Tony Enos danced to the drumbeat. He felt a pain in his back. The kind of pain that naturally happens after a long period of exertion. He thought maybe he should slow down, but he looked around him at all of the young Indigenous children dancing around him. One child, about 10 years old, danced as hard as he could. Others watched Enos. The young ones were always watching, and Enos knew he needed to keep dancing, to keep going for them.
“Our young folks, I think, are one of the reasons we’re all here,” Enos said.
Enos said the Ninth Annual Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirit Powwow, held Feb. 8 at Fort Mason Festival Pavilion, was full of “love” and “good medicine” and that the event was essential for letting two spirit people return to their place in the sacred hoop.
According to BAAITS Powwow chair Roger Kuhn, the powwow serves to bring people into that sacred hoop or circle, a symbolic place of healing, continuation and community in native culture. This is especially significant for Two Spirit people—a Native term for a person who possesses both a masculine and a feminine spirit—because many lost their community access post-European contact, and they continue to face abuse and discrimination. For Roger and Enos, who are two spirits, the powwow is a place where they can feel a sense of belonging.
“There was a great rift that started to happen. And we lost the rich culture of what Two Spirit people provide to their communities,” Kuhn said. “So returning to the circle is returning back into community returning back into acceptance returning back into Indigenous ways pre-contact.”
Colonized thinking and Christian ideas ostracized Two Spirit people, even from their own tribes, and stripped them from their traditional role, according to Two Spirit Jeriann Guzman. Historically, Two Spirits were shamen or healers and Guzman said she and others are trying to reclaim that role.
“We were the ones that the people would come to. And we could see both sides of an issue. That’s why they call us ‘two spirit,’” Guzman said. “We walk both sides of the fence. It’s been hard to get back.”
Other traditional roles included providing support, education and general counselling within the tribe.
Guzman assumes this role in her daily life by running the Solano Serenity Center, an organization she started in Vallejo to provide resources to LGBTQ and Two Spirit individuals after facing abuse and discrimination herself as a trans person. She and her team also provide education to the greater community about LGBTQ issues, while Kuhn is a psychotherapist and college professor in addition to being the powwow’s organizer.
Kuhn said the main issues the two spirit community faces are land access, suicide prevention, healthcare resources and health education.
“I think that’s really important to also recognize that when the United States government was originally funding the HIV pandemic, the American Indian population was left to receive nothing. So it still remains incredibly important for Native people to have access, sexual health education.”
By hosting and attending events like the BAAITS powwow, Two Spirits like Kuhn and Guzman shed light on two spirit concerns and are partnering with other organizations like Missing Murdered Indigenous Women & People to gain visibility and resources.
California MMIW&P president Marge Grow-Eppard, whose Native American name is Sister Who Walks With Bears, said the organization is doing what they can to create space within the San Francisco community for Two Spirits.
“They face a lot of discrimination, not only being Native American or a person of color, but the government does not recognize two spirit or trans people as being human beings,” Grow Eppard said. “Whereas in the Native American community, they were held in high regard as a Two Spirit because they knew how to walk in both worlds.”
For Enos and Guzman, this discrimination took the form of domestic violence. And before Guzman founded Solano Serenity Center, she was fired from her long-term job shortly after her transition from male to female.
A 2015 report by The Movement Advancement Project, an organization that collects data on the LGBTQ community, stated that 36 percent of Native American respondents reported job loss for being transgender. Another report surveying Indigenous women who identified as lesbian, bisexual and two spirit showed that 85 percent reported sexual abused and 78 percent reported assault.
Carolyn Blackhawk from the Otoe-Missouri Shoshone-Paiute Tribes said she always thought of being Two Spirit as a blessing. Her family ultimately embraced her, but she remains cautious of displaying public affection with her partner.
“I’m not like out in the open and kissing in public and doing all that stuff because a lot of people look down on it,” Blackhawk said.
She came from Reno to experience the event and be among friends and said now that she is getting older she is starting to see the importance of attending community events, especially to support the journey of young two spirits who face hardships.
Powwow attendees also acknowledged the the greater hardship of losing Indigenous members of the community and performed dances to honor those who died and went missing while uplifting women and Two Spirits.
Kuhn said there is an epidemic across the United States and Canada where women and Two Spirit individuals are being murdered or have gone missing. He said much of this has to do with sex trafficking.
“We have thousands missing murdered Indigenous people all over Turtle Island, including our Two Spirit and our trans people,” Grow-Eppard said. “And many people haven’t acknowledged that that is happening.” She said the Two Spirit powwow helped highlight that fact and that MMIW&P are working to stop transgressions against the community.
According to a report by the Urban Indian Health Institute, 5,712 Indigenous women and girls were reported missing in 2016, but only 116 of them were input into the Department of Justice’s database for missing persons.
Karen Harrison was at the powwow with her 11-year-old granddaughter Summer Rose Harrison-Little Cloud who took part in the dancing. Harrison said every powwow she attended this past year acknowledged missing and murdered Indigenous women and that the issue is gaining traction across the nation.
“What’s good is that we get to teach her [Harrison-Little Cloud] that it’s not about just coming to dance with your friends, but she’s learning too,” Harrison said. “She’s still in the process of learning protocol and how to take care of each other, how to take care of the elders and to think about the relatives who aren’t here.”
And for those young people who are here, the ones who danced around him, Enos has a message: “You’re loved. You’re not alone. Even though at times it can feel isolating, walking this road to the to spirit road, walking the red road. You’re not alone. You have relatives, you are loved. You’re perfect as you are. And keep going.”