Alistair Bane went to his first weekend gathering five months ago and said he was so nervous that he barely participated.
By the time of his second, last month, he said he had sewn his own outfit and was comfortable enough to dance in the powwow and the drag show.
“This has been a big thing for me,” said Bane, who is a mixed-blood Eastern Shawnee. “If somebody had talked to me when I was 16 and said people like me were once respected, my life might have been different.”
The occasion was the ninth annual Montana Two-Spirit Gathering, a weekend retreat here in the northwestern part of the state for a few dozen American Indians who define themselves as embodying both male and female spirits. Many are refugees from the gay or lesbian bar circuit who are now celebrating an identity among themselves that they never knew existed, in a setting without drugs or alcohol. Some identify themselves as gay or lesbian; others as a third or fourth gender, combining male and female aspects.
Since the term “Two Spirit” was coined at a conference for gay and lesbian American Indians in the early 1990s, Two-Spirit societies have formed in Montana as well as in Denver; Minnesota; New York state; San Francisco; Seattle; Toronto; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and elsewhere, organized around what members assert was once an honored status within nearly every Indian tribe on the continent.
“A lot of our tribal leaders have their minds blocked and don’t even know the history of Two-Spirit people,” said Steven Barrios, 54, who lives on a Blackfeet reservation in northwestern Montana, and who has been open about his sexual orientation since he was a teenager. Barrios cited a small and sometimes contested body of anthropological evidence that suggests that before the arrival of Christian missionaries, many American Indian tribes considered Two-Spirit people to be spiritually gifted and socially valuable.
Like the Montana group, most Two-Spirit societies rely on financing from the federal government — usually under public health auspices — and few are recognized by the members’ tribes. The societies conduct their own powwows but most do not dance together in general tribal ceremonies. Members say they confront anti-gay sentiments from the general culture and from within their tribes, which they attribute to Christian influence.
“We can’t get a Two-Spirit person on our tribal council,” Barrios said. “We had a historian from our tribe on the reservation, and when he was asked what they did with Two-Spirit people, he said, ‘We killed them.’ But before the Christians came, Two-Spirit people were treated with respect. What we’re doing now is coming together, showing documentation that we have a history.”
Whatever their traditions, modern tribes often have complex relationships with homosexuality. In 2004 Kathy Reynolds and Dawn McKinley, two Cherokee women in Tulsa, petitioned to marry under tribal law, setting off a complicated legal and political battle that spread to other tribes. The women, who became unwilling public figures, were granted the right to marry by the Cherokee Judicial Appeals Tribunal but have yet to file their marriage certificate and complete their marriage. In response, several tribes, including the Cherokee Nation, passed laws defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.