The sun is vivid and warm, shining upon the regalia of long ribbon skirts, moccasins and headdresses with crisp feathers and ivory beadwork. Silver bells dangling from dancers’ skirts jingle in sync and rhythm with the drums.

“Oh Creator, thank you. Thank you for this beautiful day. And thank you for bringing so many wonderful people to our arena, to our event in order to share and mingle as we do as Native people,” says Navi Ho, chairperson for the Two-Spirit Powwow and a leader in the Phoenix drag queen community.

Navi Ho embraces the crowd in South Phoenix with a blessing for the powwow and the people.

“I want to thank each and every one of you for being here. I want to bless you with strength and love and joy. And as you can see, I have some glitter. So a little bit of glitter, too,” they say. “Why not? Everybody likes a little sparkle and shine.”

Navi Ho, of the Navajo Nation, carries the LGBTQ+ flag during the Grand Entry of the 3rd Annual Two-Spirit Powwow on April 15, 2023 at South Mountain Community College. Credit: Chad Bradley

The dancers and spectators listen intently. Elders carrying a pair of Eagle Staffs lead the procession of tribal flags during the powwow’s Grand Entry. People from all walks of life, cultures and tribal nations, all together again to celebrate after years of being separated.

After a two-year hiatus, the 3rd annual Two-Spirit Powwow was ready to begin. The first powwow was in Feb. 2020. The second in March 2021.

This year, the Phoenix Indian Center hosted the April 15 event for the first time alongside South Mountain Community College in South Phoenix.

A Two-Spirit person is “an individual who has both a male and female essence. Whether the person was assigned male or female at birth does not matter,” noted the powwow’s program.

“We really elevated our partnership efforts with various groups,” says Jolyana Begay-Kroupa, standing near the stage, wearing her own traditional skirt with yellow ribbons bright like the desert Palo Verde blossoms in springtime and a red-beaded necklace with the Phoenix Indian Center logo.

“There’s so many different industries and areas of interest for our Native people,” she says.

Jolyana is the chief executive officer of the Phoenix Indian Center and a Navajo language instructor at Arizona State University. The week prior to the powwow, the center hosted an event called Thunderbird Throttle with the Rez Riders Indian Motorcycle Group, where they raised awareness for missing and murdered Indigenous people.

“It’s nice to collectively be a part of: ‘How can we help? How can we help elevate your voice?’” Jolyana says. “For this one, we’re trying to be allies for our LGBT (communities) – how can we be inclusive, how can we support? What does that look like, etc.?”

Sean Snyder, of the Navajo Nation and Southern Ute, dances during the 3rd Annual Two-Spirit Powwow on April 15, 2023 at South Mountain Community College. Credit: Chad Bradley

An estimated 285,000 Native American and Alaska Native LGBT adults live in the United States, according to an October 2021 study by the UCLA Williams Institute, a research arm of the law school dedicated to studying sexual orientation and gender identity policies and legal standards. That total population includes 161,000 people who identify as Native only and 124,000 people who identify as Native and an additional race or ethnicity.

Members of the Two-Spirit Native community say that their voices and concerns are often underrepresented among the larger communities that make up the estimated 11.3 million LGBT adults, whom the study says live in the U.S.

Feeling forgotten can have serious health consequences, including for the 35% of Native LGBT people who have been diagnosed with depression.

The study also cites resiliency data, noting that an estimated 55% of cisgender lesbian, gay and bisexual Native adults said they feel connected to the LGBT community. However, that rate drops for transgender Native adults, with 37% reporting a feeling of connection to the LGBT community, according to the study.

To elevate the voices and needs of LGBTQ+ Native Americans, more people are advocating for a growing movement of community-centered Two-Spirit powwows across the country, including in Minneapolis, where the Minnesota Two-Spirit Society is planning its next gathering.

San Francisco has one of the oldest and largest of such gatherings, while smaller communities in Missoula, Montana also celebrate with Two-Spirit powwows.

Sheila Lopez, of the Navajo Nation, poses for a photo next to Ryan Rumley, of the Tohono O’odham Nation and Master of Ceremonies for the 3rd Annual Two-Spirit Powwow on April 15, 2023 at South Mountain Community College. Sheila was the founder of Native PFLAG and organized the first and second annual Two Spirit Powwow. Credit: Chad Bradley

In Phoenix, the Two-Spirit Powwow was originally organized by Sheila Lopez, founder of Native PFLAG, the first Indigenous chapter of the national LGBTQ+ support and advocacy organization PFLAG. The Phoenix-based chapter was recognized for supporting Native American communities and focusing on traditional Native American LGBTQ+/Two-Spirit teachings.

Sheila closed the chapter due to lack of staffing. At the 2023 powwow in South Phoenix, the Indigenous advocate for Native LGBTQ+ people says she remains a steadfast supporter and ally, although she wasn’t always one.

“I would like to share how I became a supporter,” Sheila says. “I am a mother. I’m here because I love my children. In 2009, my two oldest came out as gay. Before that time, I had no understanding of the community. They educated me. Their coming out wasn’t easy because of my ignorance. I am so grateful for my children to educate me and for bringing me to this beautiful community.”

She says her son asked her to join PFLAG. That was the beginning of her work in allyship with the Indigenous LGBTQ+ community and with the Two-Spirit Powwow event.

People attend the 3rd Annual Two-Spirit Powwow on April 15, 2023 at South Mountain Community College. Two rows of stands consisted of people selling handmade goods and jewelry and health organizations provided health information and support services. Credit: Chad Bradley

Two-Spirit community is rising

Vendors and booths line the southern edge of the college lawn, where people are selling beaded jewelry, hand-sewn dolls and other handmade arts and crafts. Health organizations and various non-profits share information on sexual health and harm reduction. Food trucks serve frybread and other beloved Native foods.

