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Saturday’s Arizona Two Spirit Powwow set to celebrate Native LGBTQ community

Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

Powwows are meant to be safe spaces where Indigenous peoples can socialize and express themselves through song and dance.

For some tribes, gender can limit what a person may perform. But those rules don’t apply at the fourth annual Arizona Two Spirit Powwow on Saturday, Feb. 17.

Sheila Lopez founded Native PFLAG in Phoenix. That first-of-a-kind local chapter, part of a national nonprofit, sought to “bring back all the beautiful teachings that we always had.”

After two of her three children “came out as gay in high school,” this Navajo mother sought to locate LGBTQ support systems in and around the Valley.

She found Native allies in Gila River H.O.P.E., or Helping O’odham People Achieve Equality, and Salt River Lifting Our Voices for Equality, or L.O.V.E.

Together, these groups organized the state’s first Two Spirit Powwow in 2019.

“We were nervous with some of the backlash that we would possibly face, because we are not putting the gender in the categories,” said Lopez. “You won’t have a Two Spirit Powwow in every state. It’s here in Arizona and California.”

Like BAAITS, better known as the Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirit Powwow, anyone can compete in any category — regardless of gender. That weeklong event observed its 13th anniversary earlier this month.

But the Valley’s urban Native LGBTQ powwow is still popular five years later, with Phoenix Indian Center now co-sponsoring it.

“Because traditionally, long ago, at least for Navajo, it was considered a blessing to have a child who was gay,” added Lopez. “It wasn’t anything bad.”

Navajos recognize four unique genders. But Christianity and colonization tainted tribal community beliefs and traditional teachings.

“We were part of the stories, we were part of the sacred circle,” said the Phoenix-based Diné drag queen Navi Ho. “And because of colonization that was taken out.”

They’re also co-emceeing the powwow for the second time at South Mountain Community College.

In their own words, someone who identifies as two spirit, like themself, is “regardless of gender, of who they are, the spirit of a masculine and feminine energy. And they use this to help within their community.”

Warriors. Caregivers. Shamans. Matchmakers. Healers.

“Two spirits were praised and held in high regard,” they added. “They’re able to bring balance.”

This Saturday’s gathering is about celebrating themselves. And a chance to heal for those who may have been harassed or discriminated against.

“Not only are we fighting state and federal laws that attack our two spirit LGBTQ community, but we’re also fighting the tribal stuff that happens, too,” added Navi Ho. “‘Cause the tribal nations are sovereign, so they have their own laws.”

One of them is the Diné Marriage Act.

It has banned same-sex marriages on the Navajo Nation since 2005. But that law has been under debate by the Navajo Nation Council since last year.

“It’s a struggle on the reservation to be seen, to be heard, to be appreciated,” said Navi Ho. “It does take time, and I know that it will.”

That’s why the Arizona Two Spirit Powwow is needed. Navi Ho said that not all are willing to accept them, both Natives and non-Natives alike, but a “very accepting community” does exist in the Valley.

“Everybody is welcome to the powwow,” added Lopez, “and I’m so excited for this coming Saturday.”

The dancing begins noon Saturday.

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Gabriel Pietrorazio is a correspondent who reports on tribal natural resources for KJZZ.