Two Spirit Gathering in Montana
Late on a rain-soaked August evening by the north shores of Flathead Lake, a few dozen people packed into a small shoreside chapel. Drag performer and emcee Landa Lakes stepped to the spotlight and placed a small gray papier-mâché dollhouse at center stage.
A recording of Lakes’ voice edited to sound like a vintage educational tape warbled through the speakers of the public address system.
“When making your dolls,” said Lakes, “Remember that boys have short hair and wear pants. Girls have ponytails and dresses. Try to cut them as boxy as possible. They should all be exactly the same.”
Lakes then gingerly pulled a chain of paper dolls from the dollhouse and stood for minutes on stage, pulling up string after string until eventually she held 215 miniature paper figures in her arms.
“Don’t worry if you mess up. Just take your mistakes, crumple them up, and discard them.”
For Landa Lakes, the dolls represent the children's bodies unearthed last May at the site of the now-defunct Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.
Until the 1990s, American and Canadian officials separated Indigenous children from their families, sending kids as young as three years old to facilities like Kamloops where they suffered mistreatment and severe punishments in efforts by officials to assimilate them to Western culture.
As she held the red figures in her arms, Lakes turned her gaze towards the audience. The warm and soothing tones of a traditional Chickasaw lullaby replaced the recording. Lakes invited the audience, all attendees of the 25th Annual Montana Two-Spirit Gathering, to come on stage and make a circle. After attendees assembled on stage, Lakes passed the bundle of paper dolls from one person to the next until everyone onstage had carried the burden at least once.
Some people found their eyes had welled up with tears. The cause of death and identities of almost half of the children found at Kamloops remains unknown.
Landa Lakes was just one of many artists and activists bringing together traditional Indigenous art and contemporary Queer culture in Rollins, Montana in August 2021. The 25th Annual Montana Two-Spirit Gathering was organized by the Missoula-based Montana Two-Spirit Society, and was the first event held by the group since the cancellation of 2020 festivities due to Covid. The four-night event saw the return of workshops, pageantry, vendors, traditional singing and dancing, and spirited conversation.
Over 70 members of various tribal nations from across Montana and North America flocked to the Flathead Lake Methodist Camp on the week of August 16, 2021. Many were artists and activists seeking creative ways to help heal collective trauma that Queer Indigenous people have accumulated during the pandemic and celebrate the return of communal gatherings in as an as-safe-as-possible environment.
Covid-19 struck Indigenous communities disproportionately hard. Indigenous people are 3.5 times more likely to contract Covid, according to the CDC and many of the activities and discussions at the 2021 gathering centered on expressing grief and anguish, reaching out to one another emotionally, and building a future on Indigenous knowledge.
Current MTSS director David Herrera and board chair Steven Barrios, referred to by many long-time attendees as Auntie Steven, founded the MTSS in 1996, with the first gathering coming the following year. Herrera, an adopted member of the Blackfeet tribe, was also a founding board member of Pride Montana, where Barrios worked.
Herrera began work on the MTSS in 1995 with the encouragement of Diane Sands, fellow founding member and future State legislator. Herrera said Sands saw a need for Pride Montana to reach out to the Indigenous community and he agreed to help.
Montana’s gathering was among the first of its kind. The activist work of the pair, along with the Montana Gay Men’s Task Force, shaped the society during the AIDS epidemic that devastated Queer communities throughout the 1980s and 90s.
“My work back then was mostly based in HIV prevention,” said Herrera, “But through conferences I wound up meeting someone associated with the Denver Two-Spirit Society. I’d heard that they had done these types of gathering and I thought, ‘It’d be so great to do one of these in Montana.’”
Herrera pitched the leaders of the statewide organization on the idea and with their funding and additional grants he managed to get the gathering off the ground. From there, the society steadily built a staff and a reputation and was fully incorporated as an independent non-profit organization in 2007, becoming the only LGBTQ+ organization of its kind serving people of color in Montana.
“[Our] vision for our society was to bring our Indigenous brothers and sisters together from all over, even as far as Australia,” said MTSS board chair Barrios. “We’ve had people call us and say, ‘As long as you are doing this, providing this cultural event, I will fly in. I will find a way to pay the fare, no matter what.’”
Over the last two-and-a-half decades, the event has grown, becoming the longest-running Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer gathering in North America. Before the pandemic, the event drew more people with each passing year, attracting over 200 attendees in 2019.