Get involved

The Phoenix Indian Center’s upcoming calendar of events can be found online.

• The Walking For Our Relatives Walk-A-Thon is helping raise awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous People on Saturday, April 29 from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. Register here.

• Indigenous high school students can sign up for job readiness training to improve their interview skills and resumes in two sessions in late May and early June.

• Learn more about how to support those who may have suicidal thoughts with Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training in this 2-day workshop on May 15 and 16. Register here.

Nestled nearly in the middle of all the booths, Trudie Jackson stands at the helm of the Mayo Clinic’s space, sharing information with anyone who stops by and chatting with them like they’re old friends. 

Trudie is a staple of the Indigenous Two-Spirit LGBTQ+ community and is known for her years of activism and advocacy for Indigenous communities. She is also a community organizer and scholar who was the first transgender and Two-Spirit woman to run for Navajo Nation president in 2018.

She works as a community engagement coordinator for Mayo Clinic, helping build partnerships with the sovereign Indigenous nations of Arizona.

A few days after the powwow, she reflected on the gathering’s impact.

“It was great to see how the community came together to support,” Trudie said.

Trudie was impressed by the turnout and the powwow’s growth. She wants more people to attend and see for themselves what it means to be in community with Two-Spirit people. But she doesn’t want the event to grow at the cost of losing focus on whom it’s meant to support and uplift: the Native LGBTQ+ community, who too often are underrepresented and excluded.

While several Indigenous nations were represented by dancers, organizers and spectators, there was no official support from any tribal government in Arizona, Trudie said.

She said they would have welcomed tribal financial sponsorships for the powwow. The bureaucracy of requesting support from tribes is often the hardest hurdle to overcome, she said.

Young people in dance regalia follow the procession of flags as part of the Grand Entry of the 3rd Annual Two Spirit Powwow on April 15, 2023 at South Mountain Community College. Credit: Chad Bradley

“It doesn’t matter if it’s $100, everything adds up, you know? Just that support would’ve been helpful,” Trudie said.

During one of the planning calls for the event, Trudie said they were “bombarded” with requests from health organizations that wanted to be at the powwow and provide free screenings and medical-care information. But she says organizers had to be careful of which organizations they let have access to people whom the powwow is meant to serve and celebrate.

“I posed the question: ‘What type of work have they [the health organizations] done within the Native Two Spirit LGBTQ community?” Trudie said. “What rapport do they have? We can’t just allow any institution to the event in order to tokenize the community and use the numbers to apply for funding when they don’t serve our community. These are important questions to ask because you’re looking at a specific community that’s often overlooked.”

Trudie said that decades of federal Indian policy and other Western American-centric policies continue to reinforce gender binaries, often at the expense of acknowledging the spectrum of identity and sexuality. That can lead to those who are navigating their own gender and sexuality journey to feel left out, she said, or to not feel accepted by their communities.

There are 24 federally-recognized tribal nations in the U.S. with laws that allow same-sex marriage within their jurisdictions, including at least four in Arizona, according to a 2015 report on Native Two-Spirit and LGBT communities by the National Congress of American Indians

That number is slowly growing, following the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. In 2017, a tribal court ordered the Ak-Chin Indian Community to recognize same-sex marriages, making the Indigenous nation the fifth in Arizona to legalize the civil rights of LGBTQ+ people.

Many Indigenous communities, culturally and spiritually, recognize that there are multiple genders but that may not be reflected in their laws, policies or greater attitudes, Trudie said.

“As an enrolled member of a federally-recognized tribe or state-recognized tribe, they have a voice within their own tribal community,” Trudie said. “Tribal nations have the ability to make their laws and make policy changes that enrolled members can challenge — and even change them.”

Continued activism and advocacy among the current generations of Indigenous Two-Spirit LGBTQ+ people has helped open the minds of those who were not aware of the fluidity of gender and sexual identities. Trudie said she supports the rising movement for Two-Spirit people and wants to see more support from allies.

Trudie said she’s still learning herself.

“Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot of ‘Indigiqueer,’” Trudie said. “They’re reclaiming the word ‘queer.’ In my generation, back in the ’70s, that was a derogatory word. To see how that’s coming back, and how Indigenous communities are now embracing it is very interesting, along with people who identify as asexual or pansexual.”

People attend the 3rd Annual Two-Spirit Powwow on April 15, 2023 at South Mountain Community College. Credit: Chad Bradley

‘A path for those yet to come’

The Two-Spirit Powwow program shares a message about creating space for and with Indigenous communities.

“This is an event to dance for those who have come before us, those who cannot dance, and to create a path for those yet to come.”

At the powwow, Sheila, Jolyana and Navi Ho are standing within a couple feet of each other. They’re surrounded by Indigenous families, elders and young people, mothers and fathers, and people who carry the spirit of both male and female. Jolyana’s children are with her, sometimes moving from her lap to the warm grass.

The LGBTQ+ rainbow flag representing pride, the one that Navi Ho carried in the powwow’s Grand Entry procession, is blowing in the breeze behind them. The flag is moving in ripples and waves, like Navi Ho’s long turquoise skirt dances with the wind when they walk.

Everyone is sharing the space to celebrate Two-Spirit Indigenous people.

Credits

Visuals: Chad Bradley Editor: Dianna M. Náñez Copy Editor: Irene McKisson

Chad Bradley

Chad Bradley is a Diné journalist from northwestern New Mexico in their senior year and final semester at ASU’s Cronkite School. Bradley focuses their reporting on Indigenous communities and tribal...