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"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."