Pride Issue 2018 | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly
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click to enlarge DENAE SHANIDIIN
  • Denae Shanidiin

Powwow Power Couple
Two-spirit pair uses traditional dance as a motive for change.

By Sarah Arnoff

Adrian Stevens and Sean Snyder have been dancing at powwows since they could walk. "Powwow has always kept my culture relevant in my day-to-day life," says Stevens, who hails from Fort Duchesne and is of the Northern Ute, Shoshone Bannock and San Carlos Apache tribes. "It's always brought my family close together and it's something I was raised doing."

Spending much of their time on the road, the two-spirit couple met on the powwow circuit eight years ago, and their participation in "Sweetheart Specials"—dances meant specifically for couples and where two-spirit pairs are not commonly seen or even forbidden from participating—has propelled them to become activists for the two-spirit and LGBTQ communities. Although Stevens and Snyder, who grew up from Corbel, Iowa, and is of the Navajo and Southern Ute tribes, won first place at the University of Utah Sweethearts Special in April, they were disqualified from the San Manuel Band of Indians powwow in California in October 2017 simply for identifying as LGBTQ. In years past, they say, that powwow banned same-sex couples from dancing together, but in 2017, that specific rule was not present on any of the powwow advertising materials, so Snyder and Stevens decided to go for it. They practiced their routine for a month and a half and handmade regalia based on their Ute traditions, but when they arrived at the registration area, the Sweethearts rules stated that all pairs must consist of a man and a woman.

They signed up anyway.

"It was one of those things where we went into the situation and we didn't know what was going to happen." Snyder says. "We had prepared so much and we felt ready that we just wanted to do it." They were allowed to perform their routine on the arena floor and were judged, but powwow officials disqualified them in a formal statement before the winners were announced. "Everything that we got judged on was thrown out," Snyder says. "For them to publicly say that kind of started the discussion about should we be able to dance like everybody else?"

Support for the pair came from across the country. The Human Rights Council invited them to speak at their Time to Thrive conference in Orlando, and the couple produced a video that reached a wide Native audience. The video in particular made them realize the leadership role they were taking as LGBTQ activists, especially in influencing the next generation.

"I think that video has helped Native youth in seeing, 'OK we do have representation out there.' What we don't have, what we were asking for, is we don't have anybody that's older to represent us but now we're those people," Stevens says. "Watching that video and the families see that video or a relative and friend see that video, they get kind of sense of understanding of some of the struggles, but also the support that's out there."

"We're our role models," Snyder says. "A lot of our previous generation are gone now. They didn't make it—through HIV or self-harm. We've lost a lot of our aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters that way. It's almost like we have to renavigate how to start the discussion and start all over again."

And the powwow arena, they say, is a perfect place to do that.

"Powwow is a weird space where it's definitely at the forefront of our social scape," Snyder says. "It's such a unique space where you can push those boundaries or take a step in that direction and start the conversation. No matter where you're at, everyone goes to the powwow. Everyone is there together at that one weekend. You definitely impact a lot a people wherever you're at, whatever weekend you're at because everyone goes to powwow."

Both Snyder and Stevens acknowledge that, in general, the Native world doesn't like to talk about LGBTQ issues. Traditionally, however, many tribes accepted—and some even revered—two-spirit individuals.

"When we say 'two-spirit,' it's not on a biological level, it's on a spiritual level. We both embody those male and female spirits," Stevens says. In Native American ceremonies, gender roles can be strict, but two-spirit individuals have the ability to transverse those lines. For example, Stevens notes, "Men are only allowed to carry water but sometimes you'll see a two-spirit woman carrying the water that we pray with." And both Stevens' and Snyder's families have been supportive of who they are. Shortly after Stevens came out to his family, he attended a funeral where, traditionally, women were the ones to take care of preparing the body for burial. He was asked by his relatives to take on duties normally assigned to women.

"[I said] 'but I'm a man, I'm male,' and they were like, 'No you're not'" he recalls. "And that's when I was like 'Whoa, my family sees this. And their supporting this and they're saying that you need to get in there and you take care of both sides now."

The support of their families has provided them with the framework to influence younger Native people who might be struggling with their identity. Colonial Christianity, they say, has infiltrated and vilified two-spirit people, but they also have seen an openness from Native youth about LGBTQ and two-spirit acceptance, and view this as a return to traditional beliefs.

"I just think it's interesting that there's no way around it anymore," Snyder says. "The themes of Christianity are so interwoven into our Native cultures or our Native reservations or the way society is set up ... There's that internalized homophobia across the board."

Stevens calls the area between tribes' general struggle to maintain their cultures and languages and relatively recent adoption of Christian influences a "gray space," but believes that the next generation of powwow dancers and Native youth will encompass everything about what it means to be Native. "I think they're definitely going to make the leap," he says.

"Their outlook on the world being so pure is exactly what we need and is much more of a return to our core values," Snyder adds. "These kids are being taught exactly what we all believe in without the hate and it's amazing. I can't wait for the next generation to push those boundaries because it's going to be amazing."

For now, both Stevens and Snyder have taken a year off from their studies at Utah Valley University to travel to speaking engagements and, of course, continue to dance. They sell handmade beadwork and regalia pieces online through their design website AD Designs, and are making a documentary about their journey and their everyday lives. They hope to enact change through the powwow circuit and their mutual love of their traditions. The goal, they say, is to never fall silent.

"Sean and I have started the discussion now and we continue to do the work in educating people and shining the light on two-spirit individuals," Stevens says.

Snyder aggress: "There is always going to be a need to be open about your life."

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Carolyn Campbell

Carolyn Campbell

Bio:
Campbell has been writing for City Weekly since the 1980s. Her insightful pieces have won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists chapters in Utah and Colorado.
Enrique Limón

Enrique Limón

Bio:
Editor at Salt Lake City Weekly. Lover of sour candies.

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