As a child growing up on the Blackfeet Reservation in northwest Montana, Steven Barrios dressed in girl's clothes. By 10 years old, kids were calling him queer. As a handsome teenager, other boys sometimes attacked him.
"The kids were real bad toward anybody who was different," says Barrios, now 57. "We were always getting beat up."
Nobody really knew how to respond to the effeminate boy on the reservation. Barrios laughs now, recalling how even authority figures struggled with how to control the children who constantly pestered him.
"One of the teachers said, 'You better leave Steven alone or he'll hit you with his purse,'" Barrios remembers. "I told the teacher, without thinking, 'If you don't shut your mouth, I'll hit you with it too.'"
Barrios says he was paddled for the outburst, but he couldn't help himself. He's never been capable of hiding. Sitting in his living room in Browning, Barrios looks distinctly feminine with his lipstick, shining silver jewelry and long black hair up in a twist. His impeccable posture reinforces his strength and confidence.
"I just like to enhance my looks a little more like everybody else," he says of the makeup. "I wear it here on the reservation all the time."
Barrios discovered his sexuality before mainstream culture—and especially reservation culture—embraced homosexuality. When he was a teenager in the 1960s, many gay American Indians didn't feel safe coming out of the closet, making role models tough to find.
Barrios left the reservation in search of an openly gay community and broader life experience. He attended beauty school in Seattle, became a hairdresser and traveled throughout the West. But despite finding pockets of gay culture, Barrios says he was still unsatisfied.
"Going out and partying—all the stuff you do in the cities—you're having sex," he says. "You're not respecting who you are."
Barrios eventually found himself stuck between a contemporary tribal society that didn't want
much to do with gay people and a homosexual culture largely comprised of white men. Determined to find a better connection between his ancestry and lifestyle, he returned to the reservation in the 1990s and started reaching out to other indigenous gays, many of whom shared stories similar to his own.
Around the same time, an indigenous gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersexed (GLBTQI) social movement was taking off on reservations throughout the country. Dubbed the two-spirit movement, members of the group aimed
to rebuild the social inclusiveness tribal societies held before colonialists imported Christian ideals about sexuality and gender.
Today, members of two-spirit societies across North America are drawing from indigenous tradition—based upon a foundation of live-and-let-live ideology and cooperation—to shape a future that doesn't discriminate against people based on gender expression or sexual orientation.
Two spirits still have a long way to go, of course. Fanning himself with an eagle feather—sacred among the Blackfeet—Barrios talks about the homophobia that still exists on the reservation. In fact, he was last assaulted about five years ago. Three men jumped him just a few miles from his Browning home.
"They kicked the shit out of me," Barrios says. "I had to crawl to my car I was so beat up."
After standing tall through years of insults and abuse, Barrios isn't about to stand down. And now the grand dame of Montana's Two Spirit Society is one among a handful of American Indians leading an effort to raise their voice in the community.
"We're reclaiming our place in the circle," Barrios says. "Until the two-spirit people are brought back into that circle, that circle is never going to be completely mended."
Blackfeet like Barrios talk proudly of two-spirit history and the stories passed down through the generations. One of the best-publicized examples comes from We-Wha, a cultural ambassador from the Zuni tribe. In 1886, We-Wha met President Grover Cleveland in Washington, D.C., and the 6-foot-tall male passed as a woman during his six-month stay. Newspapers dubbed him the "Indian Princess."
Journalist George Wharton James discussed We-Wha in a travelogue published in 1920:
"She was a remarkable woman, a fine blanket and sash maker, an excellent cook, an adept in all the work of her sex and yet strange to say, she was a man. There never has been as yet, any satisfactory explanation given, as far as I know, of the peculiar custom followed by the Pueblos of having one or two men in each tribe, who foreswear their manhood and who dress as, act like and seemingly live the life of a woman."
A similar two-spirit history existed within the Blackfeet. A 1941 article in American Anthropologist points to "manly hearted women" living among the tribe. According to the article's author, anthropologist Oscar Lewis, these women were aggressive, independent, ambitious and bold.
