“Two-Spirit/Indigiqueer is about creating a fluidity of gender. It is moving away from the Westernized construct and concepts of gender,” explains Ty Dafoe, a writer and interdisciplinary artist of Giizhig and Oneida/Ojibwe Nations ancestry who identifies as both Indigenous and queer. “This way of identifying as indigiqueer, I believe that my indigi-ancestors have always been here and will always be here. The definition transcends gender—it is beyond gender.”
The term “two-spirit” came into popular use in the 1990s among LGBTQ+ Native Americans. The term is used within certain Indigenous communities, encompassing cultural, spiritual, sexual and gender identity. Indian Health Service explains on its website that, “Traditionally, Native American two-spirit people were male, female and sometimes intersexed individuals who combined activities of both men and women with traits unique to their status as two-spirit people. In most tribes, they were considered neither men nor women; they occupied a distinct, alternative gender status.” According to British Colombia’s Provincial Health Services Authority, “The term reflects complex Indigenous understandings of gender roles, spirituality, and the long history of sexual and gender diversity in Indigenous cultures.” The Canadian agency also notes that, “Due to its cultural, spiritual and historical context, the concept of ‘Two-Spirit’ is to be used only by Indigenous people.”
Hoping to spread awareness of two-spirit and indigiqueer culture to a wider audience during Pride Month, Dafoe is serving as one of the facilitators/producers of a “Pop-Up Powwow.” The Powwow is scheduled to bring artists, dancers and musicians from across New Mexico to the inaugural Live in America Performing Arts Festival at The Momentary contemporary art space in Bentonville, Arkansas later this month. This year’s inaugural festival, an offshoot of Austin’s Fusebox International Performing Arts Festival, celebrates “eight communities from across the U.S., its territories and Mexico as they gather to share and celebrate the power of communities in performance.”
Taking place on Sunday, June 12, the Pop-Up Powwow event was for “intergenerational Two-Spirit/Indigiqueer artists gather in space, time and spirit to share and practice both traditional and contemporary expressions of new ritual, healing and celebration.” As Live in America (live-in-america.com) describes it, “Pop-Up Powwow amplifies the powwow experience as an Indigenous cultural asset by re-establishing Two-Spirit/Indigiqueer people to a respected, visible place within the community.”
Traveling to the event alongside Dafoe as producers/facilitators are traditional potter/digital designer Jamelyn Ebelacker of New Mexico’s Santa Clara Pueblo and Native artist/activist Amanda Nita Luke (Cherokee/Choctaw) from Houston, Texas.
According to Ebelacker, “Live in America is the brainchild of Carra Martinez at Fusebox Austin.” Participants from eight cities across the U.S. and Puerto Rico were invited to the festival to represent their respective communities. Ebelacker is quick to point out, however, that the Pop-Up Powwow represents “not just Albuquerque. It’s like a mini Gathering of Nations. Participants are coming from all over the U.S. and Canada.”
Dafoe’s goal in facilitating this queer-centric powwow is to “create radical care for Indigenous people, indigiqueer. To celebrate and center their voices. To amplify the way they choose to present. Allow them to show up as themselves, outside gender constraints.”
Asked what the upcoming powwow will look like, Luke says, “A lot of things are traditional. There’s the grand entry, social dances, an art exhibition, crafts, performers.” In addition to the usual Native powwow trappings, however, the producers’ goal is “disrupting the structure.” Traditional Native American hoop dancing will be on display, for example, but introduced by longtime Native drag queen host Landa Lakes.
After this “first iteration” at Live in America, Ebelacker hopes that the Pop-Up Powwow can return to New Mexico. She would like to see it tour to different museums and universities. “The biggest hurdle,” though, “to an event like this is funding. We were lucky to get involved with the Walton Family Foundation, with Fusebox and The Momentary.” Ebelacker says that Live in America, its financial sponsors and its venue, “placed no limitations on content. We had a lot of artistic freedom.”
According to Ebelacker “over 300 artists” are involved in the event. “Eighty percent identify as trans or queer or BIPOC.” She sees it as “a beautiful group of people looking out for one another. We pay travel expenses, lodging, per diem. Dancers get a stipend. Vendors keep 100 percent of their sales. Unlike a lot of other festivals, we don’t see these people as moneymakers. We’re all community members.”
For Luke, it’s all about “taking care of our community.”
So why did the Albuquerque contingent settle on a Native Powwow to represent our state? Ebelacker sees it as a way to “encapsulate the cultural identity of New Mexico. We’ve got red and green chile. We’ve got outdoor spaces like the Rio Grande. We’ve got Indigenous culture. This is a way of bringing everybody together. That’s how powwow was born. We want everybody to feel welcome and included in that space. To showcase the song and dance and performances that are ingrained parts of this culture.”
Ebelacker, like many Native Americans, has “chosen to identify as two-spirit.” While some people identify as male and others identify as female, “Natives identify as having both spirits in them.” Over the years, “The definition has broadened itself. Being two-spirit means being proud to take back what was formerly taken from us by colonization, by European religion.” For Ebelacker and her powwow family, it’s about pride. “Pride in queer, in tribe, in community.”
Luke sums it up, reiterating Dafoe’s earlier words. For the producers, this Pride Month powwow boils down to “amplifying those voices and protecting them and loving them.”