Saturday, October 07, 2006

A Spirit of Belonging, Inside and Out


Alistair Bane went to his first weekend gathering five months ago and was so nervous that he barely participated. By the time of his second, last month, 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 Mr. 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 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 natives in the early 1990’s, Two-Spirit societies have formed in Montana as well as in Denver; Minnesota; New York State; San Francisco; Seattle; Toronto; Tulsa, Okla.; and elsewhere, organized around what members assert was once an honored status within nearly every 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. Mr. Barrios cited a small and sometimes contested body of anthropological evidence that suggests that before the arrival of Christian missionaries, many tribes considered Two-Spirit people to be spiritually gifted and socially valuable.