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    BAAITS and Two-Spirit Powwow Continue to Grow by Promoting Community Healing, Togetherness

    By Derek Smith–

    BAAITS is entering our 20th year as an organization. Our core mission remains the same: to retain and restore the traditional and modern roles that Two-Spirit and gender variant people have held in our tribal communities for generations. As such, our powwow has truly become medicine to help heal our community.

    We started the powwow seven years ago as a sort of dream project. We all knew friends and family who grew up attending traditional Native American gatherings and inter-tribal powwows, who perhaps never quite had a place in them due to their sexual orientation or gender expression. As with all great developments, we realized that there had never been a Two-Spirit organized powwow, so if we would like to see one, we would have to organize it ourselves.

    In 2011, we started planning our first Two-Spirit powwow, reaching out to many straight allies in the Native American community. These hero allies provided crucial logistical help and support in making our dream a reality. We were unsure how our event would land—would our straight Native American brothers and sisters attend? Would we be successful in making an event that honors all our people and spotlights Native American culture in a positive way?

    At the time, we had an office in the old LGBT Center, and our first powwow was to take place in February 2012 in the Rainbow Room at the Center. After months of planning, the day of the event arrived and we were overwhelmed by the attendance. At our very first powwow, we outgrew the space before the event got going, with over 500 attendees the first year. While we were quite cautious about how this newly formed event might proceed, we also were bold enough—we are queer after all—to name the event our “First Annual BAAITS Two-Spirit Powwow.” That confidence proved to be prescient. We have grown year after year and expect the 7th annual powwow on Saturday, February 3, to be our biggest and best yet.

    After year one, we needed to find a larger space and moved across the Bay to a church in Oakland. That year we were packed to the rafters, so for our third powwow we returned to San Francisco and held the event at SOMArts. Again, we outgrew the space as word caught on that our powwow was both a place for Two-Spirits, as well as respectful non-Native people to learn about our traditions.

    What struck us most is how many Native American allies kept joining us and making our event a real success. For our fourth year, we went south to the Cow Palace, renting a huge hall where our attendance continued to grow. In our fifth through current 7th year, we have been at Fort Mason Center, presently at the beautiful Festival Pavilion.

    There is so much to be proud of as last year we welcomed more than 4,000 people to our event, including over 60 vendors who sold their traditional arts and crafts. We hope Fort Mason will be our forever home, as it is about the largest venue space in San Francisco. It’s also quite interesting to hold the event at a former military base, given the large number of Native American service members and veterans, whom we honor, as is our way at powwows. This is not to mention the beautiful view of Alcatraz right out the window from our dance arena at the event—a reminder of our ancestors who bravely stood for Indian rights here in the Bay Area just a generation ago.

    Powwows are such important events for Indian people. They allow us to reconnect, dance, drum, share our culture and our art. And in our case, we have seen countless stories of people who wear traditional regalia for the first time ever. Our first year, a very tall, straight Native man entered one of our dance contests, with his two toddlers by his side, wearing a shawl that traditionally a woman would dance in. He danced beautifully, not mocking, and not being disrespectful in any way.

    He won the dance contest, and after he was asked about how it felt to dance in regalia traditionally not associated with men. He stated that he danced trying to honor his mother and grandmother. He danced for his people and with the hope that he can do as good a job raising his own children as the women in his life did raising him. Our event breaks down barriers. It gives space for people to see themselves in a new light and to honor all of the beauty of themselves and their people. There are countless stories of questioning youth who find a voice and see Two-Spirit/queer adults living their whole selves at our event. We see laughter and hugs year after year, and we know what we are doing is healing community.

    Regarding the current political state of affairs, I would say that we as Native people are born to continue our traditions. No matter how hard things become, we keep working toward serving our people and making sure there is a space for our community. For Native Americans, survival is an act of resistance. The last year has revealed so many challenges, and exactly one year ago, we had so many members representing and resisting at Standing Rock, where Native American people drew a line in the sand and fearlessly stood up for what is right, for the rights of future generations. We are really honored this year to welcome Candi Brings Plenty as a head dancer. She was integral in organizing a Two-Spirit camp right at Standing Rock last year.

    In recent years, our powwow has featured fundraisers for students who represent the first in their family to attend college. We have also had political dances that honor and draw attention to the countless missing and murdered indigenous women and trans women. Our community continues to struggle with violence and victimization. It is the strength of our traditions that keep us going, making a place for all of our community, no matter how they dress or identify. It is crucial not to lose another Native American person needlessly.

    We are honored to present the 7th Annual BAAITS Two-Spirit Powwow, and welcome all to attend, respectfully observe, and learn by engaging with our people, and sitting with our traditions on Saturday, February 3. We are still in need of much help in addition to attendees, so if anyone would like to support BAAITS, they can make a financial contribution ( or sign up to volunteer with us (

    Over the next year, BAAITS hopes to celebrate the anniversary of our organization, perhaps partnering with the LGBT Historical Society and other partners in the queer and Native American communities to spotlight 20 years as a vibrant cultural organization and piece of the fabric of the Bay Area. We invite folks to stay tuned for further exciting news as we embrace our history as an organization, and continue to envision our growth and next steps.

    Derek Smith is the Coordinator of the BAAITS Two-Spirit Powwow.