Illustration by Franky Olivares

Drums pound like heartbeats throughout the powwow. Dancers echo the movements of their ancestors, twirling to ensure the constant flutter of their tribal regalia. The tinkle of sequins and the rustling of dyed fabrics mix with the hum of happy conversation. 

On Feb. 2 Bay Area American Indian Two Spirit (BAAITS) held its eighth annual powwow in San Francisco. The powwow was a celebratory, safe space for queer native expression and community building. The UC Santa Cruz American Indian Resource Center (AIRC) and Lionel Cantú Queer Center joint-sponsored a trip to the event, inviting students to observe and participate in native culture. Powwow organizers received them with open arms.

“I think a residue from colonization that still exists in communities today [is the] gendering of even our traditional spaces,” said BAAITS Chair Amelia Vigil. “Degendering that is controversial. But our mission at BAAITS is to seek and restore the role of two spirit people within our circle.” 

Powwows activities are historically divided by gender, with women and men taking on specific tasks. Until recently, women were expected to perform the role of singers and men participated as drummers of the inner circle. Competitive dances are also gendered, women and men compete in separate rounds. 

The BAAITS powwow, however, dissolves the gender binary to allow a better platform for two spirit participation and expression. Two spirit individuals always existed as  members of native cultures, but only now in the BAAITS powwow are they provided the means for full self-expression.

In anticipation of the powwow, AIRC director Rebecca Hernandez hosted a teach-in on Jan. 31 to inform students on proper powwow etiquette. Students were excited to participate in an authentic learning experience led by a member of the native community.

“These teach-ins are important, especially coming from someone who belongs to the community,” said Wendy Siguenza, fourth-year UCSC student and AIRC intern. “You see the passion they have for it, how much they care for their people. It makes you [think] ‘They care so much. I should too.’”

At the teach-in, Dr. Hernandez gave an overview of what it means to be two spirit, an umbrella term that refers to queer members of the native community. She showed an informational InQueery video that explained the interconnectedness between two spirits and the larger LGBTQIA+ community. Sometimes, the number 2, signifying two spirit,    is attached to the LGBTQ acronym. 

As bearers of queer identity, the two spirit community is vulnerable to both self-inflicted and external violence. Members of the LGBTQIA+ community are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide, at greater risk for mental health issues, victimization and substance abuse. BAAITS provides an essential safe space for a community that otherwise faces an incredible amount of oppositional violence.

“It really is life or death for our people and it’s important to be in a courageous place where we can be who we are,” said BAAITS Chair Amelia Vigil. “We’re just trying to realize that we have a home with each other.”

The BAAITS powwow represents one of the few spaces where indigenous peoples can rejoice in their culture among others who have a firsthand understanding of what it means to carry a native identity. Coming together allows First Nations members to exchange experiences and expand on their conception of what it means to be native. 

“I’m an indigenous person from Mexico, and I don’t have much access to my indigenous roots because of where I’m at,” said UCSC fourth-year Sarahi Gonzales Ramirez. “It allows me to get in touch with my indigenous roots and definitely learn about the similarities that indigenous cultures have amongst each other.”

There are significant barriers that prevent the academic success of American Indian Students across the United States. 

Native American students are more likely than white students to need financial aid and often have less access to college preparatory classes in high school. Native students are also less likely to have parents who attended college. The AIRC provides a place of community, as well as internships, scholarships and academic programs to bridge the socioeconomic gap and help native students succeed.

“The main focus of the resource center is to retain our students. But also we provide community,” said AIRC lead intern Rennea Howell, a fourth-year student. “Since we’re such a small population, it’s vital that we create a space for native students to come and know that it’s explicitly for them.”

Organizations like the AIRC and BAAITS hold space for two spirit people to celebrate both their native and queer identities, sharing both with the public. Both inspire the next generation to create a more diverse future, openly encouraging young people’s participation. 

“Staying true to that intention is something that over time gets difficult,” said BAAITS chair Amelia Vigil. “I would just put a call out to those younger two spirit folks to join the community and invest in it.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the name of UCSC fourth-year Sarahi Gonzales Ramirez. The attribution has been corrected.