizations Resource Directory.
To maintain the Two-Spirit Powwow as a safe space, BAAITS organizers ask that attendees do not bring guns, drugs, or alcohol.