Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits (BAAITS) is a community-based, all-volunteer organization whose mission is 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.” Two-Spirit refers to the belief among many Native American tribes that some individuals naturally possess and manifest both female and male energies; American society commonly identifies Two-Spirit People as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual or Transgender. BAAITS offers culturally relevant activities for Two-Spirit Indigenous Americans, and their families and friends, explore their rich heritage in a safe environment. BAAITS’ annual Two-Spirit powwow, the oldest of its kind, welcomes thousands of people to San Francisco each year.
Blue Heart had the honor of speaking with BAAITS Board Chair Amelia Vigil about the organization, which is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary.
Interview edited for clarity.
Lindley Mease: I’d love to hear your own story, where you come from, and how you ended up where you are.
Amelia Vigil: I’ll start by saying that I was born and raised in San Francisco. I identify as a mixed race person: mixed Mexicana, Purépechan, Picuris, New Mexican, and Spanish, and actually I have some heritage of Sephardic Jews who were exiled during the Inquisition. I have indigenous heritage on my mother’s side and my father’s side. So that’s my essential heritage. But then I was raised in an urban context in San Francisco, away from those cultures.
I’m not tribally enrolled. I think it’s important and I want to name that. In some circles, tribal affiliation and tribal enrollment is a big deal and it’s controversial for me to be in this position.
I’m also an identical twin. Raised poor, indigenous identified, a multiple, a San Franciscan, a two-spirit identified person, a queer person. Part of what has contributed to me being able to have some clear thinking around multiplicity and multidimensional landscapes, is I’ve had the very rare life experience to be in all the identities that I hold.
I consider myself a survivor of grief, cultural dissociation, and internalized homophobia. I had a point in my life where I wanted to take my own life because it felt like too much. I started to seek other-than-human support and I found that in the spirit world of my ancestors and through nature. Through that process, I realized how vital it is to know who you are, to know where you come from, and to know it’s possible in the context of the Bay Area.
I was introduced to BAAITS via the drum group. I showed up to the community drum, for the medicine of the drum and the prayer of the drum, and got introduced to the organization and the various other cultural activities that we do. I joined the powwow planning committee and was volunteering with the organization and just showing up time and time again. I really believe that BAAITS saved my life and provided a space where I could remember who I am and where I belong. That was six to seven years ago. I was nominated to be on the board four years ago. I am deeply humbled and grateful that the organization is willing to entrust me with, at least for a short time, this position.
My motivations have always just been to serve the Bay Area community and my people, because this is not my central homeland. The bay area is not my central homeland; it’s homelands of Pomo, Coastal Miwok, Ohlone. These tribes are still alive and active today, so I’m not able to speak on that. My connection to my own heritage has been strained through silencing, assimilation, poverty, trauma. My commitment to other individuals who may be feeling alone is really what motivates me towards the future.
Lindley: Thank you. Could you provide the higher level story of BAAITS?
Amelia: “Two-spirit” is a contemporary term that was created in ’97 collectively for native and indigenous people. It is not a synonym for gay American Indian or gay Native American. It’s in addition to the LGBT alphabet. Two-spirit as an identity is for indigenous and Native American individuals, by indigenous and Native American individuals.
At the International Two-Spirit Gathering in the Bay Area 20 years ago, the founders of BAAITS — Gene Hightower, Sally Ramon, and other cofounders — said, we want to work more with community, to show visibility for two-spirit people in a sober space, in a prayerful space. And so they did that. The organization has been around for 20 years and we were the first to do a two-spirit powwow, based on an Oklahoma-style powwow because California natives hae another style celebration called a “Big Time”
There’s always two sides of this work. When you’re in LGBTQ spaces, you’re educating people about Native American or indigenous identity — “hey, genocide and erasure didn’t work, we’re still here!” — and then when we’re surrounded by our fellow Native Americans or indigenous relatives we’re constantly educating around two-spirit people and combatting homophobia.
There are so many labels for the work we’re trying to do here. I would just summarize it as multidisciplinary, filled with multiplicity, and recognizing the complexity of an individual in a larger system that is, to this day, actively oppressing and denying the existence of Native American livelihood and value.
Lindley: What does the day-to-day, week-to-week looks like in terms of what you’re creating?
Amelia: We are completely volunteer. Everyone, from the Board members, to the powwow committee, to the drum group, is a volunteer. We had an office at the LGBTQ Center and we were asked to leave when they did a remodel, and we have been without an office space ever since. That’s going on 3 years. So literally this organization is run out of everyone’s spare time, their garages, their closets.
The day-to-day is focused on community events, the main one being the powwow. Year after year it’s grown exponentially from, like, “is anyone going to show?” to maxing out the LGBTQ Center space. The powwow didn’t have a stable home venue for a while until we met the Fort Mason Center. We have other events throughout the year. Our staple events are always going to be drum (we have community drum and closed prayer drum), the powwow, marching in Pride, and also beading workshops, regalia making, dance classes, or even just coming together and eating food — we’re trying to support cultural practices being practiced. Something that is also common is that the BAAITS drum will go out and offer prayers to different events throughout the Bay Area. More recently, since this is our 20th anniversary, we’re trying to provide some workshops around BAAITS and BAAITS’ history, working collaboratively with LGBTQ historical societies. We had an exhibition that showcased two-spirit voices and BAAITS’ history. We’re also working with the Oakland Museum to do a mixed-media show of two-spirit-identified and Native/indigenous-identified artists. And this yer we will be having a gathering after the opening prayer of dyke march.
Lindley: What have you seen happen over the course of BAAITS? Do you think of yourselves as a movement, and if so, how? What have you seen emerge because of these spaces for creative expression, for safety, for community building, that you’ve been creating?
Amelia: There’s so many tribes, so many ways of practice, so many cultures, so many different ancestries that it’s important to realize I am o