In honor of Indigenous People’s Day, we sat down with the Center’s new Director of People and Organizational Culture and Co-Founder of Bay Area American Indian Two Spirits (BAAITS), Phoenix Lara (they/them). We dove into their Two Spirit identity, journey as a Two Spirit Drumkeeper, and their reflections on Indigenous People’s Day.
[Note: The interview is edited for clarity and brevity]
We’d love to learn more about the origins of being Two Spirit, your Two Spirit identity, and how it has weaved into your journey:
This photo is of BAAITS Co-founder standing at the removal of
Colonial statue in San Francisco.
The term Two Spirit is a fairly new umbrella term that was created in 1990 at the Intertribal, Third Annual Native American, First Nations, Gay & Lesbian American conference. In actuality, many tribes have their definition and word for being Two Spirit that is rooted in their own languages. Many tribes have their own understanding of the multiple genders that exist in us. Our multi-gender, Two Spirit way of being is cultural, spiritual, and traditional.
I am from the Yaqui tribe, and we’ve existed for thousands of years. For me, the Two Spirit identity at its core means that you don’t subscribe to a binary way of thinking. I am who I am, and no box contains me. I carry my father and mother with me—therefore, I am Two Spirit. So in the western ways, I consider myself queer as well.
It’s also essential to remind folx that colonialism and laws passed in this country made it illegal for us to practice our traditions, speak our languages, and keep our cultural ways for hundreds of years. The impact of colonialism and forced Christianity pierced so deeply that it impacted upon the once revered Two Spirit identity. Our Two Spirit community has reclaimed many of our traditions and cultural practices. Bay Area American Two Spirits (BAAITS) has held gatherings and holds a Two Spirit powwow every year. We held the first Two Spirit powwow in San Francisco at the SF LGBT Center where everyone was welcomed regardless of which gender they identify with.
We’ve learned that being a Two Spirit Drumkeeper holds profound significance. Can you share more about what this role entails for you?
I’ve been a singer, poet, and artist for many years. I am also the Drumkeeper of our Two Spirit drum, which means I preserve, share, and teach songs we’ve passed on from generation to generation to our community. We see the drum as our relative. We honor the animal that gave its life for the creation of the drum, honor the wood it’s made of, and so on. Our Two-Spirit drum is made of elk and maple wood.
Being our Drumkeeper is a healing experience.
I have a saying, “The Indian knows the songs, and the Indian is still alive.” Our Native communities are vibrant and very much alive. Below is a picture of our BAAITS Two Spirit drum and singers. We sing and drum all over the Bay Area including BAAITS Two Spirit powwow, Dyke March, and more.
What is BAAITS?
We founded the Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits (BAAITS) to restore and recover the role of Two-Spirit people within the American Indian/First Nations community by creating a forum for the spiritual, cultural, and artistic expression of Two-Spirit people. BAAITS sees itself as an organization for Two-Spirit people to explore their rich heritage in a safe environment. We are committed to offering culturally relevant activities for LGBTQ+ individuals of Native American ancestry and their families and friends.
PBS asked us to make a video of our BAAITS drum, which I am the Drumkeeper of. We went to Alcatraz in a tugboat at 5:00 am to make the video and invited some Native traditional dancers to join us.
Check out the video segment to learn more.
What would you like folx to know about Indigenous People’s Day?
We’ve got a long way to go. We’ve been here for thousands of years, and President Biden only recognized Indigenous People’s Day this year. There are also still states that recognize Columbus Day alongside Indigenous People’s Day, which misses the point.
Maybe one day we’ll get to a place of understanding, but we’re not there yet. There are still football and baseball teams that are racist and need to be changed, such as the Kansas City Chiefs. Hollywood needs to apologize for the stereotypical way our people were portrayed in the movies. The government must apologize for taking our children from their families and putting them in boarding schools. They also need to apologize for putting us in Reservations, for the relocation of our people, and for laws that made it illegal for us to practice our traditions and speak our languages.
We are still here, and our traditions, cultures, and languages are very much alive.
For those who want to support our Native and Two-Spirit community, I invite you to our 12th Annual Two-Spirit Powwow on February 4th, 2023. We invite you to come as a volunteer or a participant, and you can learn more at baaits.org.
Last, I’ll leave you with a poem I wrote illustrating my experience being Two Spirit.
What does it mean to be Two Spirit?
Walking in the land of our ancestors,
Walking with our hearts open,
Walking close to Creator,
Walking with passion,
yet hiding who we are.
Today I go to a powwow
wishing in my heart
to be a Switch Dancer,
eating fry bread and laughing
with my people.
Deep in my heart,
I want to walk hand in hand with my love,
as we play and sing on the powwow trail.
I want my love sitting behind me
as I sing and drum our traditional songs.
Two Spirit is who I am.
I pick and choose which of my people to tell.
I sing the songs with joy in my heart
while gazing at my sweetheart and
the tenderness of her smile.
I dare to put my arms around the woman
who loves me for who I am.
I watch the stares and hear the whispers carried in the air.