Under normal circumstances, the quarter-centennial celebration would have been a grand affair. But the pandemic forced the organization to scale back expectations and focus more on health and safety precautions. With the Delta Variant spreading at an alarming pace in early August 2021, Herrera and Barrios asked Steve Williamson, Billings Regional Director of the Indian Health Service, what precautions they should take. As a result, staff members asked for proof of full vaccination at the door, required masks to be worn inside at all times, and checked the temperature of each attendee before breakfast. Although safety guidelines meant the exclusion of immunocompromised and unvaccinated guests, Herrera says that everyone turned away, though disappointed, understood the necessity of the rules.
What is Two-Spirit?
According to the South Dakota legislature, the only State entity to officially recognize Two-Spirit identity, the term is defined as “a culturally and spiritually distinct gender traditionally recognized among Native American nations.” It is often explained as a “third gender,” or as an Indigenous precursor to the modern LGBTQ+ community.
Two-Spirits are rooted in traditions of their ancestors and also represent a living movement of Queer Indigenous people from all over Indian Country. A shared sense of identity often unites Two-Spirit individuals; many are concerned with the future of Native American communities and tasked with imagining different paths forward in a world where the destructive impact of European exploration and settlement in North America on Indigenous populations can be discussed openly.
Two-Spirit and Indigenous traditions, now understood as Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer cultural practices, predate Western gender roles and family structures and the modern conceptions of LGBTQ+ identity that formed in response.
There is little new about people who defy gender roles as defined by contemporary standards. In fact, a time existed when many people on the North American continent knew and accepted people who crossed such boundaries, seeing them as valued members of society.
Europeans were surprised, however, by such accepted practices. In 1513, Spanish colonist Vasco Nunez de Balboa came across an Indigenous leader in Panama whose sibling, along with forty other people assigned male at birth, wore women’s clothing and lived with other Two-Spirits in domestic relationships. De Balboa accused them of being “sodomites” and had them thrown out of the leader’s palace, pursued by dogs.
During the period of westward expansion from the 17th into the early 20th century, many European traders, settlers and ethnographers wrote with wonder about meeting Indigenous people who straddled the line between what they thought of as male and female. In 1825, historian Charles Trowbridge described a meeting between fur traders and a band of Cherokees who, though presumably assigned male at birth, “adopted the dress and performed all the duties of women, and who lived their whole lives in this manner.”
Two-spirit traditions existed in at least 155 Tribal Nations in North America, with a wide variety of diversity. The only constant was people taking on both masculine and feminine responsibilities, moving from one end of the spectrum to the other to better meet their tribe’s needs.
Most records of tribal histories and cultures existed in the oral tradition and, in the suppression of Indigenous culture, tribes lost many of these historical pathways. Modern events like the Two-Spirit gathering hope to reconcile what has been lost by restoring old traditions and reintroducing Indigenous interpretations of gender and sexuality to new generations.
Two-Spirit traditions are based on spirituality and communal responsibility and encompass more than sexuality and gender, says Beverley Little Thunder, author, member of the Lakota Nation and featured speaker at the conference. Little Thunder describes the Two-Spirit experience as one of social responsibility.
“In most Native tribes, we had a real specific role,” said Little Thunder at the conference. “We took care of the elderly, we took care of the young. We stepped in to name babies. We stepped in when an elder’s family passed and there was no one to care for them. They sat in the circles and were a part of ceremony.”
In 1989, members of the Gay American Indian organization meeting at the annual Native American/First Nations Gay and Lesbian gathering in Winnipeg coined the term “two-spirit.” The organization felt a need to create a word that would suggest the diversity of the hundreds of different ways of thinking about gender that existed among Indigenous nations, and to replace the outdated terms “berdache” (a term derived from a Persian word meaning “kept boy”) and “wikte” (a Lakota word), both of which are now considered pejorative.
Author and scholar Little Thunder was present for some of these conversations in the late 1980s as part of a committee that was putting together a book that would serve as a manifesto of sorts for the movement.
“The big challenge [was] finding a marker that would be inclusive of all tribes, and understanding that if you had 50 Native Queers in a room and everyone was from a different tribe, you could have six chapters with just names,” said Little Thunder.
A highlight of the 2021 gathering was the Two-Spirit Pageant and Talent Show. After sundown on the second night, entrants competed for the crowns of Miss and Mr. Montana Two-Spirit. The society entrusts winners with representing Montana at cultural events and pow-wows throughout the following year.
Judges tasked contestants with performing one traditional performance and a contemporary piece. The audience saw a contestant in handmade regalia singing a lullaby in their Native language, then a choreographed floor routine and lip sync to a Taylor Swift song for the next performance.
This year the competition came down to two entrants: Silas Hoffer, a 28-year-old Yakima student and youth advocate from Oregon’s Grand Ronde Community, and Elton Naswood (AKA ‘Miss Eartha Quake’), a 47-year-old drag performer and member of the Diné (Navajo) Nation.