"They are known to be more demonstrative, to take the male position in sexual intercourse," Lewis wrote.
Some consider the female Blackfeet warrior Running Eagle an example of a manly hearted woman. In the early part of the 19th century, she famously led war parties against the Crow. According to Canadian historian Hugh Dempsey, chief curator emeritus of the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta, Running Eagle refused to forego cooking and sewing duties while on the warpath, despite the protests of men who didn't want their leader performing menial tasks.
Before European fur traders came to northern Montana, Blackfeet hunted buffalo across the rolling plains. While traveling and camping in small bands, each member of the tribe had a job and contributed to the group's collective survival. That's largely why it didn't behoove Blackfeet to exclude those with differences, explains tribal member Rosalyn LaPier.
Homosexuals and gender blenders were sanctioned by Blackfeet society two primary ways, LaPier says. Families decided a child was born into the wrong sex and simply switched, or an individual would receive a mandate through a vision quest.
"They were spoken to through the supernatural and told to live their lives as a different gender," says LaPier who, while earning her doctorate in environmental history at the University of Montana, is researching Blackfeet religious views. "In Blackfeet society and a lot of native societies, if you're born different, you're looked upon as if you've been touched by the supernatural."
Anthropologist Will Roscoe estimates more than 150 North American tribes recognized gay, lesbian and gender-mixed people before Europeans arrived in North America. But as the new arrivals flooded the continent, colonialism and Christianity wreaked havoc on traditional communities. French arrivals dubbed Whe-Wa and men like him "berdache," from the Persian word "berdaj," meaning "kept boy," or "whore." And the phrase stuck.
As the United States attempted to bring American Indians into the fold, many native traditions were lost. Religious ceremonies like the sun dance—a celebration of regeneration featuring dancing, drumming and fasting usually during the summer solstice—were outlawed, punishable with jail and denial of rations. Berdache were forced to wear men's clothes and cut their hair.
As colonialists imposed their own ideas of gender and sexual ideology, modern reservation homophobia took root. Two spirits today face the challenge of overcoming the lingering hostility and fear imported during forced assimilation.
But people like Barrios have been working to change that, building the modern two-spirit movement for decades. Its origins trace back to Randy Burns and Barbara Cameron, who created Gay American Indians (GAI) in 1975, an advocacy group aimed at carving out a place on the reservation for GLBTQI American Indians.
Cameron, who died in 2002, talked about forming GAI in an interview with The Advocate published in 1976.
"I was really alienated," she told the magazine. "I felt trapped between my Indian culture and the society. That's the position of most gay Indians, because it's the position of Indians as a whole. I really align myself with Indians first and gay people second."
In the late '80s, HIV catalyzed the two-spirit movement. Limited resources and institutionalized homophobia hindered government-sponsored HIV outreach and treatment efforts, wrote Brian Joseph Gilley in his book, Becoming Two Spirit. GAI then stepped in and began providing medical and social services, creating a template for other indigenous advocacy organizations.
New groups soon popped up across the nation, rejecting modern Anglo-Saxon ideas of gender and sexuality. HIV outreach money trickled into reservations, funding testing and sparking a discussion about sex. Communications networks formed where none had been before.
Amid this mobilization, in 1990, during a Native GLBTQI summit in Manitoba, Canada, the derogatory term "berdache" was formally condemned and officially replaced with "two spirit." Two-spirit societies began forming in Denver, Oklahoma, Kansas and both coasts. The Montana chapter formed more than 13 years ago through the efforts of people like Barrios, John Hawk Co-Cke and Two Spirit Society creator David Herrera.
Barrios beams as he talks about the history of the movement, and especially of Whe-Wa and Running Eagle.
"We were always there," he says.
And now he's determined to secure two spirit's place well into the future.
John Hawk Co-Cke's father was a Methodist minister and his mother a Baptist. Both taught their children that American Indian culture is, in God's eyes, sinful.
