Arizona's growing powwow, 'safe space' for Two-Spirit

Arizona Two Spirit Powwow on Feb. 29 in Phoenix. (Photo by Dalton Walker, Indian Country Today)

Dalton Walker

'Having events like this to further our community and further LGBTQTS is necessary and needed'

Wearing a turquoise-colored sash and beaded crown, reigning Mr. Southwest Two-Spirit Iann Austin entered the powwow ring carrying the flag of his Gila River Indian Community.

In front of Austin was the transgender pride flag and the rainbow flag among other Arizona tribal nation flags, the U.S. flag and the Arizona state flag.

It’s what powwow inclusivity looks like.

Austin was one of more than a handful of dedicated grand-entry flag bearers at the Arizona Two-Spirit Powwow on Feb. 29 in Phoenix. The powwow, in its second year and open to all dancers, is becoming one of the larger Two-Spirit powwows in the country.

“This space was created for the Two-Spirit, for them to feel comfortable, for them to have a safe space they could go to and dance powwow and be comfortable in their traditional regalia regardless of gender,” Austin said.

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Mr. Southwest Two Spirit Iann Austin, Gila River Indian Community, Arizona Two Spirit Powwow committee member. (Photo by Dalton Walker, Indian Country Today)

PFLAG Phoenix Native American Chapter organized the powwow. It’s the only PFLAG Native chapter in the country that focuses on the Native LGBTQTS community. There are more than 400 PFLAG chapters. Chapter president Sheila Lopez, Navajo, founded the chapter in 2011 not long after her two oldest children came out.

“Before that time, I didn't understand anything about the LGBTQ community,” she said. “I was ignorant and my kids educated me. My son, who is now 26, encouraged me to join an organization called PFLAG.”

More than 60 dancers registered and 17 tiny tots danced in the roughly five-hour powwow held for the second straight year on the South Mountain Community College campus. Next year’s location may change as talks with the Phoenix Indian Center taking a larger role in planning has started, Austin said. Lopez and Austin are on the powwow committee.

On display at the powwow, were posters of Two Spirit etiquette and how to be an ally and friend. A free detailed program about the powwow was available at one of the more than 20 informational booths on hand.

The powwow idea was sparked when the chapter received a Phoenix Pride grant and a goal was to erase gender roles at powwows as most name a head male and head female dancers, among other dedicated gender binary roles, Austin said.

“With the amount that it has grown, we are on the right track to achieving those goals,” Austin said. “It can be even bigger. Having events like this to further our community and further LGBTQTS is necessary and needed.”

After the grand entry, Native royalty introduced themselves to the crowd. One was Miss International Two-Spirit Vanessa Losey, Salt River Pima. Losey travels across the U.S. and Canada as a goodwill ambassador for Two-Spirit people, especially tribal youth. Losey attended boarding school at the Intermountain Indian School in Utah and was a 14-year-old student when she won her first title, a title she couldn’t celebrate openly at school out of fear of getting in trouble.

“To the youth, I want them to be not afraid,” Losey said. “I want them to live their lives without fear. I hope they find the courage to come out to be who they are.”

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Miss International Two-Spirit Vanessa Losey, O'odham, Piipaash, attends the Arizona Two Spirit Powwow on Feb. 29 in Phoenix. (Photo by Dalton Walker, Indian Country Today)

Lacey is the 22nd Miss International Two-Spirit. She’s the first from of her nation and fourth from the Southwest. In early February, she attended the annual Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits Powwow in San Francisco. The BAAITS powwow is considered to be the largest Two-Spirit powwow. Lacey thanked Native PFLAG and BAAITS for organizing the powwows.

“To see them having these powwows that are specifically for Two Spirit people given by Two Spirit people, it’s just amazing,” Losey said. “I never thought I would ever see this happen and I’m glad I’m a part of it.”

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Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter - @daltonwalker

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