“I’m thinking of this pageant as a pageant,” said Naswood. “But I need to think of it as more of a community role, an ambassador. I’m hoping that I have visibility for this community on a tribal government level, and on a national level.”
“Being two-spirit, to me, is very empowering,” Naswood added. “It allows me to express my masculine and feminine aspects with a cultural perspective on them. The term is one that I’ve embraced more recently. But being away from the reservation it allowed me to find a community of people who have that same perspective. That term allowed people to understand who I was, as a Native and as a gay man.”
Silas Hoffer, a transmasculine non-binary person, said considering the title prompted some deeper thoughts about what exactly it meant to be “Mister Montana Two-Spirit,” seemingly a contradiction in terms.
“It plays into those binaries,” said Hoffer. “It’s like — I’m a transgender guy, I guess. You know, transmasculine. But I would say I’m more feminine. That’s just who I am. I like to play with makeup and all that stuff, and I don’t feel like being a guy should hold me back from that. So part of me was like, ‘I don’t wanna be Mister Two-Spirit, I kinda want to be Miss Two-Spirit.’ But then I don’t want people to disrespect my gender. I think if you took away the gendered part, it would open up more opportunities and make people more comfortable.”
Spirit Wildcat, former Miss Montana Two-Spirit and member of the Shoshone-Bannack band of Southern Idaho, said she feels the gendered titles can serve as more than arbitrary labels. Wildcat prefers to think of them as an invitation to explore questions of identity with more depth and consideration.
“I know we have two-spirit people who go this way, and then to the other side... they hover around. But to me, it’s only for a year. You can be our Mister, with that masculinity for one year. And then after that, you can have free range. But just stick with something for a little and see how it goes. You’ll start to learn how you feel inside,” added Wildcat.
Community and Isolation
Gatherings are good for bringing together a community often physically and emotionally isolated. In rural reservations and urban areas, queer communities are often small or non-existent, and pressure to fit in can be immense.
According to Sarah Hunt, Indigenous health researcher at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, even within their own tribal communities, two-spirit and LGBTQ+ Natives face discrimination and exclusion.
Hunt emphasized, “The loss of [Native] languages has resulted in much of the knowledge of Two-Spirit roles being lost or marginalized in some communities. Rather than being respected, many Two-Spirit people face targeted violence… and struggle to have their lives recognized.”
Lane Walker, 31, is a member of the A’aninin (Gros Ventre) Tribe. Growing up on the Fort Belknap Reservation in northern Montana, community was hard to find. Walker grew up moving back and forth between his family home outside of Chinook and Denver, Colorado, where his mother worked. Walker grew up not knowing anything about Two-Spirit traditions in his culture and only discovered the term last year.
“I’ve never really been around queer Natives,” Walker said. “Living in Denver for as long as I was, most of my friends were white. And there were a lot of things I couldn’t talk to them about. Especially the anger. I’ve been really frustrated for the last ten years and I just keep it in. Or rant to my family.”
Walker said the frustration comes from multiple sources. Coming out as transgender strained some of the close relationships in his life and the national political climate grew increasingly hostile to trans and gender non-conforming people. Montana’s legislature alone passed several laws over the last two years meant to curtail the civil rights of LGBTQ+ and Indigiqueer communities and the trend for more such legislation continues.
Amidst all this an unprecedented wave of suicides struck Walker’s reservation, prompting the Fort Belknap community council to declare an official state of emergency in the summer of 2019.
“On my reservation,” said Walker, “There’s probably been just this year about five youth suicides. We can never be sure why they chose to take their lives, but I know that there’s still a lot of homophobia. Even if people aren’t getting beat up, they’re still saying things. So, I decided for the first time on our reservation we would fly the Two-Spirit flag outside our building. And then, for the traditional Pow-Wow and parade… I had my sister make a sign for me, and we decorated our mom’s car with balloons, flags and these two posters. One said ‘Decolonize,’ and the other said ‘Restore Tradition.’”
Walker spoke of the difficulty of trying to create spaces for Two-Spirits on his home reservation without the support of a broader organization.
“My Aunt [Brandi King], as far as I know, was the first Two-Spirit person to be on the [Tribal] Council. But I think it got to be too much for her… she was trying to get something going, but she had to resign. [MSU Northern] up in Havre, they were trying to get a group going. But after a while, I was one of the only people showing up, and it kinda fell apart.”
On the third night of the Two-Spirit Gathering, everyone dressed in their finest regalia for Pow-Wow night. For some that meant gleaming silver-and-red jingle dresses, handmade eagle staffs, and family heirlooms. For others it was perhaps a ribbon skirt over a dusty pair of sneakers, or maybe coverall shorts and a spiked denim cap with faux leather horns. Each piece of regalia showed off the individuality of each contestant.