That never sat well with Co-Cke. Growing up in Oklahoma, he played with pompoms and dolls. His brothers, embarrassed by him, asked Co-Cke to stay in the backyard and out of sight. As an adolescent, Co-Cke hungered to understand why he was different from his brothers and wanted to find other people who, like him, didn't fit in.
He left home, looking for a husband in Dallas' gay bars. Instead, he found booze, drugs and sex.
"I remember laying there and saying, 'There's got to be a better life than this,'" he says.
Co-Cke struggled to rid himself of an internal voice—perhaps a result of his religious upbringing—that told him he was an abomination. Alcohol quieted the voice for a while, but it inevitably came back louder than before.
"It's a sadness that nobody—you can't fill it," he says.
Co-Cke eventually stumbled upon the two-spirit concept. After being initially intrigued by the idea, he attended his first retreat in Oklahoma and was hooked. But as he started looking for more guidance and seeking two-spirit ancestors, he came up empty. Most died before being able to pass along their wisdom, Co-Cke says, leaving him to fill in the gap.
Co-Cke immersed himself in history, finding black and white photos of Whe-Wa spinning yarn and digging up stories of Running Eagle capturing horses and conquering Crow. Then the dreams came. He says his ancestors called him to lead the ones still lost.
Today, Co-Cke educates people about two-spirit history at gatherings throughout the country. He brings the black and white photos of Whe-Wa and the others wherever he goes.
"I want young ones to see this," he says.
His teachings also include telling other two-spirit people to sit in silence. That's when answers come, he says.
"The voice is patient and the old ones are patient," he says, "and they'll wait until you're ready."
Co-Cke and Barrios also sit in silence together. Specifically, they make their way to Running Eagle Falls in Glacier National Park whenever they get a chance. That's where Running Eagle's vision quest directed her to be a warrior, Barrios says. Co-Cke and Barrios leave medicine bundles—containing objects of spiritual significance—and pray to their ancestors at the site. The visits help Co-Cke advise other two-spirit people, as well as find balance in his own life.
"We can get butch if we have to, and we can get feminine if we have to," he says. "We're comfortable either way, and that's the healing. In life, we all need to be balanced."
As the two-spirit movement continues to grow, more and more American Indians are attending annual gatherings. The Montana Two Spirit Society attracts participants from all over the nation together to powwow, partake in traditional ceremonies and tell their stories.
"We're here to make a family, that's really what we're doing," said Farand Gunnels, a Crow from Billings who attended this summer's four-day gathering at Lubrecht Forest.
Each day of the annual event aimed to deepen the connection among two-spirited people and their communities. On Saturday morning, Mary Lou Van Voorhis started the day by blessing breakfast, thanking the ancestors for food and for the time together.
"We share a path now," she said to those gathered.
Later in the day, Blackfeet Anna Bullshoe painted faces with orange tallow next to a sacred fire in a rustic cabin. The face paint lets it be known a prayer needs answering, according to Holy Old Man Bull, a transgender Blackfeet who attended from San Francisco.
"It's like sending a flare up to heaven," he said.
After dark, with the smell of wild sage filling the air, the group prepared for a traditional powwow that showcased the distinct two-spirit style. Van Voorhis donned gentlemen's regalia worn traditionally by Oklahoma and plains tribes. Carrying a fan made with two golden eagle feathers given to her by a peyote man, Van Voorhis smiled as the men arrived in bone chokers, animal skins and brilliantly beaded headdresses. Travis Goldtooth led the way in lipstick and blue eye shadow. His two black braids hung delicately on either side of his face.
"One of the things you will find about gay men is their beadwork always matches," quipped Van Voorhis.
A white wolf-pelt hat sat atop 50-year-old Storme Webber's graying dreadlocks, the pelt tapering into a plush cape. Khaki shorts and combat boots completed Webber's ensemble.
At the start of the powwow, two-spirits stepped in synch, the drumbeat a guttural thud. Holy Old Man Bull, 52, decided to dance even though he has a hard time walking. Later, couples held tubers between their foreheads during a potato dance, slowly swaying. Potatoes dropped and rolled across the floor. Whoops and cries filled the hall. Drums shook the forest into the night.