Towards the end of the evening, David Hererra, emcee Buffalo Barbie, and Spirit Wildcat (who helped hand-bead and embroider the ceremonial crown and sash with a relative) officially crowned Elton Naswood as Miss Two-Spirit Montana and Silas Hoffer as Mister Two-Spirit Montana. Accompanied by Missoula’s All-Nations Center drum circle, they ushered in their year-long reign with an honor dance.
Although the overall mood of the gathering, especially during the pageant and pow-wow, was celebratory. Some attendees noted a tension between the old guard coming out of the ranks of AIDS activism and more mainstream Gay activism, and the new class of individuals that continue to challenge what it means to live outside of the gender binary established after European settlement.
Efforts were made by the Two-Spirit staff and board to keep the gathering as inclusive as possible. Organizers tried to maintain gender equity among the pipe-bearers for the sunrise smoke ceremony that started off each day. Female-identified elders led talking circles and a panel presented to a group of transgender leaders like Shane Ortega, one of the first trans men to serve openly in the Army, spoke to the intersection between trans issues and Two-Spirit concerns.
Others, however, question having gender-segregated bathrooms and other barriers at what is supposed to be a safe refuge.
Tavi Hawn is a non-enrolled member of the Eastern Band Cherokee and works as a therapist and consultant in Baltimore, Maryland. Hawn was a first-time attendee, only becoming familiar with the gathering in 2016. Hawn is non-binary, one of several participants who identify as neither male nor female. But upon arriving, Hawn felt that basic resources for people like them were lacking in key respects.
“There’s some people who just aren’t in the practice of asking for pronouns, and assumptions get made,” said Hawn. “I get ‘she/her’ a lot. People assume that I’m female by default. And that can be frustrating, especially in a Queer space where you feel like the point is to be breaking past the binary.”
Hawn explained that they wanted to participate in future gatherings but they said they still feel a need on the part of leadership to accommodate groups of people who have until recently been less visible in Queer and Indigenous movements.
“I think right off the bat, bathrooms should be all-gender,” Hawn said, adding, “I know there’s been efforts made with the pipe bearers to be more inclusive, but I’d like to see that continued and extended.”
Bringing it Home
11-year-old Kai Rowse attended the Montana gathering in 2021. Rowse’s family has been coming to Flathead Lake every year since 2015 when Kai was only five. Kai, who is Choctaw, Cherokee and Cree, has had the experience of being raised with an awareness of Two-Spirit individuals.
Speaking up during a conversation circle between young attendees and a selection of the elders present, Kai explained their frustration with mainstream perspectives of gender binaries, “I wish people could just forget. Forget everything they know about what a boy is supposed to do, or what a girl is supposed to do, and to stop thinking that there are just two genders.”
Two-Spirit youth like Kai openly express the ultimate hope shared by many of the participants who came together at the gathering, the hope that new generations can be raised without the boundaries and limitations imposed on Indigenous people, breaking cycles of trauma and repression while creating lasting communal bonds.
As this year’s gathering ended, one last event remained to celebrate the sense of community built during the shared time together. Everyone in camp came together in a circle around a green woolen blanket and a star quilt. They set a spread of homemade crafts, shirts, blankets, books, and at least one pair of patent leather thigh-high, spike-heel boots on the blankets.
The last day is always a “giveaway” day and everyone lined up to honor elders and express gratitude with gifts and heartfelt words. Board members handed out Pendleton-patterned blankets to those who spoke at panels, did meal prep in the kitchen, or otherwise worked to keep things running smoothly. Others presented hand-crafted goods, such as taxidermy artist Aoedhen Crawford who presented skilled beader and former lawyer Clyde Hall with a ceremonial eagle staff made from bear hide and feathers.
Director David Herrera took the chance at the circle to speak to the entire group one last time.
“Thank you for trusting us to put on a gathering during the pandemic. We’ve gone through a lot over the past 28 months, with some staggering losses,” said Herrera. “But you trusted us to provide a safe space where people can heal. Thank you for making this the incredible gathering that it has been.”
The next morning the tipi was taken down, cabins were cleared out, and everyone went their separate ways. Some new friendships were made and songs and dances were shared. Despite the hurdles, the tradition has been carried on for at least another year.
Young Kai Rowse summed up their primary feeling at the end of the week, one shared by many others. “It makes me happy to be here,” said Rowse. “I feel welcome here. I like the acceptance that everybody has. I can just be me, and that makes me feel really good.”
Annual Two-Spirit Gatherings are held every August in Montana. Registration is open to members of Tribal nations, or those sponsored by an enrolled member. For more details, visit mttwospiritsociety.org.
Photos by Mel Ponder
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