"It takes me back to my ancestors," said Webber, a blend of Alaskan Alutiiq, African American and Choctaw.
The rituals help the group connect to its roots. Older two-spirit people are both happy and compelled to pass them down, explained Van Voorhis, who co-founded the Denver Two Spirit Society in 1999.
"We will dress you, and we will teach you how to dance," she said.
The morning after the powwow, Webber fed the campground's sacred fire, taking one of several shifts necessary to keep it burning throughout the event. Webber, who traveled from Seattle for the gathering, explained the two-spirit movement is based upon transformative ideology.
"The idea is cooperation. The idea is that you don't take more than what you can use," she said. "And if you have more, then you share that. There's something beautiful and even revolutionary in that."
A two-spirit identity, she continued, affirms that something outside of American competitive society exists.
"It's life saving, as well as life changing," she said.
Many of those who the attended the July gathering believe the movement provides a spiritual connection and a feeling of belonging that GLBTQI American Indians often can't get any other way.
"We're always searching and we're always learning," says Blackfeet Anne Pollock. "We're thirsty. We're thirsty for someone to identify with. We're thirsty to find out how you found your way to a healthier lifestyle. I guess I'm hooked on the spiritual part."
Before joining the Montana Two Spirit Society, Farand Gunnels didn't know much about traditional native culture. The only exposure he had came from his macho uncles. Growing up in Billings, the light-skinned boy with soft brown eyes always felt like an outsider.
"I kind of shut down who I was. I tried to be invisible, quiet," says Gunnels, now 36. "I felt like I couldn't tell anyone. I felt like I had to live a lie."
He stared when he first spotted Barrios more than five years ago.
"He just kind of glowed to me," Gunnels says. "I was just like, wow, he's such a beautiful person. He's native."
As Gunnels stayed up late with the others telling stories during that first gathering more than five years ago, something shifted.
"I was them," he says. "It was so powerful."
Gunnels is now freshly educated about two-spirit history. Armed with the knowledge that people like him have always existed, much of the fear he once had about embracing Crow culture has disappeared.
For instance, a woman traditionally makes the feast when her husband is given an Indian name. When Gunnels was named, his partner David cooked the feast. He had been accepted.
"I'm being put on the path to learn about my tribe," Gunnels says.
At home in Browning, Barrios cuts, colors and perms his client's hair from his kitchen, watching traffic whiz by on the way to or from Canada. Barrios talks freely about sex and he passes out condoms to women who come to him for haircuts, suggesting they give them to their teenage children.
Barrios says his house is one of the only places Blackfeet GLBTQI people in crisis can go.
"I never turn nobody away," he says. "You don't know if you turn them away what they're going to go do."
About 14 people meet informally for occasional Blackfeet Two Spirit Society gatherings. Barrios says the local group marched in a parade through Browning recently—a first. He says the crowd cheered.
It's evidence that two-spirit people are slowly getting their message out, and gaining acceptance. But having had their history erased once, Barrios is committed to never letting it happen again.
"We need somebody to carry on that history and make sure that it's documented," he says.
To that end, the Montana Two Spirit Society is looking to expand. Ideally, the group will conduct outreach on all seven Montana reservations, Barrios says, to let GLBTQI youth know they aren't alone.
"You do have family," Barrios says. "We take care of one another."
In the meantime, Barrios' house smells like fresh laundry. A half-packed suitcase sits on the couch beneath a mirror given to him by Holy Old Man Bull; white buffaloes are etched into its stained-glass edges. Barrios just returned from a Seattle Pride conference and the International Two Spirit Gathering in Colorado. He must leave again the next day for a Montana Gay Men's Task Force meeting in Missoula that aims to curb HIV and hepatitis C transmission. The grand dame of Montana's two-spirit movement says he's not going to slow down until GLBTQI people are again safe in their
"We've carried our heads down for so many long months, for such a long time," he says. "We've been swept under the rug, to the corners. It's time we stand up and be proud, and show who we are."